How firms can push for more women leaders in their supply chains – with the help of a new gender toolkit

Jiselle Steele Gender, Private sector, Women's Economic Empowerment

Jiselle Steele on key barriers for women seeking senior roles in supply chains – and how the Oxfam Business Advisory Service worked with Tesco to help suppliers tackle the obstacles. You can also find out more about the new Supplier Gender Toolkit at our webinar on September 19th.

Image from the new gender toolkit (picture: Getty Images)

Oxfam’s “supermarket scorecard” publicly rated leading UK supermarkets on their human rights performance between 2018 and 2022 as part of our “Behind the Barcodes” campaign. The public scorecard and pressure from supporters and customers helped to drive a “race to the top” among the six retailers targeted, with most improving their scores.  

The empowerment and rights of women workers has been a key pillar of the scorecard since it began, with the 2022 scorecard showing  progress towards fair and equal treatment of women workers and producers, with various commitments made by supermarkets to progress further.

During the campaign, Tesco became a front-runner in this area, putting in place a strategy to address gender inequality in its supply chains, and signing a landmark agreement with the global federation of trade unions IUF, which focuses on increasing women’s voices and representation in the workplace. The plan includes the target that, by 2025, women should make up at least 30% of supervisors and managers at Tesco’s Tier 1 (or direct) suppliers.

‘Supermarkets and other international buyers need to provide adequate support and resources to suppliers to enable them to create safe and inclusive working environments’

Oxfam Business Advisory Service has been working with Tesco to develop a toolkit to support suppliers to achieve this goal. The new Supplier Gender Toolkit, developed in consultation with Tesco tier 1 suppliers and workers, offers practical guidance on building a positive and productive workplace culture that benefits both women and men, and helps to increase women’s representation across the supply chain.

The toolkit highlights challenges, opportunities and recommended actions that businesses can take to recruit, retain and support women in the workforce and help them progress. It also spotlights particular issues that suppliers should address including gender-based violence (GBV), unpaid care work and negative gender stereotypes, all of which affect women’s ability to access job opportunities and fully participate at different levels in the workplace.

Four barriers that prevent women progressing into senior roles

So what do women themselves see as the barriers to career progression? Our consultations with women workers to develop the toolkit revealed four key themes:  

  1. Women being discriminated against during recruitment processes – including biased recruiting where male managers or supervisors are more likely to recruit people like them; workers being promoted based on favouritism rather than merit and experience; and job interviews and selection criteria that use questions or language that discriminate against women.  
  2. Perceptions that women and men are only able to do certain roles within the business. A lack of women role models or the fact that in some sectors most senior roles are occupied by men can lead to a belief that certain roles are only suited to men or women. A lack of women leaders can also mean that women are less likely to apply for or believe that they will be able to succeed in management and supervisor roles.  
  3. Lack of clear career pathways and structured professional development. Poor communication or awareness about opportunities to progress to senior roles and lack of access to training to develop the technical and soft skills needed for such roles can be a significant barrier for women. Having clear guidelines and consistent structures in place will support the progression of both women and men.
  4. Facing backlash from male colleagues and workers when women progress to senior roles. Women can face negative reactions and hostility from men when they reach senior positions or take on roles that are typically occupied by men, which can make it hard to perform these roles or get the support they need from colleagues to carry out the role effectively.

Of course, the type of barriers faced by women can vary significantly depending on geography and cultural context. In low-paid and low-skilled positions or informal roles with  precarious working conditions, where a large proportion of the workforce are women, there is a high risk of discrimination and gender-based violence. Suppliers also need to address the impact of different aspects of identify such as age, class, ethnicity, caste and migration status which can lead to different groups of women being disproportionately affected by gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and structural inequalities.

What can suppliers and international buyers do to tackle these obstacles?

The Gender Toolkit includes case studies and recommended activities to help suppliers address these barriers as well as other common challenges that impact women in the workplace.

However, it is also important to highlight that supermarkets, and other international buyers, need to provide adequate support and resources to suppliers across their value chain to enable them to take action to create and maintain safe and inclusive working environments for workers and for smallholder farmers.

This support must go beyond capacity building and policies to include a commitment to responsible purchasing practices as well as transparent measures that track progress on gender equality and build accountability.

That could include having long-term contracts with suppliers so that they in turn can have longer-term contracts with workers, committing to reward suppliers that make progress to gender equality with increased business, and taking into account the cost of capacity building and other activities that tackle gender discrimination when setting prices with suppliers.

Some suppliers are already adopting the toolkit and seeing the benefits of taking action to increase women’s representation at different levels. “There is no one silver bullet to increasing women’s representation… I encourage all businesses to take on board the great guidance offered by the toolkit and prioritise what’s important for them,” says Jackie Lanham, Chief People and Culture Officer at Hilton Foods, an international food and supply chain services business that provided input to the toolkit and is now using it.

The benefits, she says, will be seen in different areas such as worker satisfaction and business performance. “Companies with more diverse leadership teams perform better… are happier more motivating places to work, [and] attract and retain more talented and qualified people.”


Jiselle Steele

Jiselle Steele is private sector gender advisor at the Oxfam Business Advisory Service (OBAS)

Download the new Supplier Gender Toolkit here.

Also, please join us at a webinar on 19th September to learn more about how you can use the toolkit to promote women’s representation at different levels, and hear from companies that are tackling gender inequality.

Oxfam Business Advisory Service helps companies to visibly lead as global citizens, deploying positive business practices to make their supply chains stronger and more sustainable, working together to fight the global inequalities that push people into poverty. For more info on how OBAS can help increase women’s representation in your business and across supply chains contact Jiselle at