GAIN Working Paper 26: Considering Gender Power Dynamics for Supporting Workforce Nutrition

Noora-Lisa Aberman, Janice Meerman, Amy van der Kaaij
Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

Over half the global population spends one third of their adult life at work, and a third of the global population also suffers from some form of malnutrition. Additionally, workplaces are conducive to nutrition interventions as they provide a controlled, modifiable environment that facilitates sustained interaction with a ‘captive audience’. However, as with all health-oriented interventions, successful promotion of nutrition in the workplace depends on identifying and addressing multiple sociocultural considerations. One of the most important of these is gender, which affects what, how, where, and if a person eats as well as other nutrition-related behaviours, such as breastfeeding, and an individual’s attitude towards health more generally.

This paper thus reviews prior research on gender issues in the workplace, with the objective of clarifying the implications of these norms for workplace nutrition programming in low- and middle-income countries. Findings indicate that discriminatory gender norms:  1) may limit women more than men in terms of their capacity to access healthy food at work and 2) may reduce the efficacy of workplace nutrition programmes, such as nutrition-focused health checks and breastfeeding support. From a programme perspective, these findings underscore the need to tailor workplace nutrition initiatives based on factors such as the male-to-female ratio of a given workplace’s management structure, history regarding the treatment of female employees, and the presence of workforce welfare committees (or lack thereof).  

The key messages contained in this paper are: 

  • The health costs of unhealthy workplace food environments may be particularly high for women due to discriminatory gender norms that limit women’s agency and purchasing power and may force them to seek employment in exploitative ‘feminised’ sectors, which do little to safeguard employee health and welfare.
  • Workplace nutrition programmes have the potential to improve nutrition, but gender norms may reduce their impact. For example, men may be reluctant to participate due to norms of masculinity that discourage health-seeking behaviours, and women may struggle to act on messaging due to constraints on time and agency.
  • Breastfeeding support is a critical subset of workplace nutrition initiatives. However even when supportive policies are in place, workplace breastfeeding facilities may not be used due to social and structural constraints.
  • It is important to consider the capacity of a specific population of workers to take advantage of workplace-based nutrition programmes, as these may interact with gendered norms and agency with implications for women’s and men’s ability and willingness to utilise their services. 

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