By: Arif Zaman
Economic growth is more robust and sustainable when women and men alike participate fully in the labour market. Better jobs for women – employment that leads to higher wages and greater decision-making – also have a positive influence on the ways households spend money on children’s nutrition, health, and education. Meanwhile, companies that invest in women’s employment gain an important competitive advantage.
Yet despite the persuasive evidence that gender equality has a transformative effect on productivity and growth, women’s full economic and productive potential remains unrealized in many parts of the world. Globally, while women’s education levels have increased and educated women now earn more than their uneducated peers, gender gaps in labour-market participation and wage levels persist. Women continue to be underrepresented in formal and higher value-added employment.
Employment practices that enhance productivity and create working conditions appropriate to women’s specific circumstances are often overlooked. But a growing number of companies are seeing the opportunity, even in sectors considered non-traditional for women. These organizations are already going beyond legal compliance and putting in place strategies to enhance working conditions and opportunities for women.
A recent report from WINvest (Investing in Women), a global World Bank Group partnership with the private sector, encourages business to tap and manage female talent in emerging and developing markets.
Investing in women’s employment is key to unlocking growth in emerging and developing economies. Women workers constitute 40 percent of the world’s workforce, yet in many sectors, such as mining, construction and energy, women represent only a small minority of workers, and in almost all sectors women are less likely than men to be in management positions. Women continue to face many barriers to full and productive participation in the labour market, including discrimination and culturally entrenched ideas about gender roles, and their contribution is not always equally valued. As such, women are an untapped source of talent and productivity: when the potential of almost half the workforce is not fully realized, this has considerable implications for efficiency and growth at the enterprise, sectoral and national level.
The business case for improving gender diversity and supporting women to be productive workers can be just as significant for companies operating in middle- and low-income economies as in high-income economies, although it is likely to assume a different form depending on the local labour market and business environment. In particular, high levels of economic growth in emerging markets mean that, more than ever, firms operating in these countries are expanding and looking to sharpen their competitive edge and recruit the best talent. Overall, companies that overlook women’s potential in the workplace risk a series of missed opportunities.
The evidence base is no longer restricted to high-income economies: the World Bank in their report show a number of potential business benefits for companies in emerging and developing economies who have moved above and beyond regulatory obligations and are investing in good working conditions for women (and men).
Inclusive recruitment and training policies have helped companies like Finlays in Kenya, expand the pool of job candidates at all levels, from entry-level to the boardroom, and become an “employer of choice.”
Programs that improve work-life balance for parents or health outcomes for women can lead to potentially significant returns. Unplanned absence can be especially costly in specialized teams where the work of each member is important for the unit’s total daily output. Reduced absenteeism rates can lead to important cost savings, by reducing gaps in productivity and liability for statutory costs related to days off. Studies conducted by the HERproject (“Health Enables Returns”) found that a sustained investment in women’s health programmes in Egypt, Vietnam and Pakistan led to reduced error rates in some cases (as well as quantifiable benefits in the form of reduced worker absenteeism and attrition).
Higher levels of gender diversity can drive up productivity and innovation, by introducing new ways of working, strengthening team dynamics and improving decision-making processes. Case studies from the mining industry in Chile (Anglo American) indicate a positive impact on team performance.
Employing more women can enhance a company’s relations with the local community. This is a major benefit for large infrastructure and mining projects, where the quality of engagement with the local community is vital to the success of a project. Mining companies like Rio Tinto say that employing more women on their sites extends the economic benefits of a project more broadly amongst local communities and enhances wider information sharing amongst the social networks of local women and men alike.
Hiring more women ensures that a company’s workforce is representative of its customer base and provides greater insights into consumer preferences: globally, women either make or influence up to 80 percent of buying decisions. Companies like PepsiCo are consciously drawing on the insights and experiences of the women in their workforces to better understand household buying patterns and what influences them.
Realising the potential benefits requires companies to identify the measures that are most likely to provide effective support for women and enable them to reach their potential in the workplace. This may include:-
* Setting up employee data infrastructure: Ensuring that all human resource data are available on a gender-disaggregated basis helps to monitor the success of company employment policies.
* Reviewing HR policies and systems: Companies can send a clear signal about their commitment to gender inclusion at all stages of the employment relationship by ensuring that human resource policies are designed to support both women and men and by guaranteeing that sexual harassment is not tolerated.
* Attracting women into non-traditional roles and sectors: Traditional views of what is appropriate work for women and men can raise barriers to women’s entry in certain sectors and roles. Companies like Anglo American, and Sumitomo Chemical (Japan), have incited change by reaching out to women and their communities, providing skills development and training, improving career pathways to senior roles, setting numerical targets for change or making simple adaptations to the physical working environment to create more gender inclusive workplaces.
* Creating women/family-friendly working conditions: In many countries, cultural attitudes mean that women bear primary responsibility for childcare and domestic responsibilities in addition to their paid work. Company-sponsored parental leave, predictable shift patterns, better access to quality childcare and health programs for women and their families can be cost-effective interventions. Companies that have introduced successful initiatives include SafariCom (a telcom company in Kenya).
* Designing solutions for everyone: Many companies find that the best solutions establish terms and conditions of employment that benefit women and men (e.g., work-life balance policies), whilst recognizing that women may benefit from extra support in some areas (e.g., programs to redress historical gender imbalances in management).
* Creating a supportive management culture: Senior management commitment plays an invaluable role in creating and maintaining a supportive working environment for women. Companies like Hitachi and Kuwait Energy recognize that this includes ensuring a representative proportion of women in management positions and shifting mindsets on gender through training for supervisors and managers.
PepsiCo Pakistan, as part of ensuring diversity and inclusion, aims to increase gender diversity by hiring talented females, sponsoring their development and ensuring that its takes initiatives to support their career progression. Each woman in the organization is provided with a mentor to support her development and to strengthen a culture of openness and trust. As a result of its initiatives on gender diversity and support for women employees, PepsiCo Pakistan has achieved 30% female representation, which it estimates to be one of the highest levels in the sector. Females are represented at all levels, including as 20% of the senior leadership team of Pakistan Beverages.
Tracking the costs and benefits of hiring and supporting women is also important. Companies that put systems in place to measure the outcomes, costs and benefits of interventions to support women workers are better positioned to make women’s employment an integral part of business strategy, demonstrate leadership on women’s employment, learn from experience and convince sceptics of the need for more proactive investment in gender inclusion.
Some benefits accrue in the short-term (such as reduced staff turnover and absenteeism rates), while other represent longer term value (such as reputational gains, attraction of talent, higher levels of innovation).
Strong monitoring systems can help companies better understand how changes related to women’s employment translate into benefits. Initiatives that reduce staff turnover can have a substantial impact on the bottom line, as estimates of the real costs of replacing even a semi-skilled worker in case study companies ran to several months of salary. However, few companies systematically capture these costs, and hence might underestimate the benefit of investments to improve staff retention.
Similarly, companies who measure outcomes have found that assumptions about the costs of employing women (such as high absenteeism, lack of skills or interest or inability to undertake physical work) are typically unfounded. Some initiatives require careful thought and extra resources, particularly programs that aim to bring about long-lasting changes to attitudes about gender roles. However, in many instances companies have undertaken effective measures at little or no extra cost.
The private sector, which accounts for almost nine out of 10 jobs in developing countries, therefore has a critical role to play in ensuring that women have better employment opportunities. This is now an area of priority focus and action for the Commonwealth Business Council through its Commonwealth Businesswomen’s Network (CBW).