IWD 2014: The business case for a gender-smart workplace

by Karin Finkelston
Friday, 7 March 2014 21:41 GMT

Aozora Bank managing executive officer Michiko Achilles (C), one of the rare Japanese women to break through the career “iron ceiling,” talks with her subordinates at the bank’s Tokyo headquarters on November 5, 2008. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Make no mistake about it: For firms, small and large, attracting and retaining women is not a charitable activity. It makes concrete business sense.


The Asia and Pacific regions have made great strides in female participation in the workforce over the past few decades. But while rising numbers of women are entering the job market, there is a high turnover of female staff and only a handful of women are crashing through the glass ceiling.

Why does this matter for Vietnam and Asia as a whole? Because if the region wants to rekindle its strong economic growth and create inclusive prosperity and reduce inequality, then capturing and managing the underutilized role of women in the workplace is an obvious way of helping to achieve this.

The World Bank Group, together with both governments and companies, tackles this complex challenge. And yet it is clear that the private sector has a particular role to play. Companies provide nine out of 10 jobs in developing countries. But currently, firms do too little to tap the potential of women. They are missing the chance to build long-term sustainable organizations that will better serve their clients, employees and national economies. Make no mistake about it: for firms small and large attracting and retaining women is not a charitable activity. It makes concrete business sense.

Companies who assess how they could do more to recruit and promote women are already counting the business benefits. They access better talent and keep it for longer. They save money by hiring less and retaining productivity from reliable, committed and experienced staff.

When it comes to female leadership, the business case for having women at the top, including in the boardroom, is equally strong. Organizations with gender diversity on their boards consistently outperform those without. They earn a quarter more from investments than those with fewer women, according to a recent study by women advocacy group Catalyst. McKinsey, meanwhile, has shown that operating profits are more than 50 percent higher for international firms with higher female representation on their boards.

In Vietnam, there have been advancements in women reaching leadership positions. With about a third of women in senior management, Vietnam is now ninth in the world in this category, according to a 2013 report by Grant Thornton. The figures for the boardroom are similar, 30 percent of women sit on the boards of Vietnamese companies.

There is a significant advantage to hiring more women and reaping the benefits of their underutilized skills. Harvard Business School studies have found that multi-nationals in South Korea acquired an edge over their local rivals by hiring women as managers – something domestic companies were less keen to do. The business gains of recruiting women most notably came at the senior management level. A similar effect was identified in Japan.

Let me suggest a few concrete steps that a company can take to enhance productivity and create working conditions that suit women.

First, understand the specific challenges facing women at your workplace. Engage your employees in surveys and focus group meetings to find out whether female workers have children, or elderly family members to care for – and ask them what their support systems are in the home.

Arrange exit interviews with your outgoing female and male employees and query the reasons for their departure and what the company could have done to retain their services.

Collect the input from employees, mine your own data and carry out a combined analysis. Use the information to pinpoint problem areas. The data could highlight departments, or skill sets dominated by men, or women. It could also reveal that women stay longer in their positions lower down the company hierarchy than men.

Second, review your human resource policies and systems. Ask yourselves if your company has clear guidelines on non-discrimination. Appraise your recruitment materials to see whether your strategies target men and women equally. Is there zero tolerance internally for sexual harassment? Do your managers know what that means in reality? And evaluate whether you offer training and career development opportunities equally to men and women.

Third, map out solutions for everyone. When the only choice on offer for women with responsibilities is to work full-time, or operate in a 24/7 culture, many women may leave the labor market altogether. Or they will seek out more flexible, sometimes lower-paid and less secure, employment elsewhere. Be flexible about working hours, including start and end times, offer the choice to job share with a co-worker, whether it’s to accommodate childcare or maternity leave. What works for women, also works for men, as we have seen with the introduction of paternity leave in the European Union.

Creating family-friendly working conditions and policies will nurture the right environment for employees to function more productively and feel further valued in the workplace. You’ll find your worker turnover is lower – and this will slash your recruitment overheads.

We’ve seen this happen in Vietnam. As part of Better Work, a program run by IFC and the International Labour Organization, garment maker Nalt Enterprise reduced its staff turnover by one third after it established a kindergarten for workers’ children. With 650 employees, this represents a saving of more than US$90,000 per year for Nalt.

In our experience, gender-smart policies will result in a stronger, more cost-effective and profitable business. The impact may not be immediate, but more importantly for businesses, it will strengthen companies for the long-term.


--Karin Finkelston is Vice President Asia Pacific for IFC, a member of the World Bank Group and the largest global development institution focused exclusively on the private sector.