OPINION: Businesses can change patriarchal gender cultures: What Solomon Islands teaches us

by Nena Stoiljkovic | International Finance Corporation (IFC)
Thursday, 21 November 2019 14:15 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Women pause while selling vegetables, fish and other Melanesian staples in Honiara March 4, 2011. REUTERS/James Regan

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

The signs are clear that advancing gender equality improves business outcomes through increased productivity and innovation

Nena Stoiljkovic is vice-president, Asia and Pacific, International Finance Corporation (IFC)

Just two years ago, one in four employees working for the biggest companies in Solomon Islands felt neither comfortable nor safe at work.

This comes perhaps as no surprise. In this post-conflict Pacific island nation, workplace bullying and harassment have been widespread, while domestic and sexual violence rates are twice the global average. Sixty-four percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence, which sometimes spills over to the workplace: disturbingly, some women work in the same place as their abusers.

It was clear when I spoke to women in Solomon Islands that they faced huge challenges. Women spoke of not being listened to – of not having a voice. They talked about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways they have been told all their lives that men were the ones to lead.

Today, employees’ perceptions of safety at work have undergone a marked change. Now, one in 10 employees report that they don’t feel comfortable or safe at work.

What made the change for these women was the Waka Mere Commitment to Action, which means ‘she works’ in pidgin.

The two-year initiative paved the way for conversations with businesses about the lack of opportunities for women in leadership roles and in jobs such as driving,  technical and trade work, which are traditionally held by men. Conversations also centered on the impact of domestic violence on the workplace – on employees and the bottom line of businesses.  

Two years on, 14 Solomon Island companies signed on to specific time-bound goals to advance gender equality, including policies to tackle domestic violence, bullying, and sexual harassment, promoting more women into leadership positions, and hiring or training women to do non-traditional jobs.

One of those jobs is driving because in Solomon Islands, most women don’t drive. Companies helped women get their driver’s licenses, which yields practical benefits for day-to-day business operations while overturning stereotypes about what women can and can’t do.

Businesses also put women through leadership training, which for many was the only certificate they’d ever received. Most who graduated the course have already received a promotion or new job responsibilities such as budgeting, strategy, or staff supervision.

All of the companies adopted policies to counter domestic and sexual violence, shifting attitudes significantly in this patriarchal society. Staff members were trained to be contact points for their colleagues affected by domestic violence. One employer told its workers domestic violence was “not your private business – it’s company business as well.”

The initiative also helped women gain the confidence to voice ideas and suggestions, and they devised ways to improve their companies’ performances. One woman, for example, developed a vehicle monitoring system to use a team of drivers more efficiently.

The signs are clear that advancing gender equality improves business outcomes through increased productivity and innovation.

As an employee of one of the participating companies said: “It has given me the perspective of how I value myself as a woman, and how we would should be respected more… We should be considered as equal.”