Five ways to invest in and with women for economic prosperity

Gender equality and economic prosperity are inseparable. Today, women are not equal participants in—or beneficiaries of—paid work as men, with a global labor force participation rate of 47% compared to 72% for men. Women’s economic choices are limited by structural barriers such as weak care support, persistent gender pay gap, regressive norms about women’s potential and aspirations, and a lack of valuation of their labor. These barriers are often highest for women who also belong to other historically oppressed groups or those that live in environments that are in active conflict and/or more dependent on threatened natural resources. Studies show that overcoming women’s barriers to employment can boost economic prosperity for all, even while building economic systems that are more reflective of everyone’s needs and aspirations.

At Dalberg, we are deeply committed to actively incorporating a gender lens in all our work. In our engagements, we have been focusing on both urgent and long-term needs for women’s economic power—from focusing on inclusion of women in existing economic systems to transforming systems to be free of gendered biases.

What We Mean by Gender Equality at Dalberg

We see gender equality as a state of the world where (i) all people can live free from gendered expectations and threats, and (ii) systems do not, by design, make gender inequality worse. Gender equality is not the same as women’s equality, as people of all genders are limited by gendered expectations and threats. For example, research conducted by Equimundo with a representative, random sample of young men aged 18 to 30 in the US, UK, and Mexico, revealed that most men felt pushed to live in the “Man Box”—a rigid construct of cultural ideas about male identity. Yet, gender equality is particularly relevant to women, who have been denied equality for centuries because of their gender.

Here are five powerful levers that can accelerate progress for women:

Investing in scaling care innovations and models can support improvement in women’s entry and retention in the labor force

Expanding sustainable, affordable, and quality childcare models is critical to enabling women’s economic choices. Through our work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and partners such as Kidogo and International Development Research Centre (IDRC), we are working on sustainable childcare business models that are affordable, accessible, and high-quality. We are also exploring how such models can be a source for dignified employment and entrepreneurship for women. Exploring such business models and pathways ensures that people of all genders can provide care for their children or dependents and access and thrive in paid work as they choose.

Investing in gender-intentional workplace policies can support retaining and advancing women in the workforce

Inequitable hiring practices, lack of professional training, discriminatory norms, lack of role models, and unfavorable working conditions are among the key barriers that limit women’s retention and advancement within formal employment. In partnership with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in South Asia, we worked to understand the status of women in the banking industry in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and deepen the industry discourse on measures to advance women into leadership positions. The study highlighted that while an increase in women’s representation in banks grew profits by 5%20%, women are not progressing at the same rate as men into leadership positions. While organizations are working to address these issues and promote women to leadership roles, there is limited policy change. We need more effort along three areas. First, define targets within policy frameworks and track against them. Second, promote a safe and equitable work environment and provide professional development training, fair and objective-based evaluations, and flexibility to strike a balance between work and personal lives. Last, enhance engagement to drive industry-level accountability and tackle larger systemic challenges that prevent women’s progression to leadership. 

Investing in developing guidelines to ensure our built environment has gender and social considerations

While there is a strong imperative for built infrastructure (such as energy, water, transportation projects) to adopt a gender lens, they often face unique adoption barriers. Women are often only considered a homogenous group of infrastructure users and not included in the planning, development, and implementation of projects—only 19% of leadership positions in the infrastructure sector are held by women.1 Through our work with KfW, Dalberg developed guidelines to support infrastructure project developers and portfolio managers to understand and enhance the gendered impact of their work, without changing the core product or service. Such guidelines include gender-inclusive community and stakeholder engagement in project design, establishing a gender equality advisory board as a part of a project’s leadership, implementing gender-responsive hiring and promotion targets within projects, establishing reporting and disciplinary processes, and providing trainings regarding gender-based violence (GBV) to project staff and surrounding communities.

Investing in products that cater to women’s needs to realize higher customer lifetime value

Financial technology (fintech) companies need to deepen their understanding of women’s requirements and develop market-specific knowledge to fully capture and leverage the value of their female clients. We collaborated with IFC to understand the role digital financial services (DFS) play in accelerating women’s financial inclusion and conducted a survey in 17 countries to understand how fintech serves women. We found that women are largely underserved, representing <25% of the customer base for fintech companies. Late-stage fintech firms provide better-tailored products and services for women than early-stage ones. Those operating in markets with low economic gender gaps tend to be less inclined to tailor their products to women. However, women are a valuable customer segment that exhibits greater loyalty, lower default rates, and higher lifetime value.

Investing in more reflective and representative financial institutions by increasing women’s participation in governance

As women’s voices in financial institutions such as Savings And Credit Cooperatives (SACCOs) are enhanced, their participation in financial services expands. Promoting better-designed products enables women to use financing to improve their livelihoods. Our ongoing work with the World Bank, CGAP, BMGF, and Kenyan counties focuses on increasing women’s roles in SACCOs’ governance as a lever to design more fit-for-purpose products for all clients.

Our portfolio of work reflects how critical it is to continue to enhance women’s inclusion and to address deeply entrenched social norms around what is perceived to be the ‘right’ thing to do for women and how that impacts their engagement with and uptake of services. Progress on both these fronts is critical and needs to happen in lockstep when we design products, services, and institutions. If done through the lens of understanding norms and power dynamics between various groups, including men and women, it will lead to improved agency and improved economic, social, and political empowerment for all.

To learn more, contact Madhuri Mukherjee, Shruthi Jayaram, Naoko Koyama

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