It makes good business sense to empower women as entrepreneurs, producers, employees, and consumers, an ADB study on gender inclusive businesses in Asia and Latin America shows.

Women make up more than half the people in the world. Yet their participation in the economy as entrepreneurs, producers, employees, and consumers is still lagging behind men’s. 

In Asia, less than half of working-age women are in the workforce, compared with 80% of men. Factors that hold them back are an unfair load of housework and child and elderly care, cultural biases, limited skills, and lack of rights and agency. Those who do join the labor market face lower wages and fewer jobs than those for men.

Lack of economic independence and other gender barriers also limit women’s access to information and communications, financing, health care, and other goods and services.

Women make good employees...

Breaking down barriers for women is not only fair and just but also makes for good economic policy as it unlocks their potential. For companies it also makes good business sense.

Evidence suggests that empowering women helps strengthen the value chain and develop growth markets, a recent study, How Inclusive is Inclusive Business for Women? Examples from Asia and Latin America, found. In sectors where they are the majority of workers or suppliers, such as in agriculture, education, and textile manufacturing, improving working conditions for women and offering them higher income and career mobility raises productivity and staff retention rates.

“Breaking down barriers for women is not only fair and just but also makes for good economic policy as it unlocks their potential”

In Cambodia and India, for example, spice company Akay works with women as smallholder farmers and as spice processors, who have proven to be highly dependable and hardworking. The company has opened childcare facilities at its farm in Cambodia. In India, it pays women on Saturdays so they have money to cover household expenses and not depend on their husbands.

In Sri Lanka, garments company MAS Holdings has created a safe and conducive workplace for women, who make up 70% of its employees. It includes women at all stages of the production and provides childcare facilities, flexible working times, and training in finance, English, and computers. It also offers gender sensitivity training for men.

... and good customers

Targeting women as customers is also good for business, particularly for goods and services that meet their needs. For microfinance services, they are even the preferred customers because women have higher repayment rates than men.

For the study, researchers from German-based Endeva looked at 104 active inclusive business investments of ADB, Inter-American Development Bank, and International Finance Corporation in 2015. Inclusive businesses target low-income earners while creating tangible development impact through sustainable livelihood for the poor and improving their access to basic services.

The study shows that inclusive businesses are having a positive impact on women’s lives. It noted however that only a fraction of the businesses reviewed directly target poor or low-income women as beneficiaries.

The report said companies clearly see the benefits of empowering women but are constrained by deeply rooted norms and practices.

In Pakistan, Engro Foods trained women as village milk collectors to provide them with extra income. Tending cattle is one of the traditional roles of women in countryside. The initiative however faced problems since the local culture discouraged women from riding a motorcylce, which the job required, and from interacting with men outside their family. Some women were able to make it work by asking their father, husband, or brother to go with them on their rounds.

Asian businesses supporting women

The researchers identified 13 business models of women empowerment across Asia and Latin America, including Akay, MAS Holdings, and Engro Foods.

In Bhutan, Mountain Hazelnuts Group is integrating female employees into all levels of the organization. It hopes to increase the share of women in the company as employees and as contract farmers to 50% of the total by 2020.

Hippocampus Learning Centres, a low-cost pre-school education provider in rural areas in India, employs only local women and trains them to become teachers and later as school managers.

Husk Power Systems, Inc., which produces affordable electricity using rice husks, has created jobs for women in India by making incense sticks from char, a by-product of its power plants. It hires women as plant operators and offers a flexible work schedule for female staff with children.

Paraguayan financial institution Interfisa developed a loan program for rural women who earn from livestock and dairy farming.

In the Philippines, Manila Water Company, Inc. supports female-led startups by providing them with capital and training through community-based cooperatives.

In Peru, MiBanco offers microfinancing and training to women who have little or no collateral through self-help groups.

In Myanmar, telecommunications company Ooredoo helps increase women’s access to mobile phones and internet services through education and promotions. It also recruited women to sell prepaid airtime cards to their communities.

Mexican cement producer CEMEX trains women as distributors and community-based promoters for its Patrimonio Hoy initiative, which enables low-income families to build their own homes.

In remote areas in Afghanistan, Roshan enables women to offer mobile services using their own phones. It developed a package that includes microfinancing and subsidized handsets, SIM card, charger, and airtime credit.

In India, Yes Bank offers financing to low-income women through self-help groups as well as financial literacy training.