Women as Inclusive Business Partners
‘It’s simply good business’
Basic Water Needs (BWN), a Netherlands based SME, produces and distributes water filters in BoP and middle class markets in over 30 countries. Their factory in India does not have a specific policy to hire women, but for them this is ‘simply good business’. Women, on the assembly line and in leadership positions, prove to be very reliable and loyal if compared to men. For BWN it is logical to provide good working conditions and offer benefits such as a staff-nutrition and training facilities to increase employee loyalty. Since local women often need permission from their relatives to work in a factory, BWN invites them to join a job interview and experience that BWN is a safe and reliable place.
BWN is but one out of 15 cases of good practices collected under the initiative Women as Inclusive Business partners’. Started by BoP Innovation Center and ICCO Cooperation , the project aims to engage the private sector to support women’s empowerment by bridging the paradigm gap between ‘rights’ and ‘efficiency’. We thus collected inspiring stories of various frontrunner companies that highlight women’s virtuous engagement in their value chains in low-income markets. This ranges from production, processing and manufacturing, to distribution or being customers for unmet needs like sanitary pads or agricultural tools.
Secrets of success
In horticulture, woman’s eye for detail and quality control at packing stations is key. Manufacturing of chocolate decorations in Vietnam builds on women’s design skills. For poultry rearing, their good sense of hygiene is essential. Recognition of such qualities and skills as key attributes to productivity opens the way to strengthen these capacities. Besides, investments made in technical and management training, offering good labor conditions or flexibility to women workers to manage their work-life balance, result in better productivity, e.g. reduced sick leave or staff turnover. Companies with seasonal jobs have no labor shortage in the peak season. In the case of Land O’ Lakes, dairy cooperatives in Kenya are now 140% more productive because women farmers, who do a lot of the work, got trained and organized. As a result access to formal markers for the cooperatives increased from 20% to 40%.
‘Seeing is believing’
This seems all very obvious, isn’t it? Indeed, apart from our cases and summary of good practices there are plenty of enlightening examples. Yet, we also have a second ambitious aim: to promote action towards collective impact with businesses. With a European food company and its supplier we have started to work to improve women’s employment in cashew processing, where women make up to 95% of the workforce. For these companies this is not charity; they recognize that the future of the business is at stake if the new generation is not willing to follow their mothers into the factories. Access to training, e.g. for new jobs in mechanized processing, is thus linked to women’s rights for proper labor conditions.
However, in terms of concrete action’ there is still a lot of ground to be covered. In many of our conversations the word ‘women’ triggers examples of social projects, ‘CSR 1.0’ (see ICCOnomics, the right way to do business). The term ‘gender’ is a ‘no go’ altogether; eyes start gazing.
For others, ’women’ is an add-on to issues like volumes, certification standards, compliance or contract holders, not realizing it is women who perform a lot of the work involved. The ‘speak’ is in gender neutral terms, with the danger of gender blindness. DCED therefore suggests always specifying male or femaleproducers and workers.
And when larger-company people speak about ‘women in business’, they refer to management jobs for women at HQ, and forget that production locations benefit from a gender-diverse workforce too. Positive exceptions are a Dutch floriculture business (co-owned by a woman) that appoints women as mid-managers as it helps preventing sexual harassment. Some of the businesses in our case studies employ women agronomists; who have easier access to women farmers and workers and act as important role models to strengthen their confidence. It is not for nothing that Root Capital calls them ‘hidden influencers’.
Altogether, in the Netherlands at least, mainstream companies (i.e. not active in specialized segments like organic or fair trade) seem to be either believers or non-believers, whether there is a business case or not. Why? Unlike the issue of child labor, it seems there is no felt sense of urgency to really address non-discrimination of women or offering better jobs and training opportunities for women. Public pressure e.g.Behind the Brands is one strategy for change. Offering inspirational examples and even better, peer influence, is another. But ‘you will only see it if you get it’: We therefore call upon frontrunner companies to speak out clearly why they ‘just do it’ and what triggered them to take action. Such insights, often simple tips and tricks, such as involving relatives in job interviews, will hopefully lead to more followers towards ‘smart inclusion of women for smart economics’.
 Je gaat het pas zien als je het doorhebt’ in the words of soccer legend Johan Cruijff