The Asia Pacific region has 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 Myanmar and the rest of the Asia Pacific? Because if the region wants to rekindle its strong economic growth, create inclusive and shared prosperity and reduce inequality, then capturing and managing the underutilised role of women in the workplace is an obvious way of helping to achieve this.
Now is the time to place gender equality and women’s empowerment at the centre of Myanmar’s national development plans. A key way of making sure Myanmar leverages its female talent is to expand the role of the private sector. Many areas offer huge growth potential. There is scope in manufacturing, which employs women in large numbers around the Asia Pacific.
Here, McKinsey suggests that Myanmar could transition to more value-added sectors, as Thailand, Malaysia and other Asian economies have done. We know that the private sector already accounts for nine out of 10 jobs in developing countries; there’s no reason Myanmar could not reach for this as a development aim. The change would be transformational.
Around the world, companies that do little to tap the potential of women are missing the chance to construct long-term sustainable organisations 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.
Firms that 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. Organisations 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.
There is a significant advantage to hiring more women and reaping the benefits of their underutilised 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 skillsets 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 labour 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, and 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.
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.