Saturday December 09, 2023

Investing in women

October 07, 2021

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Undaunted by initial criticism highlighting its usage as a buzzword or empty signifier, ‘gender’ has continued to gain traction during the past seven or more decades. Today, it is a mainstream topic of discussion for academics and practitioners around the globe.

Gender transitioned into a concept for social scientists around the 1950s, gaining popularity and momentum with the feminist movement of the seventies. By the end of the 20th century, ‘gender’ had become a cross cutting theme for international bodies, governments, development partners, civil society and NGOs.

Owing to the complexity of its nature and an ever evolving form of this construct with variations across geographical, social and economic boundaries, gender application can be a cumbersome task for policymakers who have to integrate the concept and its manifestations into legislation, programmes and projects.

Gender equality is an all-encompassing goal which once converted into smaller strategic targets presents many options for socio economic uplift of women. Tackling issues such as workplace harassment or gender discrimination requires a clear-cut policy direction along with affirmative or punitive action under suitable legal frameworks.

Transcending the ideological landscape, Pakistan has made steady advances in recent years by inserting gender as a common thread into its policy framework. The Banking on Equality Policy recently launched by the State Bank of Pakistan with an aim to reduce the gender gap in financial inclusion is a welcome addition to the list of interventions introduced in the country for gender mainstreaming.

The policy document notes that “improved gender parity in financial and economic opportunities can enhance socio-economic development outcomes for not just the present but future generations.” Five key pillars of the policy include improvement of gender diversity in financial institutions; introduction of women-centric products and enhancement of outreach targets; deployment of women champions at customer touch points; collection of gender disaggregated data for target setting; and establishment of a policy forum on gender and finance. The policy further reinforces the regulator's intent of supplementing efforts to achieve its target of “20 million active women bank accounts by 2023.”

Presuming that key pillars of the policy have intentionally been mentioned in order of priority, it must be acknowledged that improving internal gender balance in financial institutions of the country is correctly listed at the top. The challenge of gender inequality at work can best be won by mindset change from within the organisation. A time-tested method for achieving this goal is to increase institutional diversity and the SBP has set a realistic target: by 2024 at least 24 percent of commercial banks’ staff in Pakistan shall comprise women.

A number of strategic interventions have been highlighted under the first key pillar to improve internal gender balance in the financial institutions of Pakistan. Gender committees, gender focal persons, gender KPIs, female directors on BoD and protection against harassment are vital tools that ought to be part of every organisation’s gender strategy. ‘Banking on Equality’ clearly mentions all as mandatory requirements for entities regulated by the SBP. It also instructs FIs to set targets for improving the current six percent women’s representation in senior management positions.

Theoretically, a critical mass of 33 percent women in an organisation improves its gender outlook not just on account of sheer numbers but more so due to the organizational behaviour changes that occur when women influence decision-making. Recruitment of women in the banking sector will therefore transform its design process and pave the way for products and services customized for female clients. While positively affecting the employment ratio, an increased presence of women employees will assist in increasing active women bank accounts.

The other four pillars of the SBP are equally important; particularly the future collaboration of FIs with the Ehsaas programme. Poverty has a female face. If simple cash transfer beneficiaries of Ehsaas graduate to value-added products through gender-sensitised customer services offered by banks, the shift would accelerate efforts towards eliminating poverty and contribute towards the economic empowerment of women.

So far so good, but the devil lies in the details.

The public sector of this country has a fair share of well-crafted policies, made with good intentions in consultation with stakeholders, that have failed to achieve the desired results.

Absence of an enabling environment is usually a culprit behind the lukewarm success or failure of policy. Decline of regular implementation review and monitoring is another cause. Many times, the implementation phase of a policy jumpstarts in a sector and then fizzles out as periodic monitoring fades. One more cause of partial or insignificant success is the broad spectrum of goals with overlapping timelines. With too much to do in too many directions, the interest of executives is bound to wane.

How can the State Bank of Pakistan increase the chances of successful implementation of its policy? The simplest solution would involve four steps: pick a goal which is most crucial for improving gender equality in financial inclusion; create an enabling environment for meeting targets under the goal; review progress on a periodic basis; repeat with additional goals.

The Pakistan Labour Force Survey 2018-19 describes the share of women in non-agricultural formal employment as 29.5 percent which is slightly more than the share of men at 27.3 percent. The percentage gap between men and women employees tilts further in favour of women when seen in the rural-urban context, since 39.5 percent of employees in the formal urban non-agricultural sector are women against 31 percent men. This data is sufficient to push for women's further recruitment and retention in the banking sector envisaged under the first pillar of the SBP policy.

Numerous research papers have identified obstacles to women's employment in Pakistan and other developing countries. Three major obstacles highlighted in this regard are inadequate transport, insufficient residential facilities and absence of childcare support.

Women's mobility is mainly restricted due to safety concerns, and they are usually dependent upon male family members for the daily commute to and from the workplace. The public transport system in Pakistan is not considered women-friendly and discourages women from stepping out of their homes for employment. A few experiments on exclusive buses have taught us that women-inclusive transport solutions tend to be more sustainable. The majority of women wanting to use a public transport system belong to lower-middle or middle-class families. Among them, the cohorts possessing professional degrees can break away from socio-economic exclusion by joining the workforce in the formal sector, if their transport requirements are met.

Migration to urban centres for work is a norm for men in Pakistan but women from remote and rural areas have limited access to work opportunities away from home. Social customs disallow women to live independently without male family members. Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where hostels have been successfully introduced for working women. Studies show that narrowing the gap between demand for and supply of affordable residential facilities increases women's participation in the labour force.

For mothers wishing to gain employment, absence of childcare support is another impediment to their economic empowerment. The urban nuclear family model liberates women from excessive burden of care work for joint family members but also creates deficiency of childcare support during working hours. Daycare facilities available in urban centers are insufficient to cater to the growing demand of full-time working women with children not old enough to be admitted to school. The lack of childcare services at the workplace forces an average woman to choose between raising a family and building a career path. Many women in Pakistan wish to do both. There is enough evidence to prove that childcare facilities enhance productivity of the female workforce and increase its retention in employment.

The SBP target to increase employment of women in the banking sector of the country can be achieved through innovative interventions for creating an enabling environment that facilitates hiring women in all positions despite social and cultural challenges.

Last year, a study titled ‘Corporate Social Responsibility and Financial Performance: Evidence from Pakistani Listed Banks’ examined CSR practices and disclosure of 20 scheduled banks listed on the Pakistan Stock Exchange, including conventional, Islamic and state owned. The study found that participation of Pakistan’s banking sector in CSR practices is currently at a moderate scale with signs of progress and a visible need for improvement.

An SBP partnership with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan for bringing amendments in the Companies (Corporate Social Responsibility) General Order 2009 and CSR Voluntary Guidelines 2013 to the extent of gender would thus be immensely beneficial for reducing the gender gap in financial inclusion.

The world has moved on from the rudimentary form of CSR with a spirit of philanthropy to the modern day-understanding of CSR as an investment for sustainable and inclusive growth. Now perhaps is the right time to enlist mandatory provisions for all companies operating in the country, including banks, to invest in transportation, accommodation and daycare facilities for their female employees. SBP may further nudge the SECP to consider introduction of a minimum range of profit percentage to be spent compulsorily on these Gender CSR activities with mandatory disclosure.

The ideal platform in this regard would be the policy forum on gender and finance envisaged in the SBP policy. If the SECP also establishes its own forum as advised by the SBP, the organisations could jointly create a comprehensive gender CSR roadmap for steering the financial institutions of our country towards gender-inclusive development.

Investing in women's employment is good for business and yields faster economic growth. Buy-in of this narrative by FIs might determine the success trajectory of the SBP policy for Banking on Equality.