MANILA, PHILIPPINES, December 13, 2023 – An initiative of the Australian Government, Investing in Women opened its doors in 2016 to focus on improving gender equality in South East Asia, particularly in Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines and Indonesia, where it now works with a wide variety of stakeholders.

The organisation has been a catalyst in driving evidence-based approaches in its quest to improve the economic opportunities that are available to the women in the region. They have also expanded their initiatives to include policy reforms, where they have collaborated with credible local institutions to strengthen reforms related to the care economy, highlighting the critical role of unpaid and unappreciated care work carried out by women which often goes unnoticed.

Investing in Women has also shone a spotlight on rolling out diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programmes, particularly within the private sector. To this end, the business coalition leads the way in implementing DEI activities which they do in partnership with prominent local leaders and companies that have pledged their commitment to gender equality in the workplace.

New Leadership

Hannah Birdsey took over as CEO of Investing in Women earlier this year. Speaking with Collective for Equality, she said that local agencies have responded positively to the various efforts, managements have made notable changes to their recruitment, selection and promotion practices to enable an increase in the proportion of women reaching senior managerial positions. Flexible work has also been made a more mainstream modality of running the organisation.

“Across different countries, we’ve observed significant improvements in varying areas. In the Philippines, for instance, companies focused on preventing and addressing gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence, while Indonesian and Vietnamese firms are more focused professional development, mentoring and sponsorship. Their journeys are unique but together they are united in their efforts to deliver more value to their shareholders and employees through a more equitable and diverse workforce,” she said.

Over the years, Investing in Women has successfully partnered with leading organisations like UN Women, ADB, the World Bank, ILO, Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) and other Australian agencies. The synergy has helped create a greater effect in achieving their shared goals.

Business Coalitions

Having established Business Coalitions in the four Southeast Asian countries that it is present in, Investing in Women is now witnessing their growth and delivery of social impacts while developing a sustainable financial strategy. Equipping these coalitions with the necessary tools, capabilities and systems in order to scale effectively is a key role played by Birdsey’s team.

She stressed: “In the market, we are seeing an increasing demand for an integrated approach to DEI. We will be working closely with the Business Coalitions to ensure that their WGE tools adapt to the ever-changing needs of the market.

“More broadly, we recognise that the Business Coalitions and their member firms are navigating a complex environment, including transitioning economies, evolving skill requirements, and demographic changes in the workforce. Addressing the impacts of climate change and the transition to a green economy is a critical challenge – reshaping their existing workforce dynamics and necessitating the development of the workforce of the future. The Business Coalitions can play a key role supporting a gender-equal approach to these transitions, targeting critical sectors and sustaining a focus on WGE.

Impact of Covid

Much of the good work carried out by Investing in Women and other gender based organisations faced a major setback with the Covid19 pandemic, which restricted economic activity, saw job losses and increased the demands placed on caregivers, all of which affected women far more than men, risking the loss of hard-won gains in the workplace.

In the Philippines, approximately half the workers in the hardest-hit sectors, particularly in the service industry, had their jobs suspended, terminated, or had a cut in hours or pay, with more women than men experiencing temporary suspensions and cuts in their hourly pay rate.  In Indonesia, more women than men reported an increase in time spent on unpaid domestic work, and in Vietnam, women’s health and well-being was impacted by exhaustion from increased domestic tasks, balancing work and family, financial concerns and family tensions.

The resilience and innovation among companies at such a juncture was noteworthy, where some companies adapted by opting for flexible working arrangements which were particularly beneficial for those men and women who needed to strike a balance between work and the added responsibilities of home. According to data gathered at the time, women-led businesses were more receptive towards integrating digital technologies during the pandemic which would easily have ensured their very survival during those turbulent economic times. The adoption of flexibility in the workplace suggested that embedding workplace gender equality (WGE) helped create a buffer against further unavoidable regressions that may occur in the future as well.

The response to COVID challenges from the private sector, supported by programmes like Investing in Women, offers insights and lessons for not only mitigating these effects but also for building more resilient and equal post-pandemic economies.