SINGAPORE, December 18, 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.
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.
ABT: Over the last few years since Investing in Women was established, how would you describe the initiatives undertaken in South East Asia?
Hannah Birdsey: Investing in Women, an initiative of the Australian Government, has been at the forefront of driving catalytic and evidence-based approaches for improving women’s economic opportunities in Southeast Asia.
Working in collaboration with a diverse range of partner organisations in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam), our initiatives focused on workplace gender equality (WGE), working with Business Coalitions in initiating cultural and policy shifts within influential companies; gender equality campaigns, where we support locally-driven campaigns that strengthen public support for women’s economic participation; and gender lens investing, which increases access to capital for women-led Small and Medium Enterprises’ (SMEs) through partnerships with capital providers.
More recently, we have expanded our initiatives to include a focus on policy reforms, working with credible local institutions to strengthen the evidence base for influencing and informing policy —particularly related to the care economy, recognising the vital role of unpaid and underappreciated care work in enabling women’s participation in the workforce.
These initiatives help to deliver on the Australian Government’s commitment to building more resilient and gender-equal societies and economies in the region.
ABT: What have been the learnings from rolling out the DEI programs in this region? How are local organizations responding?
Hannah Birdsey: With our focus on DEI in the private sector, we’ve learnt building a compelling business case for DEI is crucial and most effective when it resonates deeply with the local context and endorsed actively by respected and accessible role models. That’s why the Business Coalitions lead the way in implementing DEI activities, and they do so in partnership with prominent local leaders and companies who underscore their commitment to WGE and share their own WGE journey.
While companies have embraced insights from data and evidence to develop their own roadmap and inform their strategies, commitments and action plans, the Business Coalitions have walked beside them on the journey, providing analytical tools and methodologies as well as offering tailored technical support to implement transformative change.
Local organisations are responding: we’ve seen organisations make changes to their recruitment, selection and promotion practices to increase the proportion of women in senior management; we’ve seen them mainstream flexible work; and introduce mentoring programs, as well as male champions and engagement programs.
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.
ABT: Has IWA partnered with other regional entities or are there any in the pipeline?
Hannah Birdsey: Partnerships are at the core of what we do. We actively collaborate with local entities within our focus countries, and value deeply the shared learning that arises from this collaboration. As we move forward with the program, we will continue to explore and establish new partnerships, to enhance our shared success.
We are also delighted to have partnered with significant regional or global players who share our commitment to gender equality, such as UN Women, ADB, the World Bank, ILO, Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) and other Australian agencies, recognising that collective efforts are more effective for achieving our shared goals.
ABT: Having laid the foundation through the business coalitions in the four South East Asian countries, what is the roadmap going forward over the next 2-3 years?
Hannah Birdsey: We are excited to be working with the four Business Coalitions as they grow and evolve, continuing to deliver social impact while developing a sustainable financial strategy. For my team, our focus will be on ensuring the Coalitions are equipped with the necessary capabilities, tools, and systems to scale effectively.
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. For example, the tools need to integrate an intersectional approach, so WGE initiatives benefit more women—including women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, women with disabilities, and women of diverse gender identities and sexual orientation.
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.
ABT: How many companies do you believe will join the movement by 2025 and achieve the 2030 goals?
Hannah Birdsey: As the body of evidence on the business case for gender equality in the workplace continues to grow, and as understanding of the connection between business success and gender equality deepens, we expect increasing involvement from companies looking to create inclusive and equitable workplaces.
We hope our efforts to build a robust evidence base, alongside the impactful work of our local and regional partners, will serve as powerful catalysts that encourage organisations to become part of this transformative journey towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
ABT: How are you ensuring that the companies which sign up stay committed despite changes in their internal leadership?
Hannah Birdsey: Maintaining commitment, especially through leadership transitions, is a core responsibility of the Business Coalitions. They deploy strategies such as evidence-based diagnostic assessments; provision of tailored technical assistance; and advocacy and networking to reinforce firms’ interest, knowledge and commitment on WGE. The Business Coalitions’ approach of engaging with leadership and providing company-specific data and analytical insights has been found to create feedback loops that reinforce continued action within member firms.
While we recognise that real change takes time, we are pleased to see that the BCs are attracting new members, working closely with them to develop tailored WGE action plans that align with their specific needs, and engaging at various levels within organisations to drive lasting change. These efforts are integral in ensuring that companies remain committed to the cause of gender equality, regardless of changes in leadership.
ABT: What measures do you think can hasten the entire process? Does it call for stricter compliance norms?
Hannah Birdsey: The drivers for change are increasing, especially for companies integrated into global supply chains who must consider both compliance requirements and reputational risk. Government policies and legal frameworks can motivate companies to integrate WGE, but we have also seen momentum driven by rising expectations among local consumers and employees, who increasingly view WGE as a measure of a company’s reputation.
The Business Coalitions take a systematic approach by providing diagnostics, advising on action plans, and supporting tangible WGE advancements through policy advice and technical assistance.
ABT: In your opinion, what are the challenges CEOs face while trying to achieve Gender Balance at their workplace?
Hannah Birdsey: Investing in Women has gathered substantial data from company surveys, which provided us a snapshot of the gender composition of these firms, their retention, recruitment, and promotion rates, as well as their policy strengths and weaknesses, to help inform the work of the Business Coalitions as they help these firms achieve gender balance.
Our survey shows one of the challenges that companies face is that the percentage of women typically decreased as you moved up the employment hierarchy. There was also a lack of representation of women on company boards and in certain sectors. Additionally, some companies face occupational segregation by gender and lower retention and promotion rates for women. These challenges often reflect the deep-seated stereotypes about what ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ should be.
However, we also found that leadership played a key role in influencing these metrics, especially concerning the number, retention, and advancement of women in senior roles within organisations. This held true even when men predominantly held leadership positions in some of these organisations. This finding underscores that strong leadership commitment, regardless of gender, is the most significant factor in achieving fairer gender outcomes.
We also found that larger firms typically have more established WGE policies than smaller ones, but the recent uptick in flexible working arrangements across companies is seen as a positive trend, suggesting that firms are capable of rapid adaptation when required—a promising sign for future WGE policy implementation.
In general, CEOs must navigate a complex landscape where industry sector, firm size, and societal norms play significant roles in influencing gender outcomes.
ABT: There have been reports of how the pandemic reversed the progress achieved in the area of Gender Equality. What are your observations in this regard?
Hannah Birdsey: We acknowledge that the pandemic has indeed disrupted progress, which is why we continue to work in line with the Australian Government’s commitment to gender equality and recovery. The pressures of COVID-19—economic disruptions, job losses, and increased caregiving demands—disproportionately affected women, 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.
However, there were also instances of resilience and innovation. Some companies adapted by implementing flexible working arrangements, which were particularly beneficial for women and men who needed to balance work and home responsibilities. Data also suggests that women-led businesses were more receptive to integrating digital technologies during the pandemic, which may have contributed to their survival and recovery amidst the challenging business landscape. There were also reports showing that although more women than men exited the labour force during the pandemic, their re-entry was quicker and in greater numbers once lockdowns eased, which may suggest a resilience and adaptability among women in the workforce. These examples of women’s resilience and innovation enabled companies adapt more rapidly, suggesting that embedding WGE into business practices can help create a buffer against such regressions.
The response to COVID challenges from the private sector, supported by programs like IW, offers insights and lessons for not only mitigating these effects but also for building more resilient and equal post-pandemic economies.