The Asian Development Bank headquarters. Photo by: ADB / CC BY-NC

MANILA — The Asian Development Bank has yet to finalize its strategy to 2030, but a bank official has indicated how gender equality will be a cornerstone of the framework.

Climate change, innovation, and innovative and digital technologies are also some of the “clear themes” that will feature in the strategy, Deborah Stokes, ADB vice president for administration and corporate management, told Devex in an interview.

Assisting ADB countries to have more “livable cities” is likely to be another key theme, as urbanization becomes even more prevalent in Asia Pacific. Regional integration and cooperation will also continue to be part of the strategy, as well as the continuous expansion of private sector operations. But it is gender equality that will be the plan’s “backbone.”

“As we know we have still got a long way to go in the region on gender equality, so gender equality will be a backbone of the strategy 2030 going forward,” Stokes said.

In his speech last International Women’s Day, ADB President Takehiko Nakao spoke about the bank’s efforts in mainstreaming gender equality in its operations through the implementation of its Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Operational Plan 2013-2020. He said the bank has made a lot of progress toward its target of having strong gender design elements upon project entry and project completion in its lending operations.

“Over the last five years, our gender equality success rate has improved from less than 50 percent to over 70 percent,” he said.

He identified some of the ways in which the multilateral financing institution has supported gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in the region, from supporting young women in Myanmar with technical and vocational education training to increase their job potential, to ensuring women are able to participate in the preparation of Tonga’s national action plan on climate change and disaster risk management.

But Nakao, like Stokes, noted how amid the progress, there’s still much to be done in advancing gender equality in the region.

“This is why Sustainable Development Goal 5 is so important as a unifying call to action,” he said. “ADB is committed to playing its part and continuing to make advancing gender equality integral to ADB’s operations.”

Institutional efforts

The same is true for the bank’s internal efforts toward gender equality.

While the majority of ADB’s staff are women — nearly 59 percent — the bank needs to do more to ensure women are equally represented in leadership positions. Currently, only two out of the bank’s six vice presidents are women, Stokes said. Some department heads are also women, but based on publicly available information, more men head ADB offices and departments. Of the 12 ADB offices and 15 ADB departments presented here, only two offices and four departments are headed by women respectively. Of the 32 resident missions, 23 are headed by men and eight by women.

Notably, ADB has not had a woman president since its establishment half a century ago.

“When I came a couple of years ago, we had a small number, and now the number is certainly bigger than it was. So that’s progress in a couple of years. We’ve made strides. But we need to do more,” Stokes said.

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One of the areas where the bank hopes to make progress is in increasing the number of female international staff. For the past five to six years, the vice president said they seemed to have hit a plateau, with the number of female international staff hovering at 33-34 percent. But at the end of last year, they hit 35 percent.

“We’re quite pleased with that, but we don’t want to be complacent. Of course we definitely don’t want to slip back. We’ve got to keep moving forward,” the vice president said, adding the issue commands a a “very strong commitment” from ADB management.

The bank has a target of having women represent 40 percent of bank international staff by the end of 2022. To reach that goal, Stokes said they will need to progress at least 1 percent each year.

Some of the efforts the bank is making — apart from taking a good look at its recruitment processes — include launching a program that supports spouses of international staff in their efforts to gain employment in the Philippines, the bank’s headquarters. The bank also launched the Respectful Workplace Unit last year, to “improve the way in which we dealt with harassment and bullying” as well as “help with training and awareness raising about respectful workplace practices.”

In his speech, ADB President Nakao underscored: “I want to repeat that any form of bullying and harassment must not be tolerated. This includes sexual harassment.”

The bank is also doing more batch recruitment.

“A number of vacancies are advertised in particular areas, such as … procurement specialists, but also people in our private sector area, we’ve had some bulk selection there. And we’ll be doing that in other parts. So there’s an opportunity for casting the net more widely, and then we hope very much that by doing that we’ll catch a lot of good men and a lot of good women,” Stokes said.

ADB has been ramping up recruitment to support the bank’s expanding operations.

“We have had a lot of openings and will continue to have more openings,” she added.

The bank initiated a study on salaries within ADB to understand “if any” unexplained gender pay gaps exist within the institution.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.