EBRD: How to empower women in the workplace

A woman in a workplace. Gender equality is good for economies and vital for the companies within them, according to European Bank for Reconstruction and Development President Suma Chakrabarti. Photo by: Victor1558 / CC BY

Finding creative ways to promote gender equality is central to how we do business at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. As president, I spend a sizeable amount of my time stressing its importance for the workplace to our partners and clients.

Happily, the principle that women should be empowered at work enjoys near universal support. Promoting gender is not only about promoting women per se but is also about closing inequalities, reducing gaps, and redistributing roles in general. So men and changing their roles and expectations both at home and in the work place are key to achieving equality.

Rehearsing the general arguments for empowerment might seem unnecessary but, to my mind, it is worthwhile recalling what is at stake here.

We seek equal opportunities for both women and men and we make them part of the conditions on which we offer financing. We do so because we believe in realizing the potential of everyone in our countries of operation to make use of the best available talent and contribute to both society and the economy. More specifically, we want women’s and men’s merits and skills to be used to the full.

We also believe that gender equality is good for economies and vital for the companies within them. Only when gender equality is assured can economies make use of all of society’s potential talent as well as encourage the innovations that create wealth.

Supporting gender equality

Such truths may appear self-evident to many and there is always the risk that when I proclaim them I am preaching to the converted, but the EBRD is not an ivory tower institution. We invest, principally in the private sector, in 34 countries from central and eastern Europe to Central Asia and the southern and eastern Mediterranean. If ever we risk becoming complacent about what we do, our experience on the ground in these very different environments swiftly brings us back down to earth.

To date, we have successfully promoted equality of opportunities in countries such as Turkey, Romania and Serbia and in sectors as diverse as oil and gas and agribusiness. When we began supporting the privatization of ferry operator Istanbul Deniz Otobusleri, we discovered that only 17 of its 626 employees were women. Now, thanks to our work with the company, that number is much higher two of its top executives are both women too.

In general, we have helped clients promote the career development of young male and female workers, empower women to be managers and change organizational cultures even in sectors that are male-dominated. Nevertheless, we are fully aware that equal rights declared in constitutions are not always reflected in labour codes or the way laws are actually enforced. As for the workplace itself, we have become well practiced in identifying the challenges women face before they can enjoy real equality. And we are becoming more skilled at addressing them.

For example, some companies declare their support for gender equality but then fail to provide enough toilets or changing rooms for their female staff. I am not joking. Others are just as good at paying lip service to the goal of equality but, whether by inertia or design, only recruit new employees from one half of the human race. You can no doubt guess which half.

And in other firms we witness the curious phenomenon whereby those jobs open to women enjoy far less prestige than those filled by men. So women are welcome to work as accountants, administrative assistants, in the canteen or as cleaners but not as executives, engineers or technical workers or in the core business of the company.

These quirks of the way the workplace works — or doesn’t work — are what EBRD can and wants to influence. What are much more difficult to change are the attitudes that inform laws that still discriminate against women or the way the laws are interpreted and enforced. And these attitudes are, of course, rooted in almost all societies’ broader cultures.

Such attitudes undermine gender equality even when significant progress has been made elsewhere. In many countries women can enjoy equality at work and have fulfilling jobs. But they are also still expected be “super women”: Do the housework, provide the food for the family table and be responsible for organizing childcare, if not actually look after the children, and elder care as well as put in a full day at work.

Clearly, such attitudes are not the monopoly of the EBRD’s countries of operations but symptomatic of modern life in many parts of the world.

Opportunity, not cost

We do indeed face major challenges and do not underestimate the difficulties of overcoming them. But I am an optimist. At EBRD we see many encouraging signs that companies view gender equality in the workplace not as an extra cost but as an opportunity.

Many actively want to reach female consumers and realize that companies run by men for men and discriminating against women in their workplace are under a big disadvantage in the quest for market share.

Increasingly, firms also understand the benefits of being — and being seen to be — market or sector leaders in the field of gender equality. Gender equality can also be a powerful tool for communicating a better image for the company or as part of its work on corporate social responsibility.

Our optimism is not an exercise in wishful thinking. It is based on genuine shifts in the way companies look at themselves, their employees and their customers. And I am convinced that those shifts will deliver a better, more equal world not just in the workplace but beyond as well.

Sir Suma will be attending the forthcoming Trust Women Conference in London, 3-4 December as a keynote speaker to discuss the latest development in the Middle East. Organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International New York Times, Trust Women is the conference dedicated to putting the rule of law behind women’s rights.

About the author

  • Sir Suma Chakrabarti

    Sir Suma is the sixth President of the EBRD. He has extensive experience in international development economics and policy-making, as well as in designing and implementing wider public service reform.