How the Solomon Islands improved working conditions for women

Women leaders in the Waka Mere participating companies. Photo by: SICCI

CANBERRA — At the completion of a two-year initiative focusing on gender equality among 14 of the largest companies in the Solomon Islands, the concluding report for the Waka Mere program showed changing working conditions for women — and an important case study in building sustainable business transformation.

Impacting more than 6,500 employees, the program was managed as a collaboration between the International Finance Corporation and Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Waka Mere — which means “She Works” — and had the objective of addressing social norms that prevent women and men from fully participating in the workforce.

To achieve this, participating businesses were asked to choose up to three commitments to target for measurable progress over two years: promoting women in leadership, building respectful and supportive workplaces, or increasing opportunities for women in jobs traditionally held by men. Using a baseline and endline survey of the impact, the impact of the policies and programs the 14 businesses implemented could be seen.

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The number of employees who did not feel comfortable or safe at work fell from 25% to 10%. In some companies, there was a 20% swing in employee confidence toward their grievance mechanism or being willing to talk to a manager about issues affecting their work. And 80% of women leader trainees as part of the program received a promotion or new responsibilities.

“We found that businesses were losing 12 days of work per year from each employee on average due to domestic and sexual violence.”

— Amy Luinstra, gender lead for East Asia and the Pacific, IFC

Building demand for Waka Mere

Amy Luinstra, gender lead for East Asia and the Pacific at IFC explained to Devex that when the conversation began with business, there was a broad acceptance that the lack of opportunities for women was a problem.

“Businesses acknowledged they had few women in leadership and that there were certain jobs — driving, maintenance, technical and trades jobs — in which there were almost no women,” she said. “Even if it wasn’t really on their radar as a problem, they were easily convinced to see it as such and understand that their business would be better if that changed.”

The idea that domestic violence was impacting their business and that there was something proactive and effective they could do about it took convincing. There were a lot of discussions with businesses, and IFC conducted their own research surveying more than 1,200 employees at nine large businesses in the Solomon Islands about the way problems at home affect work.

“We found that businesses were losing 12 days of work per year from each employee on average due to domestic and sexual violence,” Luinstra said. “When 2 out of 3 women are affected by violence in a country, it absolutely impacts the businesses they work for. They are late or can’t attend work. Or they have trouble concentrating and are sometimes distracted at work by perpetrators sending hundreds of text messages or emails.”

Luinstra said this effort produced important results with 13 companies out of the total of 14 companies involved in Waka Mere signing up to this commitment.

“All have adopted policies and approaches that help them support employees facing violence,” Luinstra said.

Maintaining momentum

Maintaining the interest in the program over a two year period did create challenges for the businesses and IFC.

“In the initiatives we are planning now, we tend to aim for shorter periods,” Luinstra said. “However, in the Solomon Islands the market for service providers is thin. So we need time to secure the right support network for companies. And, in many cases the curriculum, model policies, and other resources we were using needed to be researched, adapted, tested, so that also takes time.”

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The program maintained momentum up by periodically bringing companies together to share what they were doing and learning, and they started a professional women’s network in parallel with Waka Mere to promote professional women and create Waka Mere champions in the businesses. The network — Solomon Islands Profession Women’s Network — now has 111 members.

But the two-year focus has been important in setting the groundwork for sustainable business practices that advance women.

“There are several things that give me faith that it can be sustainable,” Luinstra said. “First, with our support, the companies have invested in a holistic and locally-relevant intensive leadership course for over 50 women spread across the businesses. In the first two cohorts of participants, 80% had received a promotion or additional responsibilities at work. You can’t reverse that so easily. These are skilled and empowered women making a difference in their business.”

In addition all participating companies made changes in policies and practices, and the endline surveys provided strong evidence in a mindset shift — the proportion of employees believing that gender equality is important for their business, that their employer had adequate grievance mechanisms in place, that men and women have equal opportunities to be hired and to be promoted.

“All of these moved in positive directions,” Luinstra said. “To me that signals a seismic shift in these workplaces.”

Diversity in focus area outcomes

Among the three focus areas, the level of progress measured between the baseline and endline surveys varied, with increasing opportunities for women in jobs traditionally held by men an area where they could "move the needle a bit quicker.” But at the top, the shift was slower.

“It often takes some time to [achieve] progress on improving gender balance in senior leadership,” Luinstra said. “You need to develop the pipeline, and the jobs at more senior levels experience little turnover so there are few opportunities to add women in a short period of time.”

Over the two year period, the total numbers of women in top management increased by only 1%. But one company, a tuna processor, had been working with IFC prior to the Waka Mere initiative and achieved a gender balanced leadership team after four years.

Moving the program forward

For the companies involved in the program, there will be continued monitoring and engagement to check progress — including a repeat survey to identify how problems at home affect employees at work to measure how domestic violence influences productivity and attendance at work. This will be done in February 2020.

And there are other ways the program will advance.

“With the continued support of the governments of Australia and New Zealand we are scaling up,” Luinstra said.

On Nov. 5 a new program for Fiji was launched focusing on two aspects of advancing opportunities for women: employer support for employee child care responsibilities and workplace responses to domestic and sexual violence. This follows studies on these two key impediments to more women in the workforce in Fiji.

More broadly, lessons from IFC’s work in the Pacific, particularly on respectful workplaces and gender-based violence, has formed the basis of work with clients and further research in Myanmar, Haiti, and will continue in other countries where the need is identified by IFC in partnership with the local government.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.