IFC's gender chief on key priorities, We-Fi, and a growing interest in investing in women

Henriette Kolb, head of the gender secretariat at the International Finance Corporation. Photo by: World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The International Finance Corporation’s gender secretariat has grown and in the past year has focused on identifying key gaps, including child care and insurance, researching them and looking for ways to build markets and reduce gaps in female labor participation rates and access to finance.

“What we've witnessed as a team here is exponential growth and real investment and interest both from within the institution and also equally so from clients,” Henriette Kolb, the head of IFC’s gender secretariat, told Devex in a recent interview.

The research IFC has done, including concrete data and examples of how gender inclusion, or products tailored to women can benefit the business, has been important not only to getting companies to change course but also in convincing IFC and World Bank colleagues about why gender should be more integrated and how to engage with clients about it.

How strong gender strategies can benefit companies — IFC report

The International Finance Corporation looks at nine case studies drawn from client firms that have introduced gender strategies across their value chains, including designing banking products for women, combating gender-based violence, taking lessons from female entrepreneurs and hiring women into nontraditional roles.

“We've seen quite a lot of commitment from obviously our shareholders, from the senior leadership at IFC, as well as from colleagues, to move gender much more in the center of our operations and also to resource it properly,” she said. “Are we totally there yet? Absolutely not. And I'd be lying to you if I said we were. I also don't think that the aim is to have a gender focus to each and every transaction. I think then you come out with policing and box ticking and so on.”

Instead, the gender secretariat’s role is to help IFC staff create markets in a way that helps all and not just some. Some industries are further along than others, she said, highlighting that 90 percent of agriculture projects include a gender-specific approach.

“So I see a lot of progress but I also see there's room to do more and room to grow” especially on infrastructure, Kolb said.

While infrastructure may be an important future focus, two of the key areas IFC has worked on this year have been access to more and better jobs and access to assets, she said.

Through consultations with the World Bank for the bank and IFC’s first joint gender strategy, which was announced in 2016, they identified that one of the greatest impacts on female participation in the labor force was their care responsibilities, either to children or parents. And a growing number of countries are passing legislation to require companies to provide child care to their employees.

So IFC set out to research how the private sector can increase levels of participation and the role of employers in supportive child care.

“It's a dual narrative, it's the development narrative, how does it increase female labor force participation and the second narrative is how does it improve business performance,” Kolb said.

In September, IFC released a report about tackling child care and the business case for employee-supported child care. The response to the report was swift, with industry organizations, companies, and the media interested to know more about the issue. And the report had some interesting findings, including that private sector child care solutions reach not only the formally employed but those who are either informally employed or unemployed.

“Our approach is not to say the private sector over the public sector, but we recognize that the private sector has a role to play and we want to enable the private sector to play this role more fully,” Kolb said.

IFC is now working with several companies to determine the needs, and the opportunities around child care. One challenge in helping tackle the issue is that there is a lack of private sector child care providers to actually invest in, with most being either very small or simply not existing, she said.

“If you take the analogy of solar and off-grid lighting 10 years ago, we really have to do a lot of ground work to make sure we build that market and can then invest in it. So that's absolutely the idea,” Kolb said.

IFC is following a similar model in much of its work — identify a challenge, research it, and then work with companies to explore opportunities and build a market through advisory work and investments.

It is doing so, for example, with insurance for women. IFC released a 2015 report to show the insurance industry how it was both underserving women in the insurance value chain and what it meant as a business opportunity. IFC is now working with five insurance clients, advising them how to better insure women and designing not only specific products but wraparound services, Kolb said. In Nigeria, IFC launched a women's entrepreneurship focused insurance program in November and there has already been a significant uptake of policies, she said.

Another big development in the past year was the launch of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, We-Fi, and while proposals on how it will collaborate are being finalized, Kolb said it has been an exciting development in part because it has stimulated attention in investing in women entrepreneurs from new players who are interested in how to invest or adapt business models.

“That has really helped sharpen the attention of companies on the topic of just how large the credit gap is,” she said.

Through We-Fi, IFC may be able to pioneer some of the solutions that are emerging and help to incentivize companies to recognize that sex disaggregated data is a critical requirement in designing for women entrepreneurs. IFC’s team is researching and “stepping up” its work on gender lens investing and seeing how it can work with funds, especially private equity funds, to make sure that portfolios are more diverse and include more female founders, an effort that will be aided by We-Fi, Kolb said.

Looking ahead, IFC will be watching the evolution and use of digital technology, looking further into care models and looking at the issue of sexual harassment and assault.

“We need to make sure that the promise of digital doesn't further lead to inequality, but actually to more equal participation,” she said, adding that while technology could make it easier for women entrepreneurs to access capital, women are still 26 percent less likely to have access to mobile internet and 10 percent less likely to own a mobile phone. IFC has started to look into this space, with a report out at the beginning of the month about women in ride hailing and the sharing economy.

“That's some of the work we want to do more of, is to make sure that we're not repeating the same mistakes that industries have perpetuated,” Kolb said. “As these business models grow rapidly we want to make sure we are at the forefront to point to solutions that we think might be helpful to make sure these are inclusive platforms.”

Both within the World Bank Group and externally with clients, there needs to be more work done to create sexual harassment free workplaces, she said. IFC has helped clients become EDGE certified, which is a global certification and assessment for gender equality, and the World Bank Group just completed its own recertification as well. The World Bank and IFC are also looking at their portfolios to see what mechanisms it can put in place in its lending processes to prevent abuses.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.