Q&A: How the IDB is establishing itself as the multilateral model for gender equality

Julie Katzman, executive vice president at the Inter-American Development Bank. Photo by: IDB

In March, the Inter-American Development Bank became the world’s first regional development bank to earn the Economic Dividends for Gender Equality certification.

The EDGE recognition, a global assessment that marks how organizations foster fair and diverse workplaces, didn’t come as a surprise to the leading source of long-term financing for development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. For years, the bank has been simultaneously prioritizing its own diversity and inclusion while mainstreaming similar efforts in its day-to-day business operations throughout Latin America.

The effort can be traced to the bank’s C-Suite and its internal nerve center of related initiatives: Its Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group. But its success in efforts to create a fair and diverse workplace, according to bank Executive Vice President Julie Katzman, is thanks to every department adopting a gender action plan and the ethos surrounding it — and from obsessively tracking their progress.

Internally, the 18-member Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group examines how the multilateral is doing in areas such as fostering accountable leadership, recruiting and retaining talented people, and creating an inclusive work environment. The bank’s full-time human resources analytics group, created three years ago, examines gender related data as part of their focus. Since 2008, the bank has increased the percentage of women in the top four professional grades at the bank from 29 percent to 38 percent. By 2019, it expects women to hold 43 percent of its senior management positions.

Meanwhile, the IDB’s Gender and Diversity Division was created in 2007 to mainstream gender and diversity throughout their loans, technical assistance grants and country programs. A 2017-2019 Gender Action Plan currently governs how the bank approaches mainstreaming gender through their operational business, and large-scale initiatives such as the Gender Parity Task Force, recently launched in Chile and Argentina, explore how to unite government and private sector to further women’s labor force participation throughout the region.

Now, the bank is applying practices that have worked internally to its efforts to empower women outside its halls. Devex caught up with gender equality champion Katzman to find out how the bank has gotten this far, and why it’s so important to “walk the talk” when promoting women’s labor force participation in its everyday work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In a recent op-ed for Devex, you commented on the “new Latin American reality” you witnessed at the IDB’s annual meeting, due in part to an increased focus on gender equality. What gave you that sense?

If you look back five years ago, you would see one panel that had something to do with gender at X event. Then if you paid attention and listened to all the things going on, you wouldn’t hear any other mention of gender.

“If you went back five years, I wouldn’t have been sitting down with the Minister of Finance of Argentina to talk about the costs of violence against women to the economy.”

— Julie Katzman, executive vice president of the IDB

And that was the real contrast in the various events at the annual meeting this year. In the business forum, there was a panel I moderated about productivity and human capital and within that panel we were talking about the importance of diversity. But if you listened to any of the other panels, you would hear other speakers raise the issue of gender and diversity. If you sat and listened to what the finance ministers said, apropos of a conversation about economic growth, more than one minister would bring up female labor force participation.

If you went back five years, I wouldn’t have been sitting down with the Minister of Finance of Argentina to talk about the costs of violence against women to the economy, and to small and medium sized enterprises. All of this, to my mind, turns on the crucible of having articulated the value that more women in the labor force, more equal opportunity and addressing violence against women brings to a country’s gross domestic product and overall wellness.

How does an observation like that inform policy or priorities at the bank?

You see progress, but you see a long road, too. The gender wage gap in Chile is 50 percent, and the gender wage gap percentage in the region is in the high 30s or low 40s. We’re making huge progress, in that we’ve spent a lot of time positioning the discussion so that it matters to the right people, like ministers of finance. Now you have to execute these various plans.

Take the Gender Parity Task Forces. The goal is to engage the public and private sectors to focus on opportunities to increase women’s labor force participation, create more opportunities available at senior levels, and decrease the gender wage gap.

Then we have to make those things happen, and determine whether they have the impact that they should have. That is the macro path.

And the micro path?

The micro path means continuing to do what we have been doing within our operations to create more opportunities for women; opportunities that have been historically closed to them — from the transportation division focusing on how to get women the jobs of driving heavy equipment in big infrastructure projects, which are the best paying jobs, to work we are doing in Mexico to try to move young women to better paying career tracks. We still see young women opting for jobs that are more traditional, that pay less. Why does that happen? Can we interrupt some of that messaging and shift some of that?

What about internally? How are you holding yourselves accountable?

By tracking key indicators.

We have an analytics group in our HR department which looks at things such as promotion percentages, and how long people are in jobs comparing women and men, comparing country offices and HQ — and one of the things we were interested in was our gender pay gap. Our internal team did a lot of work on this, and came to the conclusion that we did not have much of an unexplained gender pay gap.

When the EDGE team came in, their process audited everything, and they confirmed that our unexplained gender pay gap was about 2 percent, which is statistically insignificant. The various things that EDGE looks at were really important to us to see where we stood, so we could say to countries and private sector clients, “look we’re subjecting ourselves to the same kinds of metrics we are suggesting to you.”

How are you “walking the talk” of gender inclusion and applying lessons learned to your work?

We had a goal — to have women represent 40 percent of those in our grades 4 and above by 2015. We were starting at about 28 percent. We knew we needed to work on a few dimensions. Recruiting and hiring was one area, and we did some things to increase fairness and equity there. But we also did some analysis internally, and realized that the women just below grade 4 were taking longer to get promoted than men. We determined what some of their impediments were: Asking for stretch assignments, putting yourself in the position to be the person who makes the presentation in a meeting, not being afraid of asking questions in a meeting, thinking about yourself first, developing a network. Then we created a program called Emerging Women Leaders to help that group reach their potential.

We are actually rolling out a version of this program, starting in the Dominican Republic, in partnership with the government. Traveling around the region, if you look inside governments, you see they too have an issue with having more women in senior positions. Roughly 55 percent of the civil service will be women, while only 20 percent of the senior civil servants, including ministers or vice ministers, will be women. And when you get into a conversation about this, you see and hear some of the same things that we saw in our own staff that we needed to address. In the Dominican Republic, several ministries will identify a group of capable women who should be getting ahead, but for whatever reason aren’t in those ranks yet. The program is intended to help them get there, focused on many of the same challenges our own staff had. This will be a good test case.

When did diversity and inclusion become so supported at the bank? And how do you ensure it’s a priority throughout the bank’s portfolio?

“ Hiring panels [at the IDB] had to be 50 percent women, people needed hidden bias training, we realized we needed lactation rooms, and a lactation travel policy and emergency home care three or four times a year.”

When Luis Alberto Moreno became president of the IDB, this was a part of his thinking, and it was later included in as a goal in our capital increase. That’s when we created the Diversity Inclusion Advisory Group, which I chair. The signaling that this was a priority to senior most management is a critical success factor. The DIAG created a framework to help us move the needle on diversity and inclusion, including reviewing policies and practices that were impediments.  

That means hiring panels had to be 50 percent women, people needed hidden bias training, we realized we needed lactation rooms, and a lactation travel policy and emergency home care three or four times a year when your nanny doesn’t show up.

And then, to get it into our work, it's a combination of efforts. One example is the way that our transportation department has internalized it. I said, “listen, I keep going to these infrastructure projects and I don’t see any women driving the heavy equipment, but I visited a gold mine and saw women driving the biggest trucks I’ve ever seen. And when I asked the Canadian company who ran the mine why this was, they told me the women show up sober, they show up on time, and that their insurance premiums started to go down because they don’t have accidents as frequently. Why can’t we make that happen?”

Our transport department took that kernel of an idea, and they’ve internalized it — so much so that the topic of their annual meeting for all transport specialists was “gender in transport” the year before last. They took that in all sorts of interesting directions. That’s an example of how it becomes part of the DNA of the organization.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.