By Victoria Johnson, Research Associate and Sonja Kelly, Director of Research and Advocacy

Investing in women is smart business. Data shows that having women leaders improves financial performance, increases sales, leads to better decision-making, and creates a more inclusive corporate culture. On the other hand, women customers are often underserved, even as providing them with financial services creates market opportunity for companies. While the literature on leadership has focused on women’s impact on performance and culture, there have been few case examples exploring the relationship between women in leadership and women customers. Is there a relationship between these two? If so, what does it look like? And how might institutions be able to empower women employees and women customers together?

To address these questions, Women’s World Banking’s latest research focuses on AMK Cambodia, a financial institution known for empowering women leaders and customers. In Cambodia, roughly nine women to every ten men participate in the labor force. Therefore, they have some degree of professional agency, making the cultural conditions ideal to explore the relationship between women leaders and women customers.

Findings

Through a literature review, data analyses, and semi-structured interviews with ten executive-level staff members, our research revealed that at AMK, investment in women leaders and investment in women customers covary, driven by an underlying recognition of women’s implicit value. AMK’s cultural values of innovation, openness in communication, ideation, and personal and professional development establish an environment that prioritizes empowerment of both women leaders and women customers. We also found that the presence of a high proportion of women customers in the loan portfolio was a motivation for investing in women leaders. These findings have implications for women-focused institutions around the world.

The following four key insights describe the underlying efforts to both invest in women leaders and continue to prioritize women customers, depicted in the following model.

 

Organizational Culture and Institutional Norms as a Foundation

Promoting gender diverse leadership at AMK is not positioned as a “women’s issue.” Rather, there is a broad focus on leadership development across the organization. This translates into personal and professional development for all staff with a focus on training and internal hiring; openness to feedback, new ideas, and diverse perspectives; and transparent communication within and across departments and among all employees from front-line staff to the CEO. The culture of staff inclusion and development is also crucial to serving AMK’s clients, as evidenced by the practice of soliciting feedback from front-line staff and customers to innovate on products and services.

Focus on Women as a Core Identity

For staff and leadership, focusing on women is part of AMK’s DNA. This is an important piece of AMK’s core identity underlying its empowerment of women leaders and women customers. One respondent put it this way: “40% of us are women at top management because our customers are also women – 82% of our customers are women. That’s why AMK always have the women sent for [the] leadership program at Women’s World Banking.” This focus on women is a foundational part of AMK’s investment in both employees and customers.

Seeking Gender Parity by Confronting Barriers to Career Advancement

AMK’s prioritization of personal and professional development for all staff, from the frontlines to top management, increases staff agency and opportunity as well as cultivates an environment conducive to gender parity. When we asked management how AMK invests in its women leaders, we heard clearly the importance of merit and non-discrimination in decisions related to hiring, staff development, and advancement. At the same time, there is a recognition that, given the cultural context and potential barriers women may face, a concerted focus is needed to ensure that AMK hires, promotes, develops, and supports women leaders.

One leader we interviewed put it this way: “Everyone goes through the same [hiring and promotion] process regardless of their gender. When we do this…everyone agrees that whoever goes through [this process] is the person who has competence and is qualified. We don’t have a target, not women or men – a target would violate these policies – but we do want to reach more women.”

AMK increases agency and development for female staff in the following ways:

  • Recognizing barriers to career advancement that women uniquely face.
  • Developing strategies to encourage and support more women leaders.
  • Intentionally recruiting, hiring, promoting, training, developing, and supporting women leaders who demonstrate the necessary criteria for advancement.
  • Designing policies to support women staff who are young mothers.
  • Providing intentional checkpoints with female staff to understand and address their unique needs.

Customer Centricity Means Women Customer Centricity

AMK is known both for its prevalence of women leaders and high volume of women customers. When asked about AMK’s customer base, most respondents identified women as roughly 80% of their clientele, and were proud about this reach. A CGAP study (2018) found that AMK succeeded in reaching financially excluded customers by targeting poorer, rural women who primarily use group loans – a target population different from many of AMK’s MFI competitors. Focus on women and their needs is a natural outcome of AMK’s mission to serve financially vulnerable people and maintain customer centricity.

Overall, AMK pursues its social mission and seeks to better serve their women customers by:

  • Seeking out front-line staff experience and perspectives to understand women customer’s needs.
  • Utilizing sex-disaggregated customer feedback to inform research and design decisions.
  • Designing products and services purposefully for women customers.

This increased attention on women customers has led to an increased number of women leaders at AMK. Because the majority of customers are women, it is a priority for AMK to advance women leaders to reflect its customer base. AMK models how a financial institution can both invest in its women leaders and empower its women customers through establishing organizational norms and policies that simultaneously prioritize women and seek the betterment of all staff. To learn more about the lessons we suggest to take this work forward, download the report here.

Women’s World Banking’s research with AMK Cambodia was supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.