Gender diversity in an organization isn’t just a numbers game: to make true strides towards gender equality, an institution’s entire staff must align itself with the mission of creating better opportunities for women, and the organizational culture must be geared toward helping women succeed and achieve their leadership potential. In Women’s World Banking’s recent webinar, “Investing in Women’s Leadership: Innovations from the Emerging Markets,” women leaders of two influential institutions in the Middle East spoke about the ways in which their organizations have created a culture of women’s leadership in challenging environments.
The participants in the webinar—moderated by Rachel Field, Director of Leadership and Diversity at Women’s World Banking—were Muna Sukhtian, Managing Director of Microfund for Women in Jordan, and Alia Farhat, Human Resources Manager for Al Majmoua in Lebanon. The 20-year-old Microfund for Women is a leading microfinance organization in Jordan, with 55 branches serving 125,000 clients, 97% of whom are women. Of its staff, 70% are women. Also 20 years old, Al Majmoua is the largest microfinance institution in Lebanon, serving 56,000 clients at its 23 branches, 56% of whom are women. Of its senior management team, 60% are women.
Muna and Alia discussed the initiatives that have made their institutions among the region’s most successful in creating and attracting women employees and leaders, and in serving women clients. Here, five of their most important lessons for making gender diversity a central part of an institution’s mission, and maintaining a double bottom line: empowering women while succeeding as a business.
1. Recruit more women employees in order to attract and effectively serve women clients.
Alia explained that Al Majmoua has been urging its employees to make extra efforts to reach out to women candidates. “We have a set proportion of women in each business unit and at each level. For recruitment, we’ve been using innovative activities like sending campaigns to targeted women microcredit clients to inform them about job opportunities. We’ve also been establishing financial incentives given to staff when they refer women employees.”
She added that in 2001, when Al Majmoua began doing individual lending (not just group loans) and attracting more male clients, the number of female clients dropped. “We realized after analyzing our portfolio of clients…our loan officers who were male were lending to males. We piloted recruiting more female loan officers for both group loans and individual loans. The more we’d recruit female officers, the more we had women in both group lending and individual lending.” Alia explained that “a turning point was when our employees started noticing a direct correlation between the increase in women as loan officers and the increase in women as beneficiaries.” As a result, the institution reversed the percentage of women clients from 30% eight years ago to 56% today.
2. Commit to supporting the women you hire so they can excel at their jobs.
One of the ways the women staff at Al Majmoua support each other’s career growth is through an innovative mentorship program. “A role model is something essential in an institution,” said Alia. “Mentoring from female senior managers to female middle managers, helping them grow and find a safe space where they can share their fears, share their ambitions… proved to be successful.” She added: “We’ve also developed some mentoring relationships amongst our own female beneficiaries by which we put together a successful woman entrepreneur with a startup female entrepreneur… The mentee would, in the future, become a mentor.”
Muna added that at MFW, “We recruited internally the 20 branch managers and most of them are women.” This commitment to women’s leadership and to growing employees’ careers “builds confidence” and “gives women employees the sense of responsibility to mentor newcomers to the organization” and inspire them to succeed.
3. Find innovative ways to bridge the gap between career and family responsibilities.
For some institutions, a slight shift in workday hours can make a huge difference. Work hours at MFW are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the request of employees. Similarly, Al Majmoua offers “flexible, remote working hours” for women who need to adjust their workdays.
Helping female staff when they’re on maternity leave also has a tremendous impact. “In Lebanon, it’s a luxury to have extended maternity leave,” noted Alia, since national policy only recently extended the leave from 49 to 70 days. She added that as a mother of five, she has benefited from the flexibility and support Al Majmoua offered her when her children were born, and this has significantly increased her loyalty to the institution.
This support pays huge dividends, not just for employees but for the organization. “We often hear, if you give more flexibility to women then the productivity of your organization will decrease. And if you recruit women then they will get pregnant all the time… and your productivity will decrease,” Alia said. But Al Majmoua has seen the opposite effect: “What we see is that people actually deliver if not the same results, better results because they feel they owe it to the organization. They make sure they do their job perfectly and give 100% of their ability.”
4. Ensure that the board and senior staff remain accountable for gender diversity.
“Everybody has to watch for [diversity],” declared Muna. “In the case of our board of directors, when they did choose the female manager, that was a huge signal and it really proved to the employees in the organization that we’re serious about this.” She noted that it’s about “putting an emphasis that comes all the way from the top of an organization that says, ‘I do care about this subject, and I’m going to ask about it at every meeting.’”
Similarly, at Al Majmoua as well as at other organizations that have stood by their commitment to women’s leadership, this focus on diversity has had an impact well beyond the institution itself. “What we’ve noticed,” said Farhat, “is that by investing more in women, in recruitment, training, equal pay, the impact on our social mission is priceless.”
The webinar on which this blog was based was presented as part of Women’s World Banking’s celebration of more than ten years of strengthening leadership and diversity in financial institutions serving low-income women. We know that diverse teams have better outcomes and we have spent the past decade helping institutions build diverse leadership teams with the tools to navigate growth and change in their institutions while meeting the needs of low-income women.