In Papua New Guinea, empowering women is smart business

By Amy Luinstra

© World Bank Group Library

Oilmin Holdings, a logistics management company providing services to the oil, gas, and mining industry in Papua New Guinea, did not employ all that many women, but they had a star performer in Rose.
 
 Rose had risen from administrative assistant to office manager in the company’s headquarters in Port Moresby. Her boss at Oilmin wanted her to go further up the chain, but in their industry, the next logical step — and one required for senior management roles — was managing a field site. It required long hours and smarts. Rose was willing and able, but it also meant a very remote location. It was too risky, her managers decided; they didn’t know how to keep her safe. Sending extra security guards — all male — would only increase the risk to her, not protect her, they concluded.

This story is too common in this fragile and resource-rich country. It is also one of the drivers behind the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Business Coalition for Women. Convened by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, with seed funding from the government of Australia, the coalition has a unique vision: to be an innovative, relevant, and inclusive driver of business growth through positive change for women in PNG.
 
 The coalition’s 17 founding businesses, including Oilmin, recognize that gender inequality is as much as problem for their business as it is for the human, social, and economic development of the country. The group is distinctive because it is a coalition for women, not of women. Now, with nearly 60 member businesses, mostly male-run and male-owned, the coalition is rapidly gaining momentum and providing businesses with practical solutions.
 
 For example, extremely high rates of violence against women in PNG, estimated to directly impact 70% or more of the country’s women in their lifetime, are an obvious strain on health systems, a tragic loss of human capital and a widespread human rights violation. But new evidence from three coalition member companies indicates high direct costs to businesses as well.
 
 On average, employees miss 11 days of work per year due to violence to deal with their own precarious situation or support colleagues. Lost work time can cost up to 10% of a company’s annual wage bill, which for one company in 2015 equaled 3million PNG Kina (nearly $1 million USD).
 
 Working with coalition members, IFC studied global best practices for the private sector in addressing gender-based violence, including domestic violence. The team, including consultants from the University of New South Wales’ Gendered Violence Research Network, then conducted participatory research with PNG-based companies and their employees.
 
 A draft model human resource policy on family and sexual violence, as gender-based violence is known in PNG, was developed with input from more than two dozen representatives of businesses from various industries and disciplines including human resources, occupational health and safety, and general management.

© World Bank Group Library

The outcomes of this work — a Model Policy on Family and Sexual Violence, an associated Implementation Guide, workplace posters and awareness raising materials, a legal guide for employers, and training and consulting services to support implementation — are now available to member businesses.
 
 John Gethin-Jones is the CEO of catering business NCS Limited, an IFC client, and a founding coalition member which employs more than 1,500 staff (40% of whom are women). NCS was among the first to take up the model policy.
 
 “It’s still early days, but we have evidence to indicate that our workplaces are now safer for everyone, not just our female workforce. Employees are increasingly confident in disclosing violence and seeking support from our specially trained family and sexual violence prevention personnel,” he said. “As a result, we have managed to retain valuable staff we might otherwise have lost. Importantly too, NCS are increasingly becoming known as an ‘Employer of Choice’ amongst PNG women, and we continue to receive valuable publicity for our work.”
 
 Another popular and impactful resource offered by the coalition is a certificate course on leadership, targeting high potential women in their first management role. The battle for talent in PNG is intense, and many industries have resorted to importing skills: during a rapid growth period, from 2000 to 2012, the number of foreign workers entering PNG grew by more than 1700%. In 2014, the International Monetary Fund reported that a lack of skilled workers was one of the top three impediments to business development in the country.
 
 Importing talent is an expensive way to do staffing. Hiring, developing and retaining more local women can be part of the solution. With a formal labor force participation rate less than half that of men, women represent the largest pool of untapped talent.
 
 But in this environment, with so few female role models in leadership — the current PNG Parliament recently matched its record-high of electing three women for the 111-member body — women often lack the self-confidence required to take on leadership positions. The coalition’s leadership training is filling that gap, emphasizing the development of assertive communication skills and confidence alongside traditional management competencies
 
 The PNG market has responded enthusiastically. Within one month of the pilot cohort of 14 women finishing the course, taught in three blocks of six days over eight months, the coalition more than doubled the number of anticipated offerings to meet demand.
 
 The telecommunications company Digicel, also an IFC client, led the surge in interest, committing to send 40 women to the course over the coming 18 months. Pacific Regional CEO Michael Murphy explains, “Digicel sees great value in the [coalition’s] leadership and management course as a means of developing the many talented women we have working for us. It targets our staff at a very critical turning point in their careers and gives them that additional boost in confidence, which supports them on their career progression journey.”
 
 Like the family and sexual violence resources, the leadership training seems to be paying off for businesses. Just weeks after the pilot course ended in April 2016, two graduates were promoted into more senior management positions within their organization.
 
 The coalition’s power comes from demonstrating the business case. Recruiting, retaining, and developing a workforce that draws on the best talent available — female or male — is key for business. The PNG Business Coalition for Women is providing the practical tools to ensure that women like Rose from Oilmin are considered — from the beginning — to be part of that talent pool and that the challenges, both internal and external, to fully developing that talent are overcome. Businesses like NCS and Digicel, along with the other members, live the coalition’s motto: Empowering women is smart business.
 
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