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Simply by going to work every day, Linda Randeh—a woman who leads a team comprised mostly of men at a food retailer in Solomon Islands—is changing the culture.

That’s because gender inequality has always been pronounced in this remote archipelago in the South Pacific. Women are less likely to have a chance to earn an income—and more likely to be affected by violence—than almost anywhere else in the world.

But after a leadership course and training in the Waka Mere program, a two-year, IFC-led initiative to improve gender equality, Randeh was promoted from warehouse supervisor to warehouse and logistics manager at her company, Bulk Shop.

Waka Mere, which means “She Works” in the local language, was launched by IFC in 2017 in collaboration with the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) and is supported by the governments of Australia and New Zealand. The program was groundbreaking for this male-dominated culture.

“In Solomon Islands culture, men don't listen to women,” Randeh says. “A man is always the head and women listen to men. But for me, going through this training… helped me build the confidence to lead my team.”

Randeh is among over 2,000 women to benefit from the Waka Mere initiative. Fourteen of the island nation’s biggest companies completed the program, working toward at least one of three goals: Enhancing opportunities for women in leadership, promoting respectful and supportive workplaces for women and men, and increasing opportunities for women in jobs traditionally held by men.

An Opportunity to Do Better

For Randeh and two women colleagues who were also promoted at Bulk Shop, Waka Mere has already made a significant difference. “A lot of females in Solomon Islands, they seem to be holding back: Not really feeling able to be in the front. But these three ladies, when they finished [the leadership] training, they just became very confident,” says David Upwe, Bulk Shop’s human resources manager.  Now, “They feel like they can talk and they can plan, they can delegate tasks to men.”

Such comments illustrate the extent to which the male-dominated traditions of Solomon Islands have limited women’s professional lives, severely curtailing their opportunities and earning potential. For example, only one in four private sector jobs there is held by a woman. IFC research shows that in 2017, for companies participating in the program, women were under-represented at all workforce levels, particularly in leadership. While some company policies addressed non-discrimination or fairness, a third of employees believed men and women’s chances for promotion were unequal.

Businesses that joined the Waka Mere initiative wanted to change that. They sent women employees to certificate courses in areas such as business management and leadership. At the end of the program, employees’ perception of equal opportunity in hiring and promotion had jumped. All companies that committed to respectful and supportive workplaces now have equal opportunity or non-discrimination policies in place, as well as policies to counter domestic violence.

Those companies have welcomed the chance to take a detailed look at these areas. “We’ve been able to review our policies, which all have an impact on gender equality in the workplace,” says Jay Bartlett, managing director of Hatanga Ltd. and chair of Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

A More Supportive Workplace

The change to human resource policies and practices related to domestic violence has been especially significant because two out of three women in Solomon Islands experience domestic and family violence. The Waka Mere program helped companies recognize the ways that domestic violence affects their bottom line and implement processes to make their workplaces more respectful and supportive. At the start of the program, one in four employees said they didn’t feel safe at work; by the end, this number had fallen to one in ten.

The issue of domestic violence, including emotional or financial abuse, is now part of the wider conversation about how the private sector can perform better. And attitudes have begun to shift.

“We want to have a role in also making sure that our staff and our crew don’t use the umbrella of privacy to perpetuate domestic violence,” says Frank Wickham, general manager at National Fisheries Developments Ltd (NFD), an IFC client. “It’s not [someone’s] private business, it’s company business as well.”

Companies are seeing other benefits from the program, too. Through training, more women have moved into non-traditional jobs, such as driving vehicles—a significant advancement in a country where most women are unable to drive.

Women also feel newly empowered to innovate. When NFD Immigrations Officer Marielah Patovaki saw staff were claiming too much for travel expenses when they went home for the holidays, she shared her thoughts on how the company could bring the costs down. She credits the Waka Mere program for showing her the benefits of speaking up.

“I have more confidence in what I’m doing now,” Patovaki says. “If I see something that needs to improve, I suggest it.

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Published in November 2019