Caroline Ashley

Caroline focuses on how innovative economic models can deliver more inclusive and resilient development.

Caroline has worked on markets, business models and investment approaches that deliver social impact for many years in roles with challenge funds, impact investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, NGOs and policy makers. As Results Director of the DFID Business Innovation Facility, and Sida Innovations Against Poverty programme, she founded the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business in 2010, then took on hosting it, and acted as Editor of the Hub for 7 years before it transitioned into managed by IBAN.

Most recently Caroline led economic justice programmes at Oxfam GB, before moving to Forum for the Future, to lead global systems change programmes to accelerate our transition to a sustainable future.

Doing business differently - can inclusive business empower women?

17. Sep 2017

What does it mean to do business differently so as to reach and empower women? To tackle, not perpetuate gender inequality? I've just read the 20 blogs in our gender theme developed in collaboration with SPRING, an accelerator working with businesses on innovations that can transform the lives of girls, with contributions from diverse perspectives:  Jamaican and Pakistani woman entrepreneurs, various financiers (male and female), a donor and UN organisations, several SME support organisations. What they all say in different ways, is that it does mean doing things differently:  being careful and intentional about who does what, how it is done, and what needs to be shifted.

Take the example of shifting from cash payment to digital payments to staff or suppliers.  Evidence shared by Kyle Holloway and Danielle Moore shows this benefits poor women and men as income is more secure and easier to save. For women, these benefits can be even more valuable, but risks also arise.  It needs to be paid into women-owned accounts, not husbands' accounts. And some women lack skills and access to their cash.  The message is clear: don't just shift to digital without thinking this through.

A personal contribution from Kenia Mattis, Jamaican entrepreneur, admits that she finds a tension between her feminine sensibilities and being 'boss lady' as she grows her creative agency.  She intentionally challenges stereotypes, through her own behaviour and now through the fictional character Lexi, created by her company for children.

A different example of being adaptive and intentional comes from an African bank, Finance Trust.  Female entrepreneurs are at the heart of the model.  As Founder Flavia Nakamatte Mukwana explains, they have adapted financial products to ensure women entrepreneurs continue to be at least half the portfolio.  Loans are accompanied by information and training, because adolescent girls routinely lack these, while bank branches have Mama corners where mothers can bring their children while doing their banking. All female clients are able to access a medical insurance product, in case they fall sick.

These are all examples where 'hidden bias' against women is recognised and addressed by the enterprise or entrepreneur.  It doesn't work to do one thing for women in blissful ignorance and isolation of the constraints that can actually prevent women benefiting. 

Of course it's not all about 'constraints'.  Opportunities are important too.  Our partner SPRING shares insights on the lives and preferences of women and girls in East Africa, showing the opportunities that exist for companies that invest in understanding them.

While adaptation to women's specific needs is a common underlying theme, four other issues also cut through the blogs, with less consensus:  focusing on women entrepreneurs, involving men, tackling root causes, and building the gender awareness of business backers.


Women entrepreneurs

We have a great set of blogs hearing from women entrepreneurs themselves (including Kenia, and a Pakistani health professional), or from financiers and enterprise support organisations that specifically support them. Why focus on women entrepreneurs? Firstly, because they are so easily excluded from finance and technical advice if you don't.  Secondly, because women's leadership and voice at all levels can be self reinforcing. As we see in the Pakistani example of Sehat Kahani, a women entrepreneur taps into expertise of other women professional medics, to meet needs of rural women who lack healthcare.

But we have equally strong voices saying don't just focus on women entrepreneurs.  As Suzanne Beigel says in her excellent introduction to the change that's needed in our financial system: most people are not going to be entrepreneurs, they’re going to work in companies, supply chains, or the gig economy, so there’s impact to be considered beyond the entrepreneur.  SPRING and Oxfam's Enterprise Development Programme both focus on business support that benefits women, whether as workers, consumers, suppliers or elsewhere in the market, but not exclusively on women-led business.

Root causes

Some of the underlying constraints are so deep that that they seem hard to challenge. Take an example from Uganda, reported by DCED, in an excellent summary of new research. A new study on microenterprise support shows that men benefit from a package of micro-loans and training, leading to a 54 per cent increase in profits and similar effects on employment. However, women realise no impacts from the interventions, unless they can 'hide’ money from their husbands, to keep control of it and use it for business growth.

But others identify 'root causes' as exactly where we need to focus.  A single business, particularly a start-up, cannot shift deep rooted norms, but disruptive models, corporates, sectors, a shift in business expectations over time can. For example, Ruth Mhlanga from Oxfam shows how some companies use their marketing power to challenge norms, and argues they should have zero tolerance of violence against women, not just within the firm or factory, but beyond it too.


Talking about violence or control of money brings us squarely to another topic, which tends to be under-mentioned: men!  Another important point made by SPRING, Suzanne and others, is don't ignore the men.  Whether as allies or obstacles, we need to be explicit about where men are in business decisions, and not just confine attention to 'women's issues'.   Men and women need support or challenge when shifting to new roles, whether it is in the home where unpaid care is unequally distributed and income unequally captured, or in the boardroom where HR and procurement strategy is decided.  As Finance Trust Bank gained understanding of their clients’ needs, they increased their loans to men, who need money too.  But they ensured they kept their focus on adapted products so that they did not lose traction with women.

Investors and business backers

The influence of investors is highlighted in blogs from Suzanne, Oxfam, and others.  It is not just a question of which entrepreneurs they back, but how they influence their investees' approach to human resources, training, supply chains and more. So shifting business is all about shifting finance.

Donors, sector development programmes, and investments in markets and ecosystems are influential too.  An excellent set of three blogs by Clare Bishop provides new data on how gender responsive 16 donor-backed value chain interventions have been.  Two findings stand out for me.  Firstly, that the majority have more impact on technical aspects of women's empowerment, such as productivity and income, rather than the deeper issues of women's voice.   Secondly, that embedding gender sensitivity in programme management goes way beyond tracking gender in the M&E system. Value chain initiatives that were intentional about gender in their strategy, staff, procedures and partnerships tended to correlate with greater gender impact.

Clare's work includes simple to use assessment frameworks that you could adapt for yourself.  Other tools shared this month include the Women’s Empowerment Principles Gap Analysis Tool from Global Compact and another on how to integrate gender into private sector development programmes from GiZ. Practitioners are turning their attention to Global Goal 5, to eradicate gender equality.  There is much happening, data emerging, clear good practice now, more tools, and some business and donor support specifically targeted at women.  So don't get left behind!

This blog is a part of the September 2017 series on Empowering women, in partnership with SPRING.

Read the full series for insights on business models that empower girls and women, a new analysis of gender impacts of value chain interventions, tips on gender-lens investing and many inspiring personal stories from women.