Inclusive business for an inclusive ASEAN


From Nov. 8 to 13, the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit was held in Cambodia with the theme “ASEAN A.C.T: Addressing Challenges Together,” underscoring the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s spirit of “Togetherness” as one community and the common will in its collective endeavor to address and overcome challenges facing the region.

Under this theme, Cambodia, the current ASEAN Chair, will build on the achievements of the previous chairmanships and steer ASEAN’s collective efforts to accomplish its important tasks, especially in expediting the building process of an equitable, strong, and inclusive ASEAN Community.

The 2022 theme brought me back to the ASEAN Summit in 2017 when the Philippines was ASEAN Chair. That year was a milestone for equality and inclusivity as ASEAN leaders took big strides in prioritizing and emphasizing the importance of women’s economic empowerment and inclusive business.

In August 2017, during the Women’s Business Conference in Manila, the Manila Statement was delivered and the Action Agenda on Women’s Economic Empowerment (AAWEE) was launched and adopted in the same year by the ASEAN leaders. Also in 2017, the ASEAN leaders called for greater emphasis on creating an enabling environment for inclusive business (IB).

Fast forward to today, I was fortunate to participate in a regional gathering — the 5th ASEAN Inclusive Business (IB) Summit in Siem Reap, Cambodia to talk about how IB creates an impact and helps empower women economically in ASEAN.

In the session entitled “Delivering Impact through Women in IB,” we discussed different models, best practices, and actions required to accelerate impact on women through IB. Allow me to share some of my insights and recommendations in that panel.

EMPOWERING WOMEN AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PYRAMIDWomen who participate in the value chain as suppliers or producers have the ability to generate their own income, contribute to household finances, and eventually build their personal wealth. Beyond economics, women entrepreneurs will not only be financially empowered but also develop their self-esteem and confidence. Female entrepreneurs could also improve on their social skills as doing business will require them to deal with their employees, their own suppliers, banks, funding sources, and government agencies with whom they must develop relationships.

Women who are gainfully employed will also become financially independent, have the purchasing power and capacity to participate in the value chain as consumers and clients of women MSMEs themselves. This creates a significant impact on the economy, given that the majority of the purchasing decisions in households are made by women. However, women need equal access and opportunity for employment and to become successful professionals through gender-sensitive policies of employers.

Among many concrete examples, I spoke about ASEAN Access where the Philippine Women’s Economic Network (PhilWEN) was designated by the Department of Trade and Industry as Network Partner. ASEAN Access is an online portal serving as the first port of call for ASEAN SMEs and other businesses for information on trade and market access in ASEAN. The portal is overseen by the ASEAN Coordinating Committee on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (ACCMSME) specifically to support MSMEs with ambitions to go international and expand their markets in the region.

RECOMMENDATIONS AND QUESTIONS FOR THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SECTORSHere are some recommendations and questions to ponder on if we are serious about making inclusive business work for women:

• Mainstreaming women’s economic empowerment in policies and providing incentives for inclusive business practices. Companies should encourage their bidders to provide information on the gender ratio of employees, officers, and board members, the percentage of goods and services purchased from women MSMEs, among others, as part of data requirements. Banks can also encourage loan applicants to submit data on their gender policies. Such practices could motivate companies to increase women’s representation in their workforce and supply chains.

• Financing programs that allow for smart gender investing in women-owned and women-led enterprises can enhance women’s access to finance. Many creative and “out of the box” business concepts are often developed by women.

• Programs that value and promote gender-responsive procurement or the selection of services, goods, and civil works are necessary in creating resilient and expansive enterprises. Do our governments have gender-based procurement policies where a percentage of procurement is allocated for goods and services from women-owned and led businesses? Similarly, the private sector can intentionally invite women to participate in their value chain to supply their needs.

• Flexible working arrangements: Do companies have women-friendly workplace policies and practices that recognize the double burden of unpaid care work so that women can remain employed, be economically independent, and have the purchasing power to buy goods and services sold by women entrepreneurs?

• Provision of support to business and industry association, such as the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs’ Network (AWEN) and PhilWEN that extend assistance for women to access the marketplace and provide for opportunities in the ASEAN supply chain network.

• Networking and mentorship opportunities. Are organizations and coalitions open to forging efforts, which promote networking and mentorship activities?

AN ALL-ASEAN APPROACHWhile the private sector can do much more to scale up inclusive business and strengthen gender-inclusiveness, ASEAN institutions must also demonstrate a clear commitment to strengthening women economically by establishing the legal framework for inclusive business and introduce policies that help women out of poverty.

Development partners play a significant role in coordinating and strengthening the conditions in which women-inclusive businesses can grow like acting as financiers, since the more innovative women-inclusive initiatives often come from social enterprises.

Not one organization or one sector alone but an all-ASEAN approach is key to achieve the vision of ASEAN for inclusivity.

Women are over-represented among the poor. It’s about time we make women the core constituent of inclusive businesses.

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP.

Ma. Aurora “Boots” D. Geotina-Garcia is a member of the MAP ESG Committee, and the MAP Diversity & Inclusion Committee. She is vice-chair of ICD, the founding chair and president of PhilWEN, and president of Mageo Consulting, Inc., a corporate finance advisory services firm.