READ THE STORIES: Changing Gender Norms in Southeast Asia | Diversifying Leadership for Equitable Health Outcomes in PNG | Tackling Racial Bias in the U.S. Low-Wage Job Market | Increasing Diversity and Earnings Through Apprenticeships in the U.S. | Centering Youth in U.S. Homelessness Response Plans
Changing Gender Norms in Southeast Asia
In 2022, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated it would take 151 years to close the global gender gap in economic participation and opportunity. The economic impact of gender inequality is particularly problematic among low- and middle-income countries, where women account for a third or less of human capital wealth. The WEF estimates it will take 168 years to eliminate this gender gap in Asia and the Pacific.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is working to help address these issues by supporting women’s economic empowerment and inclusive economic growth in Southeast Asia. From 2016 to June 2023, the Abt-led Investing in Women (IW) program employed an innovative approach in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. IW partnered with the private sector, business leaders, impact investors, and gender advocates to increase women’s economic participation and shift cultural barriers that limit women in the economy.
The issues IW addressed are significant. In Southeast Asia, women are much less likely to work full-time than men and are less likely to progress their careers. They earn much less than men on average, even with similar education levels, skill sets, and working hours. They also bear a much higher burden of unpaid work at home, especially in a crisis. What’s more, women-owned businesses face systemic barriers to their growth, including financial institutions’ unwillingness to provide adequate services.
The program had three pillars: workplace gender equality (WGE), impact investing, and influencing gender norms. To advance WGE, IW established and supported four business coalitions that have worked with 128 influential businesses representing over 1 million people. The coalitions are helping to shift workplace cultures, practices, and policy barriers to achieve WGE. To do so, they support companies in measuring progress on WGE through WGE assessments and employee surveys and address identified action areas through training and policy advisory services.
Under the second pillar, IW partnered with impact investors to incentivize investors to adopt a gender lens and provide access to capital for women-led small and medium enterprises (WSMEs). Using AUD 15.4 million in DFAT investment funding, IW brought in AUD 291.4 million in co-investment from private capital and other public sources. The program not only led to 83 WSMEs accessing capital, it also increased regional gender-lens investing activity by seven-fold.
The program’s third pillar focused on influencing prevailing gender norms. Phase 1 focused on communication and advocacy, working through eight advocacy partnerships to reach 18.6 million people through social media. In Phase 2, IW partnered with 12 local organizations to implement campaigns aimed at shifting attitudes and practices to support women in the world of work.
The second phase of campaigns reached 242.6 million people through traditional media and 89.3 million through social media, far exceeding the target of 70 million. Campaigns aimed to raise awareness of the impact of gender norms; promote informed conversations related to gender and work; and show how gender norms limit women’s economic opportunities. Communication formats included social media campaigns, online magazine articles, webinars, online learning modules, books, digital photo-sharing contests, and crowd-sourced content for online competitions.
In Indonesia, for example, where about 87 percent of the population is Muslim, IW’s social media campaign promoting Islamic narratives supportive of women working reached 3.2 million people. IW trained 236 preachers on how to use these feminist narratives. A local partner, Yayasan Rumah Kita Bersama (Rumah KitaB), created an online community that promoted robust discussions on appropriate behavior and whether to comply with traditional social norms. Rumah KitaB also developed the Fiqh for Working Women book, which presents alternative narratives about Muslim working women. It can apply elsewhere to further understanding of religion’s role in shaping attitudes toward gender equality.
In the Philippines, the Edukasyon.ph campaign addressed gender-based job segregation in technical vocational education and employment. The initiative included a social media campaign that sought to generate discourse on gender norms within Edukasyon’s community of students, parents, educators and employers. It reached 35.3 million people, nearly a third of the population.
In Vietnam, IW’s social media campaign challenging traditional notions of masculinity reached 2.8 million people. A propaganda art campaign had an online reach of 200,000. IW trained 30 filmmakers about gender in cinema, and an artificial intelligence tool helped analyze gender stereotyping in advertising.
IW also supported research by campaign partners and independent researchers to develop a broader understanding of gender norms and how to measure their change through social media. Using qualitative and quantitative evaluations of impact, IW joined the cadre of researchers starting to try to understand how to evaluate the impact of social media on such initiatives. Respondents to a survey in Indonesia and Vietnam reported that some of the campaigns helped build a sense of social support and connection to others with similar views, values, and experiences: “Even if I don’t receive support from my family, I receive support from other women who are part of the campaign,” said a Filipino woman who participates in StartUp Pinay’s Facebook group.
Campaigns also helped women challenge social and family expectations hindering them from pursuing their goals. One 23-year-old Indonesian woman described how she learned from the feminist magazine Magdalene that she does not have “an expiry date”; she is now resisting family pressure to marry by the cultural standard of 25: “I don't think I'm at the right moment to prepare to get married or get married at that age,” she says. “I'm still pursuing what I want.”
To build momentum for women’s economic empowerment in Southeast Asia, DFAT started a new phase of IW in 2023. Phase 3 will build on the strengths of IW’s lessons, networks, and partnerships. This next phase will play a significant role in creating more cohesive, dynamic, sustainable, and inclusive economies in a post-pandemic Southeast Asia.
PROJECT: Investing in Women
CLIENT: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)
Diversifying Leadership for Equitable Health Outcomes in PNG
Papua New Guinea (PNG) doesn’t do well on development and health indicators. In 2022, it ranked 156 of 189 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index, a composite of life expectancy, education, and income. Life expectancy hasn’t risen as rapidly as it has in comparable countries, and the health system doesn’t function well. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the immunization rate for measles, for example, is only 9 percent in the province with the worst coverage, while the national average is just 34 percent—less than half the global average of 85 percent.
Girls and women have particularly high unmet needs for health care. PNG’s maternal mortality rate is stark: 192 per 100,000 live births in 2020 according to WHO data, compared with 74 in the East Asia and Pacific region. And the pace of improvement has slowed down alarmingly over the past decade.
The Abt-led PNG-Australia Transition to Health (PATH) program is an initiative funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to improve coverage and quality of health services in PNG. Among its activities, PATH is trying to strengthen the health system by increasing women’s influence at both the national and provincial levels. Data suggest that having more women in the workforce and leadership roles enhances workplace performance, promotes innovation, increases accountability, and reduces costs. In the health sector in particular, research in Cambodia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe showed that where women have leadership roles, they often set different priorities that are more responsive to the health needs of the entire population.
In PNG, women account for 25 percent of senior leaders in the public health sector and 31 percent of health managers, even though women account for 48 percent of the population. DFAT is investing AU$6.3 million into PATH’s Sapotim Lida (Supporting Leaders) program, which aims to support diverse and inclusive leadership in the health system.
Launched in 2022, this three-year flagship program for gender equality, disability, and social inclusion (GEDSI) has a purposefully broad definition of leadership, working to increase the number of women leaders in the health system at three levels: senior, middle, and lower workforce and community.
Sapotim Lida recognizes that women need much more than training to succeed. That’s why the program offers support through a menu of service options including organizational policy reform, accountability and feedback mechanisms, and sensitization of men. Sapotim Lida began its journey by speaking with senior management teams from the National Department of Health, five participating provincial health authorities (PHAs), and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville Department of Health (BDoH). We facilitated a participatory process to review challenges and gaps and jointly develop a workplan. Government officials and other local partners are helping to determine priorities and activities to support women’s leadership.
So far, the program has worked with newly formed GEDSI teams in the PHAs and BDoH as they deliver audits, sensitization workshops, and participatory action planning. We help them develop GEDSI policies and introduction packages to ensure all staff understand the policies. And we will also be offering leadership training for women and advocacy training for men.
PATH has high hopes for Sapotim Lida. PNG has spent a lot of money on improving health systems with little success—health officials and development partners believe women’s leadership in the sector can help change that. Over the years, both officials and development partners have recognized the need to strengthen the position of women in leadership, with the expectation that doing so will change priorities and improve quality standards and outreach to communities.
Many people in PNG don’t seek out healthcare services from formal providers when they need them. They may doubt that formal health care will help them, based on negative perceptions or past experiences with the health system. But better and more accessible health services may increase demand for them.
Strengthening women’s leadership in the health sector is meaningful in and of itself. The hope is that it will be a significant part of the path to improving the country’s health outcomes, too.
PROJECT: Papua New Guinea-Australia Transition to Health (PATH) Sapotim Lida program
CLIENT: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)
Tackling Racial Bias in the U.S. Low-Wage Job Market
For years, efforts to improve economic well-being for low-wage workers in the U.S. focused on the employee: Get a better education and credentials. Get more training. Seek more mentoring and support.
Turns out that’s not the whole answer, especially for workers of color. An Abt study on career trajectories for low-wage earners found that even when people started in the same jobs at similar starting wages, 10 years later Black workers’ wage growth was 27 percent less than that of white workers. Racial barriers to advancement exist at nearly every step of the process on the employers’ side: how they advertise jobs, find applicants, screen them, hire them, train and mentor them, assign tasks and work hours, pay them, treat them, promote them, retain them, and fire them.
It’s not possible to analyze the barriers to economic progress for low-wage earners without recognizing how race discrimination is holding many of those workers back. However, while a wealth of research exists about the racial wage gap, little of this research is focused on low-wage workers. Even less information exists about how we can address bias as part of broader strategies to support their advancement.
The Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families wants to learn how bias intrudes into each step of the process and how to address those biases in the low-wage labor market. From September 2021 to March 2024, OPRE is engaging Abt to tackle those questions in a project that has included stakeholder consultation, a review of existing research, and site visits to document promising practices and highlight areas for future research. With a rapidly changing labor market as well as increased demands for racial equity, generating information about racial barriers in the workplace has taken on even greater urgency.
Our team consulted with employers, policymakers, researchers, and other interested collaborators. Importantly, we have worked with workers of color who are currently working low-wage jobs to incorporate their expertise as we drew out themes from the literature review, selected sites, and developed data collection processes and instruments. Enthusiasm for the results of our approach prompted OPRE to ask us for more information on our processes to help the office consider how other projects can incorporate expertise informed by lived experience.
These experts will continue to advise the project team through the study’s conclusion. Their input so far has prompted our team to center workers’ experiences of autonomy and agency—whether they are treated with respect and able to make decisions at work—as both an important outcome on its own and a way of reducing racial bias. Their input also made clear that when low-wage earners think about better jobs, they take into account a range of issues in addition to higher wages, such as predictable hours, job stability, and respect.
Much of the existing research on employment focuses on discrimination. Studies of racial discrimination focus on employer decision making, meaning how an employer treats job seekers or workers of different racial backgrounds. In this project, we focused on bias. A process is biased if it systematically disadvantages qualified job seekers and workers of color, regardless of whether the employer had discriminatory intent or practice.
The study’s literature review goes beyond the typical research on the racial wage gap and focuses on low-wage workers, how racial bias permeates every phase of their employment process, and ways to address pervasive bias to support advancement. The review describes the numerous ways racial bias manifests itself in the low-wage labor market. The team considered direct bias, which stems from racist beliefs, prejudices, and attitudes that are inherent in an individual’s actions or in broader processes, policies, and systems. The team also considered indirect bias, which comprises individual actions and organizational processes, policies, and systems that may appear neutral but disproportionately harm certain groups.
Abt’s analysis outlines forms of direct racial bias in all five of the targeted categories of employment processes. In hiring, for example, job ad placement algorithms may target applicants of certain races for certain jobs, and hiring managers may look at candidate names they think “sound Black” less favorably. Job assignments may segregate workers of color into lower-paid jobs, and workers of color may be more likely to be laid off or receive poor evaluations for actions that don’t lead to the same repercussions for white counterparts. Work culture can also negatively affect workers of color when they experience routine acts of discrimination that lead to denials of promotion and acts of harassment that not only hinder professional advancement but also cause stress and undermine well-being.
Our literature review also highlighted indirect racial bias across employment processes, often related to structural racism in the U.S. that harms job seekers and workers of color. Patterns of residential segregation mean that workers of color tend to live farther from employers, have less information about and access to job openings, and have a harder time with scheduling changes once hired. Racially homogenous social networks also mean job seekers of color often do not hear about good jobs. Other structural issues such as lower educational attainment, higher rates of criminal justice involvement, and less digital access and literacy also undermine economic progress for people of color.
With a solid foundation from the literature review, our team is now exploring what addressing racial bias in the low-wage labor market looks like in practice. We held initial calls with nine organizations for potential site visits, ranging from software firms hoping to make technology solutions more equitable to nonprofit organizations with cohort-based programs for employers to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. Together with OPRE, we'll select four sites for in-depth visits this year. We will examine motivations for addressing bias and for the potential strategies that sites opted to pursue; how their strategies work; the experiences of staff members, employers, and workers; and whether they might be good prospects for more in-depth evaluation. We will also explore what broader research questions and methodological approaches could help OPRE identify interventions to address employment disparities.
Developing and learning from promising employer strategies that reduce racial gaps is imperative. Business as usual hasn’t worked, and race-neutral approaches haven’t reduced racial disparities in employment. If Abt and OPRE find potentially viable solutions, this project may be the first step in what may be a long—but invaluable—learning journey.
PROJECT: Employment Processes as Barriers to Employment in the Lower-Wage Labor Market
CLIENT: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families
Increasing Diversity and Earnings Through Apprenticeships in the U.S.
Apprenticeships are a common path to higher-paying jobs in many countries. Not so much in the U.S., where for decades, apprenticeships were primarily limited to training in the building and construction trades—an industry predominantly consisting of non-Hispanic white men. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) funded the American Apprenticeship Initiative (AAI), with the goal of expanding apprenticeships to underrepresented populations and non-traditional industries other than construction.
The result was an unequivocal success in achieving this goal, according to an Abt evaluation of the initiative. AAI enlisted high percentages of people who have been historically underrepresented in apprenticeships and developed apprenticeships in new occupations. Our study found that employers received direct and indirect returns on their apprenticeship investments.
“Apprenticeships show promise to help employers identify and develop workers for a variety of occupations and improve company culture, something that is important in the current tight labor market” said Elizabeth Copson, the study’s deputy director. Apprentices themselves have also benefited: Participants increased earnings significantly, though the study could not conclusively say it was their apprenticeships that caused those increases.
Registered apprenticeships, which must meet specific government standards, combine classroom instruction with on-the-job learning from a mentor at a worksite. Apprentices gain occupational skills transferable to other employers and are paid progressively higher wages during the training. All apprenticeship programs supported by AAI were registered with either DOL’s Office of Apprenticeship or with a federally recognized State Apprenticeship Agency.
Under AAI, DOL awarded $175 million in five-year grants to 46 grantees that included state government agencies, colleges, nonprofits, and sector-based organizations such as labor unions and trade associations. Abt evaluated the effectiveness of AAI apprenticeships for workers and employers and generated lessons for developing and operating apprenticeship programs.
Our evaluation found that AAI diversified the industries implementing apprenticeships. Grantees sought out employers to hire apprentices in a range of occupations. Three-quarters of the 2,600 AAI apprentices who we surveyed registered in nontraditional occupations, with 33 percent in manufacturing, 17 percent in healthcare, and 7 percent in IT.
Grantees recruited individuals from populations historically underrepresented in apprenticeships, including women, people of color, veterans, and people with disabilities: more than 60 percent of AAI apprentices were from underrepresented populations. Compared with all U.S. apprentices, a greater share of AAI apprentices were women or people of color.
Abt’s evaluation found that AAI apprentices experienced substantial increases in earnings. Among all AAI apprentices, annual earnings grew by an average of 49 percent from the year before starting the apprenticeship to the year after, rising from $35,408 to $52,876. Among different occupations, apprentices in IT experienced the highest earnings growth at 174 percent, followed by apprentices in healthcare, who experienced a 97 percent increase.
Earnings growth for AAI apprentices was broad-based, with apprentices from all racial and ethnic groups experiencing growth in average earnings, though gaps remained in average income levels between groups. Earnings for Hispanic apprentices increased by 50 percent, compared with 45 percent for white apprentices and 37 percent for Black apprentices. This growth in earnings for all racial and ethnic groups is consistent with AAI’s goal of promoting racial equity. Additionally, women’s earnings rose 65 percent versus 43 percent for men. This suggests that apprenticeship may be a promising strategy for reducing a significant gender pay gap: The gap narrowed from 31 percent one year before the apprenticeship to 13 percent one year after.
The AAI evaluation also built evidence about the value of apprenticeship to employers. Abt’s study projected employers’ return on investment from the first program year and for five years after, including direct and indirect benefits. Five years after the end of the apprentice’s time in the program, the typical employer experienced an estimated 44 percent return on investment—that is, for every dollar invested in the apprentice, the employer ultimately earned $1.44 in benefits. During the program, the typical employer didn’t recoup all its costs. But after the program, employer benefits were estimated between $33,000 and $40,000 for each apprenticeship program. This included both direct benefits (the apprentice’s productivity) and indirect benefits, such as reduced turnover, improved talent pipeline, worker loyalty, and company culture.
Registered apprenticeships have allowed Baystate Health to build tailored, flexible training programs that often amplify training that was already happening. Since we tend to focus on using competency-based models, it ensures all of our registered training pathways have defined skills that are mastered by the employee as they learn. Our employees appreciate the national credential that apprenticeship registration affords.
- Jason Pacheco, Director of Workforce Planning, Analytics, and Compensation at Baystate Health
Some questions remain unanswered, such as the extent to which apprenticeships are responsible for participants’ earnings gains; how to promote entry into higher-paying occupations, especially for underrepresented populations; and how to encourage employers to launch apprenticeship programs. That said, clear evidence now exists to promote apprenticeships in the U.S. And the indications are that it would be a big win for a diverse group of both workers and employers.
LEARN MORE: Expanding Registered Apprenticeship: Grantees and Their Programs (Report) | Expanding Apprenticeship to New Sectors and Populations: The Experiences and Outcomes of Apprentices in the AAI (Report) | Expanding Registered Apprenticeship Opportunities to Underrepresented Populations: Findings from the AAI Evaluation (Brief) | Do Employers Earn Positive Returns to Investments in Apprenticeship? Evidence from Registered Programs under the AAI (Report) | Equitable Earnings: Recognizing the Benefits—and Addressing the Shortfalls—of Apprenticeships (Podcast)
PROJECT: Evaluation of the American Apprenticeship Initiative
CLIENT: U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)
Centering Youth in U.S. Homelessness Response Plans
4.2 million. That’s the estimated number of youth and young adults ages 13 to 25 who experience homelessness each year in the U.S. The real number may be higher as it’s hard to contact unhoused people, many youth and young adults aren’t in shelters, and some move between temporary sleeping arrangements with friends. The scale of the problem is enormous, and the impact significant: Housing instability and homelessness during this critical developmental period exposes young people to increased risks and undermines their ability to achieve their full potential.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) is trying to reduce that figure through a grant program that enables communities to design and implement youth homelessness response systems over a two-year demonstration period. Abt helps communities assess their needs related to ending homelessness among youth, create coordinated community plans, develop and implement YHDP demonstration projects, and prepare to transition from demonstration funding to alternate sources. We have supported urban, rural, and suburban communities and tailor our technical assistance to each community’s unique needs and goals.
As part of our support, we help grantees establish and work with Youth Action Boards (YAB) that include youth who have lived experience with homelessness. YABs play a critical role at every step of the YHDP process, including defining community needs and action steps and deciding how to distribute funding to support activities. The activities can include prevention, diversion, system navigation, crisis and permanent housing, and support services. After the funding decision, YABs monitor implementation.
Authentic youth collaboration is a cornerstone of YHDP and is woven throughout the process from planning to implementation and evaluation.
- Kathryn Primas, Senior Associate and Project Co-Lead
Since 2017, we’ve undertaken robust consultation processes with 18 YHDP grantees to help them assess the scope of the challenge in their communities. Alongside youth leaders, we’ve held more than 100 meetings and listening sessions and met with more than 800 people across the country. By engaging invested partners from education, workforce, child welfare, and juvenile and adult justice systems, we have developed integrated strategies that enable communities to address the numerous root causes of youth homelessness, rather than simply addressing its symptoms.
To help our 18 assigned grantees with their community-wide plans, we facilitate workshops and technical assistance that emphasize equity and authentic youth collaboration. We help grantees develop homelessness response systems that emphasize low-barrier access to housing, positive youth development, trauma-informed practice, and equity. We also provide training in program design and grant management. Specific technical issues covered include HUD regulations; racial equity strategy; equity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) youth; health management information system data analysis; and systems modeling.
With our assistance, grant recipients’ plans have resulted in a combined $36.4 million in additional funds and annually renewing HUD funds plus more federal, state, and local money. The funding is earmarked for innovative, youth-specific services and housing projects. The recipients are expected to serve thousands of young people annually.
The ultimate goal: by partnering with young people closest to the issue, we will help communities get closer to ending youth homelessness.
PROJECT: Technical Assistance to Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program Grantees
CLIENT: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
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