Heather Sullivan | KF17 | Indonesia    

Weekends as a Kiva Fellow can be slow.  How slow?  So slow that after an afternoon of quality time with my Kindle, I recently found myself reading the ”help wanted” section of a local newspaper. 

The listings were almost all in Bahasa, and it is safe to say that I haven’t exactly mastered the language in a period of six weeks.  Still, it was hard not to notice certain consistencies, and the few postings in English confirmed the pattern:  Indonesian firms are unapologetic in specifying the sex and maximum age of prospective hires.  Man or woman?  Maximum age?  Single or married?  I even came across one design firm that included ”not colour blind” for all of its postings. (Presumably this refers to visual acuity, as opposed to the firm’s hiring practices.)

Job postings aside, the corporate culture (and sartorial habits) of modern Indonesian firms bear little resemblance to the decadent halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

For someone steeped in American law–specifically, the legal framework surrounding employment discrimination–the Indonesian tolerance toward overt “preference signaling” can come as quite a shock.  Can you REALLY post an ad seeking single women under 25?  For a reputable office job?  I started asking Indonesians about the ads, and they responded with nonchalance and pragmatism.  These were urban, university-educated, BlackBerry-carrying women I was speaking to.  Yet they seemed to view the ads as a normal feature of the Indonesian labor market, a practical and indeed efficient way for employers to recruit appropriate candidates.  Why NOT be explicit about who would be “suited” for the position, they observed, rather than throwing out a stack of applications from undesirable candidates?

On one level, these conversations piqued my curiosity about the Indonesian legal system. What substantive rights do employees possess under Indonesian law?  Just as crucially, what mechanisms are available to private individuals to seek remedies for legal violations?  I’ve found some articles online, but I’m also on the lookout for an Indonesian lawyer or scholar who can explain local employment law to me, both as it is written and as it is applied. (Perhaps I should place an ad.) 

More broadly, this overt form of “preference signaling” has pushed me to consider my own assumptions about formal employment and female empowerment. Troubling as the “single, female, max 25 years” ads may be to my ingrained sensibilities, the Indonesians I’ve spoken to about this–male and female–seemed bemused by my vehement reaction. In the scheme of things, agitating about newspaper ads is not only myopic but also terriby naive. For millions of Indonesians, there are real structural obstacles to employment in the formal sector, and it is estimated that ”informal” employment accounts for a minimum of 29% of the Indonesian labor force, with women significantly more likely to be in poorly paid (or unpaid) informal arrangements. Microfinance is often heralded for its “empowerment” of women, and that empowerment often occurs by cultivating–and providing capital for–small women-run enterprises in the informal sector.  MFIs also, of course, engage in the formal employment sector, providing wages and benefits to a range of employees including loan officers, branch managers, finance analysts, business development officers, even drivers and janitors.

At my own MFI, VisionFund Indonesia, I have been struck by the gender divide in personnel. Working in the head office, I am surrounded by women; in the branches, however, it’s a different story. (I recently conducted a Kiva training for twenty new loan officers, nineteen of whom were males between about 18 and 20.)  While VFI hires from the communities where it works, even seeking to recruit ”graduates” of WorldVision’s child sponsorship programs, the MFI finds it difficult to attract young female loan officers.  From what I gather, the recruiting challenge is a function of cultural and practical factors.  Traveling to and from borrowers with cash presents potential safety concerns, and also requires access to a motorbike; while many young Indonesian women can drive a motorbike, it is less common for them to own one. 

If an MFI is committed to the empowerment of women, does that require taking “affirmative” steps to recruit women for loan officer and branch manager positions?  Perhaps, but not necessarily. One of the most rewarding aspects of serving as a Kiva Fellow is the opportunity it presents to re-examine concepts like empowerment and equality from a perspective informed by conversations with local staff and borrowers.  Theory and formalism unquestionably have their place, but spending time here is giving me a far deeper appreciation for the ”informal” economy and the realities on the ground.


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