Mainstreaming gender in public procurement

By Nora Elizabeth Mc Gann, Analyst, World Bank, and
Nazaneen Ismail Ali, Senior Procurement Specialist, Governance Global Practice, World Bank

Gender responsive procurement is a powerful tool to boost women’s economic empowerment, promote gender equality and build more equitable societies. This broad approach to the gender/procurement nexus looks at ‘value beyond savings’ and includes interventions such as facilitating women-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in public procurement, infusing gender equality throughout supply chains, reaching Tier 2 suppliers (Tier 1 suppliers are direct suppliers, while Tier 2 suppliers are suppliers’ suppliers), diversifying male-dominated sectors and supporting corporate supply chain diversification, among other initiatives. Let us explore gender in public procurement in more detail:

The suite of interventions that are being implemented demonstrates just how broad and far-reaching looking at procurement through a gender lens is, and that both direct and indirect interventions are necessary. For example, standard bidding documents (SBDs) can be amended to influence the way bidders ensure gender equality. In a World Bank-financed operation in Albania, the SBDs for tenders above a certain value were amended to mandate firms to declare adherence to principles of non-discrimination and equal pay for equal work. To understand the extent to which gender is represented in supply chains, the World Bank’s Corporate Procurement collects gender disaggregated data for Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers. In 2020, the World Bank allocated 4.5% of annual procurement spend to women-led SMEs, with a target of 7% by 2023.

Technical solutions, such as electronic procurement, are clearly necessary, but there are broader issues at play that also need to be considered. For example, in another World Bank-financed operation in Senegal, women noted that they do not have time to draft competitive proposals for contracts or to attend capacity building workshops because the sole responsibility of taking care of children falls on them. In another example, recognising the effect that childcare responsibilities can have on a woman’s economic potential, the World Bank’s Mashreq Gender Facility has supported a mapping of childcare availability, which could inform a gender responsive approach to procurement for women in those countries.

Women are also shut out of certain sectors, both as employees and as entrepreneurs, owing to gender norms. For example, transport, construction, and information and communication technology (ICT) have high-value contracts but tend to be male-dominated. This creates an intrinsic challenge to direct more annual spend to female entrepreneurs. Adopting a gender responsive approach to procurement can help to promote diversity and inclusion. For example, in the previously-mentioned World Bank-financed operation in Albania, SBDs were amended, asking bidders to submit Gender Diversity Action Plans to increase the representation of women in the construction sector.

To boost women’s economic empowerment via procurement, interventions can also directly seek to facilitate women in public procurement. For example, Chile has created a special label for women-led SMEs, which can be incorporated into the evaluation criteria for purchases under a certain amount. Another way is through set asides that are legally mandated, such as in Kenya, which has adopted an affirmative action programme in public procurement to facilitate women’s leadership in small and medium enterprises (WLSMEs) access to and participation in the public procurement market, securing government contracts valued at approximately $63 million. Reaching potential female suppliers directly through supplier development programmes (, awareness raising campaigns and other initiatives have also shown to be beneficial.

Implementing such approaches is not without challenges, even when there is political will. For example, in the United States, despite a mature public procurement system, the programme for gender inclusion took more than ten years to implement. An audit has recently revealed serious flaws in the way women-led SMEs are certified and procurement under the preference programme. The audit results have cast doubt over its effectiveness, which has resulted in changes to the certification programme.

We are sharing examples of various experiences to highlight the broad range of possibilities in which procurement can be leveraged to empower women economically. It is clear that there are plenty of practical ways to use procurement as an enabler of social impact. The examples provided are just a selected sample – there are so many other ways to infuse a gender lens into procurement, such as including specific requirements that can be assessed on a pass or fail basis, contractors’ personnel adherence to a code of conduct to ensure compliance with environmental, social, and health and safety, or requirements that can be financially assessed using a cost-benefit analysis.

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