Hillary Clinton’s shock failure to break the proverbial glass ceiling to the top American administrative post once again turned the world’s collective attention towards the persisting gender skew when it comes to global political leadership. The corporate leadership scene is no different! The 2016 Fortune 500 list shows women holding a meager 4 per cent of the CEO positions in 500 of the world’s largest companies. In India, this ratio is even lower. There are only eight women leaders at the helm of affairs among the BSE 500 firms. The representation of women in Indian corporate boardrooms has increased over the past five years, but it still remains below the global average of 14.7 per cent.
The problem is not of non-availability of capable and well-qualified women; it is one of lack of conscious efforts on the part of corporate organizations to nurture and groom women for senior management roles. It is essential to highlight here that a comparable number of men and women join the corporate workforce in India every year. So the gender imbalance is not prominent on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. However, more and more women chose to (or are driven to) opt out as they head up the middle management level. In most cases, it is family responsibilities that force them out of the corporate ranks, and also the absence of corporate cultural settings that take into account this factor.
It makes economic sense
However, while talking about the need for greater women representation in leadership roles, we often tend to portray it as only a gender parity issue, when it is a larger issue of workforce diversity bringing wider benefits for organizations themselves. Women’s participation in business is not just a gender equality slogan, it makes much economic sense as well. Business acumen and leadership do not come exclusively to men. For every wasted female talent, there is a corresponding economic loss.
In 2007 research organization Catalyst conducted a comprehensive study on the economic benefits of gender parity and concluded that the Fortune 500 companies which had more female board directors achieved significantly higher financial performance. On a macroeconomic scale, Catalyst also reported recently that countries can radically increase their GDP by augmenting the role of women in the economy.
A survey published in the Harvard Business Review in 2011 found that managers and colleagues judged women leaders as being better on honesty and integrity scales, in building relationships as well as in taking initiatives. The same survey also concluded that women leaders were better communicators and built better collaborations as compared to male leaders. A series of other studies have pointed to multifarious other benefits including improved financial performance of the organization, greater tilt towards corporate social responsibility and better organizational climate.
If you look at it deeply, the beneficial results accrue as a result of greater diversity of minds at play towards a particular objective. Unfortunately, while most of us talk about the need for improving female representation, we do not fully comprehend the benefits that will result from it. This is why most corporate leaderships in India have so far not been able to align long-term organizational goals to ensure gender parity and diversity.
What should be done?
Here is a brief list of initiatives organizations must engage in to establish greater gender diversity at its top echelons:
Have long-term diversity objectives: Organizational shifts towards a wider diversity workforce cannot be a knee jerk approach. Once you decide to bring about greater gender parity in leadership (which you must), you have to model every policy to meet that end. The culture has to be consciously created, long-term goals prepared and a conscious effort made towards achieving them through multifarious initiatives. Organizations must evaluate the gender situation in their top management and assiduously think about where they want to be on this front in the next five years. This has to be followed by an analysis of how many potential women employees are currently in the middle rung of the organization to take up those available top slots over the next half a decade.
Create a pipeline of women leadership: Organizations today must make a conscious effort to nurture the talented women employees who show traits of leadership right from an early stage. This includes spotting them early and giving them ample opportunities to grow and learn, involving them in key strategic projects that can give them greater insights, and equip them with the capability to lead the organization. As they move up the corporate ladder, it is essential to institute re-tooling and re-skilling programs for them at each level to ensure they are abreast with all latest developments in the industry. Equally important is to give them greater industry exposure. At any given time, an organization must have sufficient women who look promising enough to take top leadership positions over the next few years. As part of the Diversity & Inclusion initiative at Sun Life, there is a sharp focus at corporate and regional levels to build a pipeline of women leaders. A women’s network is driven by senior female leaders to stay focused on nurturing and mentoring female leadership in the organization.
Make organizations empathetic to women’s needs: Although in recent years the number of women acquiring advanced degrees and entering the workforce has increased, a majority of them often remain stuck in junior to middle management levels. There are multiple reasons for this including an institutionalized bias and lack of support for women employees who decide to have children. The consequence is that despite being bright and talented, very few women are able to make the transition to top management positions. Unfortunately, our organizations are culturally designed to work in male-centric set ups, and often these considerations are looked at as trivial or even as a deterrent to organizational progress. However, it is essential to institute greater flexibility and a more empathetic approach to make the workplace more amenable to women. At Sun Life Asia Service Centre India, flexi-timings, work-from-home arrangement and a more accommodating maternity leave have been institutionalized to allow women workforce the liberty to follow their professional pursuits without ignoring their family needs.
Ensuring Equal Pay for Equal Work
A series of discouraging reports and studies have in recent years highlighted a systematic gender discrimination when it comes to paying women. A recent survey by Monster.com in India found that the median wage earned by women was 27% lower as against their male counterparts. This cannot continue if we want to draw more women in leadership positions.
Not just gender equity but a larger vision to have greater diversity in an organizational workforce can bring unprecedented and un-thought of benefits by having a greater variety of approaches and emotional quotients to find solutions. It is time corporate India takes tangible steps in this direction.