Missing Report from Boardrooms: Seen a woman?

By : |April 14, 2015 0
Image courtesy of graur codrin at freedigitalphotos.net
Most of us agree that there is no reason why corner cubicles should have more males than females occupying the best seats. Where then exactly have the ladies been disappearing?

Pratima H

INDIA: This may cause some of you to shift in their seats and others to topple out of their chairs. But as far as what a new survey on women and leadership bleeps, most Americans do find women indistinguishable from men when it comes to key leadership traits.

Think of intelligence and capacity for innovation, and many were found saying they’re stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders, and even that women are every bit as capable of being good political leaders as men.

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The new Pew Research Center survey gets more interesting where the same feeling is registered on ability of women to dominate the corporate boardroom and the public certainly is sure that the conspicuous absence of women in there is not because they lack toughness, management chops or proper skill sets.

This stands in a stark juxtaposition to what we heard from some of the best brains and hearts at Woman’s Day this year. The fact that we heard it from voices within the Indian technology sector which employs a large number of professionals and may be some one million of highly qualified women, makes the question all the more paramount.

It was when we were talking of hints about a glaring 30 per cent drop out among women employees after short career stints, we stumbled upon another irony. Why is it that when the proportion of women employees is around 25-30 per cent in technical functions, the ratio, as per another study, drops to around 12 per cent at senior management roles?

A Catalyst report moved the torch closer on the 9.5 per cent figure for India, compared to a 19.2 per cent for Australia when the state of women representation in boardrooms was gauged. If the US started talking about women-diversity issue 50 years back, India started on this track only ten to fifteen years back. There may be a 49 per cent women participation at entry-level in the US but the same stands at a 26 per cent for India, as what pops when Catalyst stacked some data up.

The pyramid on senior-level participation is way too disappointing for India, when the comparison drills ahead.

On the eve of Woman’s Day talking to CIOL about challenges and gaps that continue somehow, SAP veteran, Adaire Fox-Martin also reckoned that the Asia region is in a de-facto war for talent due to a shortage of senior managers. “In my opinion, this war is one of the biggest challenges for companies operating in the region. While half of Asian graduates are women, there are an alarmingly low number of women in IT despite the huge opportunities the industry has to offer.”

Martin also cited a recent United Nation’s report that states that limits on women’s participation in the workforce across Asia Pacific cost the economy an estimated $89 billion every year.

The question barely starts and slowly crawls into many hidden nooks.

No one knows how She does it

There are still two ladders out there in the corporate world. When it comes to the tech ladder, women seem fairly poised and well-heeled but ascending on the senior-ladder needs a different set of competencies, passion, people management skills and mentors.

Women in IT sector show a fair representation at entry level positions. This is in good contrast to sectors like manufacturing or engineering, as Ushasri TS – Sr. VP & General Manager – Manhattan Associates India, lays the bitter reality on the table. “As you grow up the levels, the percentage of women starts fading, and starkly more at middle-rungs than senior ones.

It is not a question of support or culture but something that boils down to simple willingness of accepting women at a Board level, Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India WRC, points out with ease and an unperturbed voice.

“There is a lot of unconscious bias and both men and women seem to be aware of the issue. There are few women there with good Boardroom experience. Not many organizations are willing to take the risk. They would either turn to someone from the family or only consider women who have previously demonstrated the capability to be there.” She wonders.

Ushasri is also not the one to mince words when it comes to putting a finger at the exact vein that hurts. The biggest gap is still an abysmal lack of confidence that women repose in themselves, she laments. “This issue has not changed a lot over these years and I don’t get it why women keep asking themselves that dreaded question– Am I equipped enough?”

There are many valid reasons to explain the lack of women in the IT industry, as Martin, who is a bundle of energy and adze of focus herself, puts it.

“The gap that I see is one that has existed for many years. When presented with a challenge women are generally (and this is a generalization) reticent to take that challenge on. Usually the first response that I receive to opportunities presented are all the reasons why she is not good enough/ strong enough/ skilled enough to take on the opportunity.”

There is enough research around to show that a double-mirror continues and impacts a woman’s career even now. You can not be too soft or too aggressive, Shachi quips. “Men however, have a different yardstick and it’s confusing and tough for women.”

Meanwhile, other challenges continue and only shift their packaging decade after decade. The story for that woman’s juggling act has hardly changed a lot. “Concerns about women issues like child care, marriage and attrition factors are big ones to ponder. Specially when we see middle-level women juggling child-nurturing stages with work pressure. Balancing act and support issues are of vital consideration here.” Ushasri weighs in.

In the Pew research too, the public seemed divided over whether a woman with leadership aspirations is better off having children early on in her career (36 per cent) or waiting until she is well established (40 per cent), and a 22 per cent lot even pointed that the best option would be to not have children at all.

Martin dovetails here that technology companies can take the lead to facilitate a more conducive environment that supports women development and their need for flexi-time to provide care for their children.

It is quite a paradox when boardroom absence is sitting parallel to incidents and comments from the sector’s top brass firing up controversies every now and then – From Satya Nadella’s Karma tangent to Marissa Mayer’s sharp elbows on ‘reporting to office’ to even Indra Nooyi’s apparent pang of guilt on work-life balance.

“Honestly, no man or woman can have it all. The definition of ‘how much’ differs from person to person. May be some comments were a lapse of judgement and it is hard to understand some remarks in proper context. As to Yahoo, accountability is an important ingredient for flexibility to work. May be a lot of other companies embraced the same decision but being a woman led to her being scrutinized a tad more.” Shachi assesses some recent statements by senior leaders.

Will the pendulum ever swing?

There is no easy recipe to fix the problem, Shachi remarks. “There is need for lot of conversation on intentional and unintentional bias. We are trying to engage people not just to talk about it but take steps too.

Trying to rub off characteristics of a good leader (humility, empowerment, accountability, courage etc) is one way to do it. Companies like Coca-Cola, P&G, Kimberley Clark have shown some good instances. When leaders ‘walk the talk’, then a visible change can be seen happening. It is slow, but is definitely happening.”

That shouldn’t be hard that most advantages that women carry are natural and most handicaps they have been schlepping are only perceived ones.

Women in the Pew Research report were perceived to have an edge over men when it comes to being honest and ethical (when 34 per cent said women are better at this; only three per cent stated men are better at it). Women were also observed to have a somewhat narrower advantage over men when it comes to standing up for what they believe in despite political pressure.

There is a critical mass now but it is nowhere enough, as Ushasri reasons. “IT is a knowledge industry where there should be no question of a gender-game. Universities encourage STEM graduates and hence there is a fair chance of every gender entering the industry. Women are committed and dedicated as a workforce. But do they turn into another Padmasree Warrior? That’s where support from both management and peers counts.

The ‘how’ of it is distilled into one word as she goes on – Mentorship.
Women’s Initiative Network’ (WIN) is one such example shaped with the vision to foster a work environment and culture that supports Manhattan Associates’ talented women in achieving their professional goals, and aims to increase the representation of women in significant leadership roles and focuses on the development of women in leadership & technology; she explains.

Ushasri who is an ardent champion of women in technology and a co-chair forWIN, beams when she talks about the idea. “WIN has 240 members WIN has been established for the last five quarters now; several internal events were held with active participation from all members, several career spotlights and panel discussions have been held. The idea is to increase leadership roles through better communication, awareness programmes, pairing up right mentors and mentees, and specific best-practice sharing. Informal discussions, ‘find your voice’ cases, informal discussions and sharp case studies attempt to help women speak better, louder and pick the key traits required of a leader.”

Attempts at addressing some long-burrowed gaps are being made by the likes of Catalyst too with campaigns like #DisruptTheDefault campaign which emphasize “Enough of talking, it’s time to DO now!”

The objective of the India #DisruptTheDefault was in line with the global campaign: to counteract the stereotypes and biases that keep women from reaching full equality at work, home and life. Through this campaign we are bringing forward stories of women and men about how they acted against the status quo and brought about a positive change. These stories in turn will inspire more people out there to disrupt the default by talking less and doing more. We not only encourage women to share inspiring stories but also address men from different professions, asking about the women who inspire them.” Shachi explains.

Other examples she proffers are initiatives like the Catalyst Corporate Board Resource that, she tells, gives member CEOs the opportunity to sponsor board-ready women for corporate director positions, access premier directory of CEO-recommended women board candidates, share board opportunities with other Catalyst member companies. “By working with the Catalyst Corporate Board Resource and putting the weight of their personal recommendation behind these women candidates, member company CEOs can directly increase boardroom gender diversity at their companies and at others while providing extraordinary leadership opportunities for top women executives. Through the Catalyst Corporate Board Resource, CEOs recommend qualified board-ready women.”

After Maggie Wilderotter, Chairman and CEO, Frontier Communications, sponsored Andrea Bierce, Catalyst introduced Bierce to India-headquartered company Cyient, which appointed her to their board, she illustrates with pride.

The way such ideas work is not a mystery and what is interesting to note is that they apparently thrive on cross-pollination between different geographies and lives. Hearing someone else’s story, Ushasri remarks, lifts the person on the other side up in a new way. “When you listen to the highlights of someone’s career and also the failures on the way, you have a reassuring feeling of not being alone. This is also vital for addressing the confidence gap as a good role model and right visibility allows women to break their shells of ‘will I be able to do it well?’

Talking about personal experiences can help in a way never imagined before, Shachi also echoes.

Martin recommends that women still have a way to go in terms of building self-confidence and to fully realizing the value that many of their unique personal skills and attributes have in the workplace. “My advice is always when you are presented with an opportunity, take the step up!”

Finding HER matters

Inclusion is not a mere meme or word. It is also not just a noble thing but good business sense too, Ushasri adds emphatically. Women are great decision-makers and offer new insights into consumer markets so tapping their strengths is only going to help organizations immensely.

“It is extremely important for an organization to understand the women inside them. Women are more creative, more innovative and can use resources efficiently as a natural, in-built trait. Look at the top 50 entrepreneurs under 30 age group and some 30 to 40 per cent of that lot is women!”

Shachi could not agree more. “We are urging organizations to look at this as a business agenda and not just as a gender agenda.”

It is good to see that verticals like IT, ITeS and BFSI show a bright understanding of workforce diversity today, and the part of doing business with global corporations is helping these sectors widen their horizons about some conventional perceptions. “The RFP (Request For Proposal) exercise itself is rigorous on global practices when these companies approach clients and that’s where a more inclusive and encouraging diversity set-up falls in naturally. Yet, Heavy Industries or Manufacturing would be a far cry for some time, and would continue to have male-dominion with a slow pace of change, even if women are willing to participate at higher levels and roles.”

In the Pew Research survey some voices affirmed that the electorate and corporate America are just not ready to put more women in top leadership positions. Some 53 per cent believe men will continue to hold more top executive positions in business in the future; and 44 per cent feel it is only a matter of time before as many women are in top executive positions as men.

Yet, 73 per cent Americans expect to see a female president in their lifetime! Think that over.

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