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Investing in women leaders could be your best decision yet

Sarika Naik

This article was originally published in TIMESJOBS and has been reproduced here with permission.

I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights ­­– the theme for International Women’s Day 2020 sums up why this year is critical for advancing diversity, especially at the top levels of the workplace. It is aligned with the UN’s Generation Equality campaign and marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

If you see women’s representation across organisations globally – formal or the informal sector, the mid-level or the top – you will see the number of women employees is on the rise. However, as we move up the value chain, we find the number of women in the higher echelons of power, what we generally call the C-suite, is low.

At a time when women make up over 45 percent of the workforce, there are only 33 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies of 2019, which is less than 7 percent. In EU, which boasts a progressive workplace culture, women make up only 17 percent of senior executives despite numbering half the workforce, according to a survey by Catalyst. In India, the situation is distressing; women held only 7 percent of senior management roles of CEO or MD till a short time back.

So, why the discrepancy? Why haven’t women been able to break the glass ceiling and drop into the boardroom? If there was ever a time to go beyond tokenism, it is now.

With women leaders, the focus is never on the pay-off

The reasons for gender imbalance in the C-suite range from the traditional notions of division of labour to systemic bias. Women have been perceived to be less ambitious or decisive, hampering their journey to the top. Long breaks such as maternity leave wean women away from the scene of action at a critical juncture. And the pressure is especially high upon women in mid-level positions who are in line for future leadership roles.

Balancing home and work is tough. McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study reveals 21 percent of women globally, who are otherwise qualified to be leaders, quit because of this reason. Around 50 percent women in junior and middle levels leave for similar reasons. The result? Even if formidable competitors at the starting point, women are forced to drop out of the leadership race sooner than expected.

For a start, companies should address the work-life challenges faced by women and offset any career disadvantages they face due to long absence from work. For instance, facilitating a continuous connect with the organization and colleagues for expecting mothers eases their return to work and to their roles. In a fast-paced industry, it helps them keep pace with disruptive technology trends and integrate their career seamlessly with motherhood.

The next step is to ensure a smooth transition to the workplace after rejoining. This is achieved through exclusive training for women returning from breaks — training in behavioural skills, mentoring engagements, and interaction with leaders and fellow participants. In a fast-moving industry, where long absence from work is a professional death sentence as well as a serious impediment in one’s progress to the top, this could be the panacea for women across the board.

To get ahead, women should take the onus upon themselves!

I am sure there’s a mentor behind every Sheryl Sandberg or a Mary Barra. Many companies have taken initiatives where top leaders, especially women, compulsorily mentor and guide women employees from the mid- and senior levels. NetSuite, PayPal, EY, and Facebook are some examples. But being a mentor isn’t enough; you should be ready to fight for the person till the end.

Strategies like reverse mentoring, where senior leaders are paired with high-potential employees to enable both to learn from each other, brings about a huge mindset change. Women and mentoring always go together. It’s well-proven that women’s careers are based on building strong ties, and mentoring within small groups fosters these relationships.

It’s essential to engage more women in leadership programs like mentoring, sponsorships, professional development or succession planning. Nothing works better than a 1:1 personalized coaching. In parallel, helping prospective women leaders interact with top industry leaders goes a long way in building their leadership traits for tomorrow.

But companies should go beyond that. Women’s leadership programs should be so designed as to open up new avenues for their future. This will allow women to self-assess their fitment in terms of the organisation they work in, the line of work they are engaged in, as well as their individual expertise, and then enable them to make career choices based on it.

Real change happens by introducing changes at the ground level. For example, the mainstreaming of developmental programs to be gender agnostic ensures that every program at every level has a critical mass of women’s participation. This approach has resulted in 30 percent of women at Capgemini promoted to the next level, and 85 percent assuming more impactful roles beyond their immediate scope of work. This is just the ingredient that women need in their leadership journeys.

Women’s advancement isn’t a dole, but a right!

Today, several organisations are setting quotas for women at various levels, including the C-suite. Many countries are passing legislations to this effect. In India, the Companies’ Act of 2013 imposes a quota of at least one female director on the board of listed companies. Many private companies are following suit.

It’s debatable whether reservations is the way forward. No one wants to be the symbolic woman who has risen through quota. Instead, the focus should be on the entry of women, their retention, and on their progress. In fact, it works to have both women and men in D&I roles because it brings new perspectives in recruitment. Gender balance makes a big difference in diversity programs and in increasing women’s entry in the company.

It’s a good idea to develop focused development and training programs customized for women, especially addressing their challenges in reaching the top level and staying there. Second, a time-bound and fixed system of women’s representation in the C-suite goes a long way to address the issue. Finally, male leaders should step up to support women in this collaborative, two-way journey.

During my career, I’ve seen that men play as important a role as women – sometimes more – in advancing women leadership. While women bear the primary responsibility for childcare, that dynamic is changing. Today, a large number of male employees avail flexible work policies in many organisations. This trend of stay-at-home dads ensures that more women can go all-out in their careers.

It’s good for both men and women to shed their stereotypes around gender roles. Just as the status quo has the capacity to hold women back from assuming leadership roles, it also holds men back from embracing caretaking and support functions. In fact, it can work well at the family level as it opens up the scope for men to rely on women as breadwinners. It also works well for organisations as they draw on the creativity of diverse people and grow further.

Women in the C-suite is a win-win for all

The Women’s Day 2020 campaign enables us to see the progress we’ve made since the Beijing program. The scenario has changed for the better, but more needs to be done. More than anyone, I believe it’s women themselves who should take the initiative and give their leadership aspirations their best shot!

However, the biggest obstacles that women face exist inside our minds – our fear of failure, our aversion to risk, and our tendency to underestimate our ability to handle it. Scaling them isn’t easy. It takes courage to question beliefs that have limited our thinking for decades. But, NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE!

#EachforEqual is the Women’s Day 2020 hashtag. Let’s make it count!