Girl power: Why organizations struggle to harness the power of women leaders

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DIVERSITY in the boardroom is a recognized imperative for effective leadership. Successful organizations recognize that leaders must be composed of dynamic and diverse individuals to discourage groupthink and encourage a healthy exchange of ideas. The boardroom must be constantly infused with diverse perspectives and backgrounds if they expect to successfully adjust the business in this era of ever-shifting tides and radical change.

One way to achieve diversity is to ensure adequate representation of women in the boardroom. Unfortunately, according to the Women in Business study by Grant Thornton International Ltd. by 2022, only 39 percent of leadership positions in the Philippines will be held by women. This is a decrease from 48 percent in 2021.

It is estimated that the Filipino population is equally divided between males and females. Women tend to be better educated, with an estimated 13.7 percent of women and just 9.8 percent of men having college degrees. Business administration is the most popular major among women, while criminology is the most popular among men. With this data on our population, I would expect that senior management positions would also be split 50/50 between males and females. Unfortunately this is not true.

At our company, I’ve noticed that more women come on board every year during the hiring season. From 2019 to 2021, 55 percent of new hires were women. As new hires climb the career ladder, the gender balance is tipping in favor of men. Finally, at the partnership level, there is a sharp drop, as only 25 percent of the partners are women. So the question for executives trying to harness the power of women in the boardroom is what is causing the unfavorable tilt?

In an underground, matriarchal society like ours, women aren’t exactly shrinking violets. Gone are the Maria Clara stereotypes. Filipinas have become presidents, vice presidents, Nobel Peace Prize winners, captains of various industries, and CEOs of multinational corporations. We are fortunate to have countless Filipino role models who have relentlessly pushed through hardship and conquered senior management positions. And yet, despite these tiger mothers and dragon ladies, we still suffer from a shortage of women in leadership positions in all sectors of society.

From my experience, discrimination is not the main reason for the increased presence of men in boardrooms, but rather self-disqualification. Self-disqualification occurs when younger, high-potential women gradually drop out of promotion, opt for less demanding jobs, or eventually quit to move to more “suitable” jobs with less onerous hours. I’ve seen this happen with some of our high profile female employees. They would enter the workforce with the same, if not more, enthusiasm than their male counterparts. However, some would eventually quit, saying “I need more time to take care of our kids” or “I want more work-life balance” as reasons for leaving. This is fairly common, showing that self-disqualification is no less bad than discrimination, both of which prevent women from fulfilling their full leadership potential. Widespread self-disqualification means that the work environment has not been able to respond to the needs of women workers and has forced them to disqualify themselves from senior management positions.

If organizations are to reap the benefits of diversity that women bring to the boardroom, they also need to understand that women have different needs in order for them to thrive in an organization. It is the job of current leaders to recognize and respond to these needs. Some action points that organizations can adopt are:

1. Discourage stereotypes and encourage participation. Unfortunately, although women play a crucial role in the workplace, stereotypes still persist. This can impact the employee, the people she works with and her immediate manager. Women are stereotyped as emotional and therefore prone to outbursts of anger or emotional outbursts. This stereotyping prevents female employees from expressing their opinions and actively participating in group discussions. The more insecure they feel, the less participative and proactive they become. This silence derails their leadership as they are mistakenly perceived as unresponsive or lacking in original ideas. Therefore, it is important for leaders to create a safe work environment where opinions are valued and respected and women are not stereotyped. Bosses should consciously encourage their female employees by making sure each person is given airtime to share their ideas. Sometimes, just inviting a co-worker to share her thoughts is enough to unlock the valuable suggestions that have been floating around in her head for a while.

2. Respect time off. Leaders need to accept that despite advances in technology and science, women still need to devote time to caring for their families. Therefore, the work culture should be able to respect “time off” when women need to unplug and take care of their families. Offering flextime and working from home is useless if management expects its employees to be on call 24/7. Women who tend to their family responsibilities should not be interpreted as being less interested in promotion. Nor should management interpret the need for time off as an inability of women workers to concentrate on their work. Management should pay attention to the quality of employee’s performance and not be a watchman counting each employee’s overtime.

3. Offer a clear career path. Management must provide a clear career path for its high-performing female employees. Women are planners. From kindergarten, little girls are already planning big events in their lives, be it their birthday party, graduation, or even their wedding. In the workplace, women need to see that they have a future in their organizations. Leaders should provide a way for women to visualize their short- and long-term roles in an organization. There should be a mirror that offers a glimpse of the possibilities. In our law firm we maintain a coaching and mentoring culture. The constant dialogue between coach and coachee enables the latter to identify short-term and long-term goals. They are able to identify gaps and learning needs that will help them achieve their goals.

4. Identify role models within the organization. Leaders must provide clear and compelling examples that women are valued in the organization. Lip service and wall art that emphasizes women’s empowerment are all well and good. But if that same organization doesn’t have any empowered women in leadership positions at all in real life, the colorful murals might as well be meaningless chicken scratches on walls. Female employees are encouraged when they see women in senior management positions as their champions. Management should take advantage of the presence of strong role models who can share knowledge, experience and networks with their younger peers. Sponsoring events where these role models can frequently interact with female employees fosters camaraderie and shared experiences that add credibility to the organization’s commitment to women’s empowerment.

Harnessing the power of women and bringing them to the boardroom is a challenge companies continue to face today. Without proper support, female talent remains an untapped resource. Structural, cultural and personal changes need to be integrated into the work environment to encourage women to take up highly deserving leadership positions. Ensuring women’s representation offers a symphony of ideas and innovations that come from diversity. More importantly, diversity in the boardroom isn’t just a token gesture, it’s smart business.

Eleanor Lucas Roque is Head of Tax Advice and Compliance at P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading accounting, tax, consulting and outsourcing firms in the Philippines with 24 partners and more than 1,000 employees. We’d love to hear from you! Tweet us: @GrantThorntonPH, like us on Facebook: P&A Grant Thornton, and email your comments to [email protected] For more information, please visit our website: www.grantthornton.com.ph.

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