On 11 June 2018, more than 100 regional business leaders joined Odgers Berndtson at the British High Commission in Singapore for an event focused on women in business. Baroness Virginia Bottomley, a trailblazer who served in Margaret Thatcher’s government as only the ninth female member of the UK Cabinet and in the House of Commons for over 20 years, moderated the event. Along with her many non-executive director, trustee and advisory roles, Virginia currently chairs Odgers Berndtson’s Board & CEO Practice.
In his welcome address, British High Commissioner Scott Wightman noted that gender equality and addressing the gender pay gap are high priorities for the UK government. He noted that the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #metoo movement have highlighted the urgency of addressing this multi-dimensional challenge. For the business leaders in attendance, he said,
“it’s all about ensuring you have the right talent, which means having access to female talent as well.”
How best to recognise, hire, promote and nurture female talent at a senior level was the focus of the evening.
Virginia began her opening remarks by noting that women have made great strides and have achieved positions of power that seemed almost impossible when she first entered government service. With women at the helm of the UK Supreme Court, the IMF, the German government, the US Federal Reserve, and The Economist, just to name a few examples, Virginia declared, “there are few citadels that women haven’t conquered.” As for the drive to hire and promote women, Virginia sees this as simply enlightened self-interest. “The education system trains women and they’re fantastically good. You just don’t want to waste that talent.”
There is still progress to be made, Virginia acknowledged. Women are chipping away at the stronghold men have had on FTSE 100 board positions but still only hold 29% of those seats. The idea that successful and resilient public companies have diverse boards is pretty accepted in the UK now but building a pipeline of women executives is more difficult. Making progress on that front will require scrutinising how we write job profiles, recruit, develop talent and address unconscious bias. Nevertheless, Virginia is optimistic about the future.
An appropriately diverse panel was assembled for the evening’s discussion. Four female executives and one male executive from industries ranging from banking and tech to academia engaged in a lively exchange of ideas on the value of diversity, the role technology can play in levelling the playing field, whether quotas are effective and how to bolster the pipeline of female business leaders. Along the way, the panel shared valuable advice and related their personal experiences in combatting and overcoming gender diversity challenges.
What was your big break?
The female panellists began by sharing their big break – a career-changing moment when someone took a chance on them or they conquered a difficult challenge. Uma Thana Balasingam, Co-Founder of Lean In Singapore and Vice President of Channels and Sales for Asia Pacific and Japan at Riverbed Technology shared, “I’ve had several big breaks in my career and they’ve all been given to me by men so it’s great to see all the men in the room.” Uma previously worked for fellow panel member Steve Leonard, Founding CEO of SGInnovate, and recalled with gratitude that when she requested it, he had given her access to special projects and leadership opportunities, which skyrocketed her career.
Maya Hari, Vice President & Managing Director, Asia Pacific at Twitter had a similar experience. She recalled throwing her hat in the ring for a big promotion and her boss at the time helping her to succeed. She concluded, “It’s ok to ask for your big break.” Judy Hsu, Chief Executive Officer, Singapore and ASEAN Markets at Standard Chartered, noted that she was pushed into applying for a promotion she initially thought she didn’t want. In hindsight, being pushed out of her comfort zone into a regional role really allowed her to grow and develop new skills. Now, she counsels other women in banking to do the same.
Professor Lily Kong, Provost and President-designate of Singapore Management University, noted that when she first took on a role in university management it meant spending less time on teaching and research, two things she loves. However, when asked to step up, she took on the challenge of leading a group of senior faculty members who were not used to taking professional direction from a young woman. She recalled one of them saying, “I’m used to working with people with 35 years of experience, not 35 years of age.” But those sorts of comments only served to strengthen her resolve.
Does diversity matter?
The panel agreed that of course diversity is important but they each brought their unique perspectives to the issue. Steve, who works with science and technology entrepreneurs, shared that when it comes to identifying viable ideas and investment opportunities among science and tech start-ups, he always looks for a diverse team of founders. In short, “Diversity matters when you’re trying to tackle a tough challenge and build something important.” Judy agreed and made the point that “diversity is not just a feel-good thing, it’s actually very good for business.” Research shows that companies with diverse talent throughout their organisation make better decisions, deliver better financial results and have more sustainable business models. She concluded, “Diversity and inclusiveness make an organisation stronger and more resilient.”
Is technology helping to drive change?
Maya responded unequivocally: “Greater transparency and information sharing have done amazing things for diversity. Technology is a leveller.” For example, in recruitment, there are tools that anonymize resumes to facilitate blind hiring. Another tool can alert managers when an employee is trending behind in salary compared to their peers at the same level. Judy noted that in terms of closing the gender pay gap, companies need to ensure that they benchmark the salary of new employees not to what they were paid before but to what others in the same role are paid. Maya also pointed out that platforms like Twitter amplify women’s voices. She said it has been great to see a growing number of women in every field from politics and business to sports speaking out and sharing their opinions.
Do you believe in targets or quotas?
There has been much debate about the effectiveness of setting soft targets for gender diversity and enforcing mandatory quotas. Judy summed up the general tension around this issue noting, “It’s always tricky when you’re setting quotas or chasing targets – does that mean you don’t care about meritocracy?” Uma noted that some executives in global companies with hard diversity quotas feel that they are impossible to meet and are therefore unfair. Instead of convincing executives of the ethical and business case for diversity, targets or quotas can sometimes backfire and create resentment.
Where Uma has seen more success is when men in leadership roles speak up to create teachable moments when they notice women being treated unequally. In one case, a banking executive queried in a leadership meeting why all the employees put forward for promotions and pay increases were men. “The impact of that ‘micro-moment’”, Uma noted, “is that five or six women are going to be promoted or receive a pay increase and all of the other executives are now going to have that same discussion with their leadership teams.” Such micro-moments can provide better scale and leverage than mandatory hiring and promotion quotas, she has found.
Lily noted that she is in favour of gender diversity targets because they can focus the mind, but how we respond to those targets is important. For example, increasing diversity on a business school faculty solely by hiring more female junior lecturers without addressing gender gaps in leadership and promotions can be counter-productive.
How can we improve the pipeline of female executives?
Uma argued that in order for women to get a foot in the door, business leaders must make a conscious decision to address gender diversity and equality of opportunity and be very transparent about their organisation’s diversity statistics. Her advice is, “Be clear about hiring and promotions criteria and don’t shift the criteria when you find a woman that meets them.” Uma also emphasized that women should advocate for themselves. “Ask for promotions, sit in the middle of the table, negotiate.” In addition, she stressed that men must make an effort to mentor and encourage women with high potential. Lily added that surfacing female role models and then building the policies, support and environment to enable young women to thrive is crucial.
To address one of the junctures when women tend to leave the workforce, Maya noted that Twitter has adopted an equal maternity and paternity leave policy. “This was tough on the business,” she explained, “because it’s a big change in workforce planning – but we’ve seen a shift where couples are sharing childcare responsibilities more equally.” In Maya’s view this has helped to level the playing field and keep talented women in the leadership pipeline. Lily concurred and noted that in the same vein universities should evaluate their tenure policies and timelines in order not to exclude women who choose to have a family.
Judy then described a successful programme Standard Chartered ran last year to bring women who had taken a career break back into the workforce. The bank hosted more than 50 women who had left banking for a week of trainings, talks and sessions on career opportunities. As a result, Standard Chartered hired back a number of women including some on a part-time basis. Likewise, Maya shared what Twitter has done to reintegrate women who return to the workforce. These efforts include setting up coffee chats with female business leaders who can relate to what the returning woman is going through and giving her a networking mentor whose role is to help re-establish business connections.
Are female-only leadership programmes helpful?
Audience member Kris Sasitharan from Standard Chartered asked the panel’s views on female-only leadership programmes. Judy, his co-worker at Standard Chartered, was the first to respond that she thinks they serve a purpose and work well. Uma, Maya and Lily agreed that they are useful but noted that they should be employed in tandem with other diversity-enhancing leadership training.
Uma emphasized the importance of women-only leadership training for developing networks of supportive peers but she advised against ‘pinkwashing’, which is throwing training at women and thinking that will solve an organisation’s diversity issues. “There is a misperception that a lack of diversity stems from women not having the right skills or having studied the wrong subjects. Instead, bring men and women together to talk about unconscious bias,” she said. Maya agreed that women-only leadership programmes help women in senior leadership roles to find a peer group to consult and lean on. She noted that in addition companies should make an effort to bring women with high potential into the same leadership training programs offered to men. Lily concurred that leadership programs that bring men and women together provide an opportunity for women to learn to navigate in a business environment where they are often in the minority and to learn to negotiate and make their voice heard.
To close, Steve issued a challenge to the audience noting that while we all wish there were more female scientists there is more the business community can do to encourage and support women who are currently working in STEM fields. “If anyone wants to help female STEM entrepreneurs raise funds, acquire customers, and win regulatory approval please send me an email,” Steve said. “That will be how we build role models because that’s how we build companies.”
Surprise guest speaker
As the panel discussion came to a close, Andi Rees, Managing Partner of Odgers Berndtson for Southeast Asia, thanked Virginia and the panellists and invited a special guest speaker to the stage. Diviya GK, Captain of the Singapore Women’s National Cricket Team, then shared her story of perseverance and tenacity trying to make a career in a male-dominated sport.
Diviya’s inspiring story begins at age 8 when her cousins declared, ‘girls can’t play cricket’. She’s been playing ever since but when she started out there weren’t many opportunities in Singapore for women in the sport. Instead of giving up, she decided she wanted to play on the men’s team. “I woke up every day at 4am and trained for six hours a day. After two years, I got the call – they needed another player at the last minute.” The team won and Diviya was declared ‘player of the match’. Today she helps run a cricket academy for over 200 kids and is the co-founder of a cricket training and equipment booking app.
With that, the attendees adjourned to a wine reception. After such a successful turn out and fruitful discussion, it is clear that business leaders are interested in participating in discussions about diversity and inclusion and are eager to learn new strategies for hiring, promoting and empowering the women business leaders of the future.
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