Even in countries where women enjoy higher status at work, such as Canada and the US, the proportion of woman directors in listed companies is still only about 12 per cent. Photo: AP

Businesses short-sighted not to let women flourish

Joan Stringer says gender equality is about harnessing the potential of the entire workforce

Barber Conable, former president of the World Bank, once said: "Women are half of the world's population, yet they do two-thirds of the world's work, earn one-tenth of the world's income, and own less than 1 per cent of the world's property. They are among the poorest of the poor."

While women have been playing a greater role in the workforce and have achieved considerable improvement in income in the past 10 years, it still remains difficult for them to climb the corporate ladder, not to mention getting into the boardroom. Even in countries where women enjoy higher status at work, such as Canada and the US, the proportion of woman directors in listed companies is still only about 12 per cent. There still exists a glass ceiling that keeps women from achieving positions in the workplace equal to those of their male counterparts.

To examine why, we must investigate what invisible forces are at work. With time, doors have opened up for women educationally and socially in many parts of the world. Nevertheless, in many functions women remain frustrated because they are the ones who are often held back by invisible forces like the reluctance to embrace female leadership, gender stereotypes, traditional cultural values and, perhaps most common of all, family responsibilities.

Women's ability in the business environment has long been regarded as less flexible, if not capable, than that of men, especially when it comes to work that requires travelling outside the home or country. Very often, people simply assume that the woman should take care of the family and sacrifice her career.

In more traditional societies in Asia, such as Japan and India, looking after the family is the prime duty of women. In such places, an ideal woman is perceived as one who stays at home instead of pursuing her own career. However, this kind of thinking is long past its sell-by date. Women are now more focused than ever on pursuing their own careers and financial independence, and work and family life may not be entirely compatible, especially in the early years of a career.

Women are also at a distinct disadvantage in business networking activities that have traditionally been male-dominated, especially in the areas of sport or social drinking. This phenomenon may not be that prominent in Hong Kong, but in other Asian societies such as Japan business networking drinks are considered "improper" for women and are a male-only preserve. Such barriers make it more difficult for women to build the social capital needed to advance in their careers.

Why do we have to shatter the glass ceiling? Apart from the goal of gender equality and social justice, there are other reasons to push for more female power in business.

When comparing companies with women directors to those with executive teams made up entirely of men, the former organisations tend to do better simply because women can offer a valuable, different perspective, which may lead to better decision-making.

In general, women directors tend to be more assertive on "hot button" issues, including evaluating board performance and backing more oversight of corporate governance and executive pay. In potentially sensitive relationship-driven discussions, women can often be more empathetic and are less likely to shy away, while men may not be able to handle this type of issue as well as women.

Allowing more opportunities for women in the business workforce is not about whether one gender is better than the other. It is about allowing the mix of different skills and behaviour to realise the full potential of all executives to contribute to commercial success and to society. When there is a rising percentage of university-educated females in society, it is shortsighted if not foolish not to maximise the investment in their training and productivity.

So how do we shatter the glass ceiling? At present some countries, such as France and the Netherlands, impose gender quotas for executive and supervisory board members in a company. This approach incurs its own problems, not least the quandary of quality versus quantity that this engenders. We may not necessarily need such strict legislative enforcement.

The first and most important step towards shattering the glass ceiling is to abandon the gender stereotypes and create a more family-friendly environment at work, for men and women. It is equally important that we recognise the benefits of paternity leave, and that single fathers are also facing the same challenges as their female counterparts in juggling family and professional lives.

Provision of longer maternity leave and childcare support sound clichéd but they are helpful to the working woman. More flexible hours and, with the help of technology, working from home can be a solution to harnessing productive, qualified and experienced talent that would otherwise be lost. With appropriate help, it is possible for women to achieve more, both at work and in the family.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Businesses that don't allow women to flourish only short-change themselves