Progress may be slow, but organisations are finding success with programmes that promote gender inclusion.
By Michael Switow
When Aliza Knox, a tech industry veteran with a track record of growing global brands in Asia-Pacific, applied for a job with the content delivery network Cloudflare, she did her homework. She went to the company’s website and came across a day-long forum it had sponsored. What struck her was that almost every discussion had at least one woman on the panel. There was even a session with two female professionals and no men—a rarity in an industry that is 80 per cent male.
For Knox, who is now Cloudfare’s APAC head, this was a selling point.
“If candidates see a few people more like themselves in an office, then they are more likely to join,” she explains. “So, in the case of Cloudfare, where the co-founder and COO are female, more women are likely to be interested in applying.”
Knox applied this principle to her all-male Singapore solutions engineering team. She was proactive but did not compromise on the job description or requisite skills. “We didn’t take a less qualified woman, but we found a woman who was qualified, and now I’ve got three women on the team. I think the first hire helped us make the other hires faster.”
At a recent “Women in Business” event in Singapore, a young scientist who declined to give her name agreed with Knox. “My friends and I look at corporate websites and when we do not see diversity, we think less of that company.”
“You need to see women leaders to want to aspire to be one,” adds Kelly Quirk, the group managing director and CEO of the Harrier Group, which runs the diversity and inclusion strategies for several of Australia’s largest mining companies and energy providers.
Gender Equity Should be a No-Brainer
Conversations about inclusion have shifted in recent years from equity to outcomes. It turns out that not only is eliminating the gender pay gap and disparities in hiring and promotion the right thing to do, it’s good for business as well.
The benefits of ensuring diversity on corporate boards and in the workplace are well-documented. Companies with women in their top ranks are more profitable, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group, Harvard Business Review, and others. Inclusive companies also experience higher employee retention, better staff morale, improved corporate governance, and better-performing share prices.
Yet women still earn, on average, 15 per cent less than men in Asia, according to the Korn Ferry Gender Pay Index. In Australia, this gap rises to 30 per cent or more in industries like financial services and healthcare. In part, this is because of the jobs where women are employed. Barely one-third of managers in Australia are female and just 13 per cent of CEOs are women.
Women are also more likely to face unconscious biases that can limit or slow career growth. Time away from the workforce to have children can still be counted against them. At the Singapore “Women in Business” discussion, a fashion designer recounted how her boss, another woman, criticised her for becoming pregnant, arguing that starting a family demonstrated that she wasn’t serious about her career.
Progress Is Painstakingly Slow
“In Singapore, women are held back for two reasons,” says Stefanie Yuen Thio, a joint managing partner at TSMP Law Corporation who also serves on several boards. “First, the societal expectation that they should have the primary parenting role, and second, women are less likely to put themselves forward. We self-limit our careers.”
Yuen argues that Singapore is one of the “most gender equal places to do business and be a professional.” However, the society “still operates in a construct that was built by men, for men.”
“At times, the conversation is not authentic,” adds Quirk. “Some people just don’t want it. It looks too hard to achieve and in many cases, they’ll have to remove a male leader to replace him with a female leader.”
And when a woman does rise to the top, she is often queried more about how she got there than about business opportunities, says Quirk, who authored a piece for the online media portal Women’s Agenda called “The Curious Case of the Female CEO,” in which she describes how male counterparts have found her to be an oddity.
“Sometimes you have to stand your ground and speak up. You have to advocate for women,” says Lauren Sorkin, the APAC managing director of 100 Resilient Cities, a sustainability initiative pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. “Once, for example, during an annual performance review, I had a boss who criticised me for only mentoring women, not men. So I had to tell him, ‘this was the KPI we agreed upon—that I would specifically mentor women in the company.’”
“How do we make our male colleagues part of the solution?” ponders Quirk. “The debate needs to be far more about how men can be champions of change rather than persecuting them for previous generations.”
What can HR leaders do within their organisations to promote gender inclusion?
“There are definitely techniques that HR can use to make sure that diverse candidates come in, but then you also have to make sure that managers care,” says Knox.
Some of these best practices include:
- Seek to understand and look within business units to see what needs to be done differently.
- Devise and implement a diversity strategy that includes setting targets, and measuring and evaluating outcomes.
- Embed this strategy into corporate culture so it endures beyond the tenure of a single CEO.
- Set KPIs for all aspects of HR, including recruitment, onboarding, training, and personal development.
- Hold managers accountable. The Harrier Group finds that whilst 60 per cent of mining companies in Australia have a gender diversity strategy and training in place, only one-third hold managers responsible for delivering targets. Accountablity helps drive change.
- Be proactive to ensure that the company has female role models.
- Be clear about hiring criteria so that unconscious bias and subjectivity do not influence interviewer decisions.
- Employ diverse interviewers.
- Remove names and photos from applicants’ CVs.
- Provide mentoring and promotion-readiness training to women.