Female Future: Turning the tide

Legislation establishing quotas that ensure gender diversity in senior management positions and on boards understandably has many takers, even as some still struggle with the real face of “positive discrimination”.

“I wanted to become more secure… when it comes to presentations and decision-making, especially in a room full of men in their 50s. I also wanted to identify a strategy for my future career. The Female Future programme has given me some ideas about how I can move in the direction I would like…” says Heidi Lie, Commercial Training Administrator, Citroën Norway.

Making a mark for herself in the early years of her career – in what she describes as “quite a masculine environment”, Lie, 32, is trying to ensure that she has a career graph that steers her to the senior management level, a place where women are a minority (see box: “The ‘missing’ CEOs”). In other words, Lie has made a conscious effort to ensure that the proverbial workplace glass ceiling does not stunt her professional growth.

Heidi’s concerns about her career are not unfounded. According to the 2011 ILO Global Report on discrimination, women continue to suffer discrimination at the workplace in terms of the jobs available to them, remuneration, benefits, working conditions, and access to decision-making positions. Recent data show that 829 million women live in poverty worldwide, while the equivalent figure for men is 522 million.

Recent independent surveys conducted in Europe and Asia have also shown that few women reach senior management levels or company boards in their career span, for a variety of reasons.

However, Lie – despite her concerns – has been more fortunate than many of her peers across the world (see box: “Combining family life and a career is possible”).

Fast-track talented women

As a result of Norway’s pioneering quota policy of 2002, all boards of public limited companies must have at least 40 per cent female membership (by 2005) failing which a company can be dissolved by the national courts. Consequently, the number of women on supervisory boards in Norway rose to 42 per cent by 2009, from 25 per cent in 2004.

Responding to the statutory quota and also to the reservations about the actual numbers of women ready for recruitment to senior positions, the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprises (NHO) established the Female Future (FF) programme – an 18-month training and networking programme to identify and fast-track talented women in the Norwegian workforce into leadership positions.

The success of the project and the positive difference it has made to gender mainstreaming and to the lives of the women professionals can be gauged from the fact that the Female Future programme is no longer just a European experience. Austria, Japan and Uganda have initiated their own FF programme modelled after NHO’s initiative.

Uganda identified 21 women for the July 2011 FF training. The NHO has worked with its sister organization, the Federation of Uganda Employers, to adapt the relevant aspects of FF to Uganda’s needs. Talking about the positive impact of the Uganda Female Future programme, Etambuyu A. Gundersen, Adviser, Secretariat for Private Sector Development, NHO, states that bringing about gender equality at the senior management level makes good business sense, too.

“Our meetings in Uganda in this whole process have witnessed an enthusiasm for this programme from both the private and public sector, there is an understanding that Female Future is an important tool for enhancing gender equality in the workplace and also that having diversity in management and on boards has the proven potential to enhance a company’s profitability, so in the end it makes business sense for companies to involve themselves in the FF project,” says Gundersen.

Move for more gender diversity

The move for more gender diversity at senior management level has been gaining ground.

In January this year, France introduced legislation to ensure that 40 per cent of executive board members of the large publicly listed companies will be female by 2017. Legislation establishing quotas has already been passed in countries such as Iceland, the Netherlands and Spain.

The Geneva-headquartered International Organisation of Employers (IOE) and its members continue to support efforts to combat discrimination at the workplace. They have provided leadership and advocacy, offering practical guidance to national employers by drafting codes, promoting good practices, arranging training and providing guidance materials.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) gives priority to defending the rights of workers who are most vulnerable to discrimination, including women, migrants, and racial or ethnic minorities, through its Decent Work, Decent Life Campaign. A new campaign, launched in 2008, further promotes gender equality in national policies on the basis of the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100). Altogether 102 trade unions from 64 countries have participated in this campaign.

Inequality still obvious

Yet, despite the growing consensus that breaking the glass ceiling is not a mere representational move, women continue to be under-represented at senior management and board levels.

Virginija Langbakk, Director, European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) is quoted in the media as saying, “Inequality is still obvious in many areas. Women represent an average of 59 per cent of university graduates in the European Union (EU) yet only three per cent of company presidents are women and only 12 per cent of corporate boards. On average, in the EU, women’s unemployment rate remains higher than men’s.”

One would assume that the prevalent gender imbalance would be reason enough for companies to identify talented women (termed as “pearl diving” by the Female Future programme) and thus fast-track them to senior positions.

However, while some believe that deliberate efforts, such as the quotas, is the answer to the gender imbalance, “convincing predominantly male senior management of companies to take proactive measures is the challenge”, says Ayomi Fernando, Head, Responsible Business Initiatives Unit, Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC). She explains, “Many companies think that an efficient and capable woman has a fair shot at reaching the highest positions in the company. There have been a few who have done so and their numbers are increasing.”

“Convincing predominantly male senior management of companies to take proactive measures is the challenge”

Fernando believes that organizations must “look inwards, take stock of what prevents women from reaching these positions, and introduce appropriate measures” that facilitate family/work–life balance too. The EFC encourages gender mainstreaming amongst its member companies through advocacy, training, and providing resource persons.

Given that only the meritorious should rise to positions of decision-making and authority, there are voices questioning the fairness of what appears to be “positive discrimination”.

Susan Maybud, Senior Gender Specialist, ILO, prefers to use “affirmative action” rather than “positive discrimination” – a term which she states appears to “make a positive out of a negative”. The premise behind affirmative action, in this case, explains Maybud, “is that you are trying to encourage the promotion of women… by giving them an opportunity to prove themselves… trying to ensure that you don’t have women held at the lower rungs and promotions given to men by men.”

A lifecycle of “accumulated discrimination”

She states that the Norway 40 per cent quota initiative is a “bold and good move” and one that helps bring about a balance that reflects reality and responds to the lifecycle of “accumulated discrimination” that women face. However, she emphasizes that while working towards gender diversity in the workplace, “the idea is to move away from tokenism to representation…to have 40 per cent of either sex”. This can be understood from the ILO’s mandate on gender equality (grounded in international labour Conventions of particular relevance to gender equality): to promote equality between all women and men in the world of work.

At the end of the day, despite the “positive discrimination” debate in some corners, the time invested in skill-building, mentoring and bringing about a change in attitudes in order to have more women in senior positions will, Maybud says, result in more “family benefits” and benefits to society.

Those at the helm of bringing about such a gender balance and a change in attitudes are – to quote Peter Gabriel’s eponymous 1990s album – “shaking the tree”. Women professionals such as Lie, the women in the Uganda FF programme and those in countries now striving for representation are turning the tide in favour of diversity.

The “missing” CEOs

A study in India throws light on the gender darkness at the top

In a recent study of over 200 companies in various industries, conducted by the Human Resources (HR) consulting and outsourcing firm Aon Hewitt India, HR teams, business leaders and the CEOs were asked to respond to questions specific to diversity. The questions focused on gender with regard to recruitment, leadership positions, potential programmes, pay equity, and HR practices.

Almost 40 per cent of graduates from colleges in India across arts/commerce/engineering streams are women, and the study found that companies see the business benefits of attracting female employees, particularly at the recruitment level. This is especially true in the IT/ITES sector where women form almost 30 per cent of the workforce at the entry level (0-5 years of experience). Women also reflect these high percentages in entry-level retail jobs. But in manufacturing and sales this drops significantly to around 10 per cent (although this is also a reflection of legislation that restricts women from working certain shifts without adequate safeguards).

However, the female composition of the workforce drops dramatically at middle-management level (6 to 10 per cent even in IT) and is minimal in senior management positions (less than 3 per cent). At the Board level women are still at less than 1 per cent! There is a recognition that these numbers need to increase if valuable talent is not to be lost.

More than 50 per cent of CEOs stated that there was a good chance for women to take on the top role in the next five years. When they were specifically asked if there were potential successors for the top job who were women, 24 per cent answered in the affirmative.

But efforts to retain women and move them into these senior positions are mixed. Only 10 per cent of CEOs stated that they actually championed the cause. Most companies are on the fence in terms of having explicitly gender-inclusive leadership programmes – the refrain is that they believe in promoting capability and are therefore “gender agnostic”.

Combining family life and a career is possible

Heidi Lie, Commercial Training Administrator, Citroën Norway, was a participant of the Female Future programme in September 2010. In this brief interview she talks of the impact the FF programme has had on her professional life, and of the significance of gender diversity in the workplace.

What components of the Female Future training programme have you benefited from the most?

Heidi Lie: I really enjoyed the leadership development part. All the feedback we got and gave others made me more aware of my weak and strong points. The rhetoric course was also very useful… I am more structured in my planning and I picked up some useful tips when it comes to speeches.

From your experience, how does having more women at the senior management level impact business, work culture and families?

Heidi Lie: I have a female boss and she is a great example of a person who really understands what it is like to be a single mother with a three-year-old boy and managing a job that requires travelling and sometimes working from home at night. She gives me the freedom I need, is flexible, and really knows how to balance the role of a mother and the role of a professional leader. From her understanding, I feel motivated to give her 100 per cent in return and she motivates me by showing that everything is possible, even combining family life and a career.

I think it (gender diversity) balances the energy in the room – when you compose a Board with women and men. We have to show respect and learn from each other.

Could you list the obstacles in the way of women reaching senior positions in the first place?

Heidi Lie: Low self-confidence, lack of a network, family situation and discrimination.

Qurratul-Ain Haider, a Geneva-based journalist, reports.