A good gender balance in decision-making positions makes good business sense say speakers at a gender diversity forum.
IN every aspect of life, there must be balance. In the workplace, the same principle applies.
Having an equal number of men and women in decision-making positions will ensure more creativity and innovation, improved problem-solving skills and a better understanding of the market, all of which gives a company a valuable edge over its competitors.
Gender diversity is an approach that can really pay off for companies which implement it.
Workplaces should reflect the society in which they function and obviously our society is not just made up of men, says Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, socio-political activist and writer.
“If everybody in the workplace thinks the same way, chances are their approach to a problem would also be the same. In other words, in a homogenous workplace, you are not going to find much creativity in your employees,” she says.
Marina, who was the keynote speaker at the “Diversity Event: Building A Strategy for Gender Diversity” on March 23 organised by Wong & Partners, says it’s crucial and wise for companies to have a good gender balance in their workforce.
DIVERSITY IS CREATIVITY
If, for example, a company is involved in designing and selling products or services targeted at women, how can they effectively create these products if women themselves are not involved in the process or have no opportunity to provide their input?
In today’s work environment, having a gender-balanced workforce makes good business sense because women can bring a whole new set of ideas to the table and offer alternative methods to approaching an issue or solving a problem.
Marina says that in the United Kingdom, for example, the banking industry doesn’t just look for banking and finance graduates. It is also interested in philosophy graduates because philosophers understand that there are many different ways of thinking and won’t stick to traditional ways of thought when faced with a problem.
Similarly, in the fast-changing world that we live in today, we need creative thinking more than ever and we are not going to get it in a homogenous workplace made up mainly of men.
According to the World Bank, for a country to progress economically, the percentage of women in the workforce should be around 70 per cent.
This is because women tend to use their incomes to benefit their families and communities and not just themselves, so their involvement in the workforce would have an enormous ripple effect on the economy.
In Malaysia, in 2015, the number of women in the workforce stood at only 54.1 per cent.
But Marina stresses that we also need to look at what exactly these women are doing in the workforce.
She says that according to a report by the Penang Institute, the number of women in the workforce increased from 4.3 million to 5.6 million between 2011-2015 and 55 per cent of new jobs created during that time were also taken up by women.
Unfortunately most of those women took on less productive, poorer paying, unstable jobs.
“Basically, what we have is a pyramid in the workforce where the lower levels are populated by lots of women and their numbers become less and less as we reach the peak. Women are truly pinned to the ground, so to speak.”
A report released by professional services firm Grant Thornton in conjunction with International Women’s Day this year also indicated that only 24 per cent of senior business roles were held by women in Malaysia and more than a third of businesses in the country (34 per cent) had no women in senior management positions.
This put Malaysia in the last place among the four Asean countries included in the survey.
Marina says gender diversity is not just a matter of having more women on the boards of companies but also about making the work environment friendly and encouraging for women to contribute towards productivity.
She adds that even if we promote women to very senior positions, unless the environment in which they operate become less hostile, there will still be many women who will be discouraged from aspiring to these positions.
“It’s not just about having a token woman or two at the top but about developing, nurturing and sustaining a pipeline of women going to the top of their careers until it becomes a very normal pattern.”
To achieve this, women who are already at the top have a responsibility to mentor and nurture more women to be their successors.
They should make it easier for other women to also reach the top by sharing their experiences and strategies and providing advice on how to cope with the pitfalls.
Julia Chong, co-founder and CEO of the social enterprise The Truly Loving Company Sdn Bhd and another speaker at the forum, says women need to be more confident of their abilities and speak up to their superiors about wanting to be considered for a promotion or handling of a project.
“Don’t allow people to assume that because you’re a women and you have certain family commitments, you might not want to take on these responsibilities.”
Chong, who had a stellar 30-year career in the corporate world, holding key positions in many large organisations before stepping out to set up her social enterprise, doesn’t believe in chance or luck when it comes to career advancement.
Women must plan, prepare and commit to the path and get themselves the right exposure. It’s not a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Chin Siew Siew, general manager (commercial sector) of IBM Malaysia agrees with Chong that women need to push up their confidence levels and make themselves more visible in the workplace.
Many women, she stresses, are too modest about their capabilities.
“Men will be willing to take on a position even if they are only 50 per cent ready but women will hesitate even if they are 100 per cent ready,” she says.
Ultimately, women need to empower themselves because while supportive policies and strategies by both the government and individual companies can make a difference, the attitude of women themselves will always play the key role.