IN 1908, 15,000 working women valiantly marched through the streets of New York to demand greater gender equality at the workplace.

Fast forward 106 years to 2014 and the gender gap still exists. Women today are still under-represented in positions of power and influence, and are paid lower salaries than their male counterparts.

In Singapore, a 2013 survey of Singapore-listed companies by NUS Business School and BoardAgender found that only 4.6 per cent of chief executive officers (CEOs) and 3.4 per cent of chairmen are women. Furthermore, only 41.8 per cent of Singapore-listed companies had women on their boards.

Gender diversity at the workplace

Since women make up half of the global talent pool, there is a pressing need for greater gender diversity at the workplace as the progressive loss of women along the corporate pipeline constitutes an opportunity cost.

The United Nations estimated that if women were to reach their full potential, the Asia-Pacific economy would earn an additional US$89 billion (S$112 billion) a year. Research has demonstrated that institutions with higher ratios of women in their boardroom also had a better return on assets and return on equity.

Hiring women does not just make economic sense. There is mounting evidence to suggest that by having women’s voices at the table and a leadership team that better reflects the community and client base, organisations will be better able to anticipate and serve the needs of their stakeholders.

Institutions can play their part

One of the most commonly cited reasons for the lack of female leadership at senior levels is the challenge of managing dual responsibilities at home and at work.

Institutions can promote greater gender diversity through flexible work schemes that help working mothers balance their professional and personal lives better. Such initiatives break down the perception that work and home have to be mutually exclusive.

As a case in point, the latest employee survey by Citibank (Citi) shows that more than 80 per cent of its employees feel supported in their work-life balance efforts. Eligible employees can also opt for various flexible schedules and remote-work options through a global initiative called the Citi Work Strategies Programme.

By giving its employees the flexibility on how, where and when they work, the bank has created a culture where staff can excel personally and professionally.

Technology companies like IBM and Microsoft were the early adopters of flexi-work strategies. In addition to work-from-home policies, they accommodate employees’ flexi-needs through job-sharing, state-of the-art technologies, effective communication and virtual team management.

Other than introducing flexi-work schemes, institutions can further promote gender diversity through developmental programmes that help forge role models for women within the organisation and encourage women at all levels to promote themselves when job opportunities arise.

These two factors are important in building women’s confidence in their ability to succeed in leadership positions.

Fast-moving consumer goods manufacturer Proctor & Gamble develops women through its Corporate Women’s Leadership Team, which promotes the advancement of women at all levels of the organisation through mentoring, sponsorship and development of leadership skills.

Institutions may also consider having more specialised programmes to facilitate the development of senior female staff, thereby preparing them for leadership roles in the company. For example, Citi has the Women’s Leadership Development Programme held in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles that is targeted to empower high-potential women at the senior vice-president to director level.

Since it began in 2008, over 520 women have benefited from the programme, many of whom have demonstrated better career advancement than their peers.

Other than fostering supportive corporate cultures, some institutions are also taking it one step further by educating the future workforce about gender diversity.

By helping students understand the importance of diversity and debunking common misconceptions about working women, institutions can inspire the future workforce to progress and succeed from the start of their careers.

Progress

There has been recent progress in the area of women in leadership roles. Just two months ago, Ms Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors, making her the first female top senior executive in the industry.

Other renowned female leaders include Ms Marissa Mayer, president and CEO of Yahoo!, and Ms Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook.

There is also greater representation of female public sector leaders today. This month, Ms Tsakani Ratsela became the first woman to be appointed to the position of Deputy Auditor-General of South Africa in the organisation’s 103-year history. 

A business imperative

While progress has been made to close the leadership gap between men and women, much more can be done to foster equality of women.

Institutions can play a key role as equalisers of opportunities by fostering women-friendly corporate cultures and educating the young on the importance of women in the workplace.

Gender diversity should be regarded as a competitive advantage in every organisation. Those that get it right will be able to reap both economic and social returns.

 

Article by Evangeline Chua, head of human resources, Citi Singapore.