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At the 2020 Oscars ceremony, when actress Natalie Portman walked the red carpet, she made a striking protest about gender inequality in Hollywood. Embroidered on her cape were the last names of the female directors who were snubbed in the all-male line-up of the Best Director category. They included Little Women’s Greta Gerwig and Hustlers’ Lorene Scafaria.
Portman’s action was just the latest high profile statement about the inequalities that women have to contend with the further up the career ladder they scale.
It is a fact — there is a glass ceiling when it comes to women scaling the upper echelons of career success. From Hollywood to politics to the boardroom and multiple industries in between, there are countless studies highlighting the leadership gender gap. For instance, there are shockingly few women who have won Nobel awards in the medicine, natural and social science categories.
The latest study on women in the workplace by LeanIn.org found that while women account for a reasonably equal 48 per cent of entry-level hires, the number consistently drops with each successive promotion till there are only 21 percent of women at the C-suite level compared to men.
It is a similarly uneven scenario in Singapore. As of 2020, women comprise only 16 per cent of leaders on corporate boards, according to findings by BoardAgender, an initiative of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations.
This is despite Singapore being well-regarded in terms of providing both genders equal access to educational, employment and health opportunities. Junie Foo, first vice president of the SCWO, says, “I would say that we are indeed quite fortunate here in Singapore – there is almost an equal number of men and women university graduates, who go on to enter the workforce. In many areas, women in Singapore may not feel themselves being set back — even the archaic medical school quota on the number of female students has been removed.”
What then, can be done?
Leveling The Playing Field
In recent years, there has been an encouraging emergence of special accolades for women in an attempt to inspire more to aspire to greater heights by recognising their efforts. For instance, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has a Best Female Chef category and many organisations around the world have “Woman of the Year” awards.
“These awards whether at a global or local level whilst giving the recipient due recognition also serves to show other women — and more importantly younger women — what can be achieved,” says Trina Liang-Lin, a prominent women’s rights activist who was the past president of UN Women Singapore and the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore. She is also currently vice-chair of SCWO and co-chair of BoardAgender.
She cites awards in Singapore such as Her World Woman of the Year and Women’s Weekly’s Great Women of Our Time as a way to ensure that the names and achievements of female high achievers will not “be lost in a pool of mostly men”.
“As much as I’d like to say we can now do away with women-only awards, the harsh fact is that our society still doesn’t give ample recognition to women’s achievements,” adds Liang-Lin, CEO and chairman of Halo Health Asia and World Food Future.
Making An Institutional Effort
Of course, besides awards, there is much more that can be done to encourage more workplace inclusivity. Organisations like BoardAgender aim to facilitate the advancement of more women into senior leadership roles and the boardroom by driving greater awareness and understanding of the benefits of gender-balanced businesses.
Foo says, “Some cite the lack of supply of qualified candidates as a reason for not putting more women on boards. This is very surprising as there are many educated, competent, extremely capable women in Singapore. Companies need to look beyond their personal networks for candidates — if not, getting more women on boards will continue to be challenging.”
There are proven benefits to having a diverse workplace that justify making the institutional effort for greater gender inclusivity.
“Women bring a variety of essential qualities to the workplace regardless of the function and the level. When men and women effectively work together, their different points of view, ideas and insights lead to an organisation’s improved performance,” says Balaka Niyazee, CEO, P&G Korea.
To achieve this, companies like P&G view gender equality like “any other business strategy with well-defined KPIs”, says Niyazee, who is the executive sponsor of the P&G Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa Gender Equality #WeSeeEqual Programme. The company offers mentorship programmes and plans for career-accelerating assignments for mid- and senior leaders, with a focus on women. Today, women comprise half of the multinational company’s Asia Pacific managerial positions as well as over 35 per cent of its leadership roles.
“For women to assume leadership roles in the company, it is essential to hire a diverse workforce, retain and develop them through their career and life stage changes and finally offer them challenging and business critical roles so that they have an enriching career,” she says.
Men As Allies
It is also important that men are recognised as allies in the move towards gender parity. After all, conventional societal roles have long dictated that women hold greater responsibility when it comes to childcare and family care, which may hold them back in their careers.
“Many women take a break mid-career, or choose to put their families first and slow down at work – this could explain why the proportion of females are so few at the senior levels, as compared to those entering the workforce,” says Foo.
Supportive government policies and good childcare facilities can help to lighten this load, Liang-Lin suggests. But in the long term, what is needed is a mindset shift that men can be equal partners at home too – something that observers say is gradually happening.
P&G is helping to accelerate this change through its equality based policies such as progressive parental leave policies. For example, it offers extended maternity leave and on-site childcare for working parents and paid paternity leave to fathers as well. Its flexi-work policies are used by both men and women as well. “Many companies have taken steps to improve maternity leave – but this doesn’t address the total picture. Caring for home and family has no gender. When companies and countries support leave for all parents, it’s healthy for children and builds equality in the workplace,” says Niyazee.
Ultimately, the message is clear. The time is ripe for women to assume more leadership roles, but what is required is a concerted effort by all the players involved to make it happen. It is time for both men and women to work together to level the playing field.