How and why companies should embrace gender equity

Padmini Pandya and Sangeeta SubbrahmanyamLast week Sapient Nitro, in partnership with UN Women, launched a gender diversity initiative called TRIBE to promote equal opportunities for women in Singapore.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia Robin Hicks, Sangeeta Subbrahmanyam (pictured, left) and Padmini Pandya, co-leads for Sapient’s Women’s Leadership Network for Singapore and Hong Kong, talk about setting KPIs for gender equity, how a fair share of women in senior management roles can boost the bottom line, and why gender equity is not something that women should be fighting for by themselves.

Talk us through how to set KPIs for gender equity. Is it as simple as hitting targets for women in senior management roles?

Padmini Pandya: Part of the answer is certainly to have women in senior management roles. However, that is not the only factor. Companies should pay attention to the advancement opportunities afforded to everyone. Are men and women in roles for the same amount of time before they’re put up for promotion? Are they promoted at the same rates? In comparable roles, are they offered the same in compensation and benefits when they join? Are their performance evaluations different – i.e., are men rewarded for the same behaviours women are criticised for? There is a long list of potential KPIs companies can create for themselves once they’ve taken a look at their data; women in leadership is just part of the puzzle.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to achieving the KPIs you have in mind for SapientNitro?

Sangeeta Subbrahmanyam: I believe it’s an amalgamation of a number of factors, one of which is unconscious bias. There are studies which show that women are criticized for displaying traits that would be deemed strengths when displayed by men. For example, when a man voices an opinion, he would likely be seen as being assertive, while a woman doing so would have a higher probability of being labeled ‘pushy’ or ‘bossy’ [a point made in Pantene’s ‘Labels against women’ campaign in the Philippines].

Conversely, men often get extra credit for shouldering responsibilities that are simply expected of women – the “office housework” if you will. A man who takes time off for family would be commended while the same would be expected of a woman – in some cases, it can even be seen as a lack of commitment at work.

Another factor is the visible lack of female leaders; men and women alike are not used to seeing women as leaders, but more as supporters.

To top it off, a major challenge facing gender equity is the assumption that gender equity is a women’s issue. Gender equity should not be something that women have to fight for by themselves. Instead, it should be a concrete topic that is addressed by companies and dealt with as an issue that involves both men and women. Gender equity is not about preferential treatment of women – it’s about equal treatment of women, which I believe is a basic tenet of every company.

Source: The Economist

Source: The Economist

Some cultures are more progressive when it comes to gender equality than others – the Philippines is seen as advanced, for instance, Korea less so. So it is realistic for companies to set the same KPIs for all countries?

Padmini Pandya: I think it’s unfair to consider some countries or cultures as being more “advanced” than others. It’s a subjective measure and it discredits the strides many countries have made and undeservingly rewards others. By that measure America is supposed to be “advanced”, but women only make $0.78 for every $1.00 a man makes for the same work and with the same level of experience. Gender equity has so many facets to it; I think the only thing that’s safe to say is no country has achieved it yet.

On your second question, I think it is absolutely not permissible to lower our standards and expectations of certain countries in reaching gender equity. That would essentially become an indirect endorsement of sexism and misogyny; it is unethical. More importantly, what happens to the women in the countries we left behind? If women around the world don’t advance together, then it becomes a self-serving exercise and not one that serves the greater good.

Do you think managers should be given bonuses for hiring more women, or penalised if they do not? What works best in your view?

Sangeeta Subbrahmanyam: I don’t think that the solution lies in incentivising reverse discrimination. Instead, it rests more in tackling the root causes of the current lack of gender equity which stem from the major challenges I mentioned earlier. Such policies would not promote equality or meritocracy in the workplace; it may even undermine the women being brought in under these policies.

Which companies do you admire the most for what they’ve achieve on gender equality?

Padmini Pandya: I’m not in a position to judge any company other than the one I’m with. You never really know what the reality is on the inside of other companies and it is difficult to distinguish real advancement from good PR. Gender equity is also measured on a spectrum. Company X may have closer pay gaps between men and women than Company Y, but that is a relative measure. The real issue is they both have gender pay gaps, not whose are smaller.

There is evidence that shows that a company that is more equally balanced by gender in the boardroom is more profitable. Why is this the case?

Padmini Pandya: There have been numerous studies that find the correlation between having women on the boards of companies and their reciprocal positive financial performance. The studies have cited several reasons, one being that denying a voice and seat at the table to half the population is like playing with half a deck. You don’t know what you don’t know. If a company has female employees or female customers – which are basically all companies – why would they not want to communicate effectively and understand the needs of those women, if for no other reason but to retain talent and sell more effectively? Other studies cite having women on boards changes the dynamics and effects how the boards manage risk, are accountable, execute oversight, and are more considered and open to different viewpoints. The organisation ‘Catalyst’ is a very vocal champion of this cause. Check them out.

What else can companies do to promote gender diversity and equity?

Sangeeta Subbrahmanyam: There are a number of avenues open to companies. I think a big step would be to ensure there are corporate platforms focused on promoting gender diversity and equity. The Sapient Women’s Leadership Network (Sapient WLN) aims to stem attrition and protect the pipeline of female leaders. Some of the initiatives of Sapient WLN include mentoring programs where women are guided to grow and advance in their careers, getting men, including top management, involved, and promoting open discussion on gender equity and its associated challenges.

Some other avenues open to companies include implementing flexible work policies for both men and women to address mid-career attrition and to promote an environment of transparency to ensure women can trust that they are being given equal opportunities and equal recognition.

Tell us about Tribe, the network for corporate diversity programs you’re launching with the Singapore Committee of UN Women.

Sangeeta Subbrahmanyam: In our discussions with UN Women, it was apparent that gender diversity and equity programs in various companies may have overlapping challenges or innovative methods of addressing the issues, which we could all benefit from. Launching Tribe with UN Women is a fantastic first step in connecting corporate gender diversity and equity programs in different industries, and providing a platform for leveraging and exchanging insights and experiences amongst similar programs.

Sangeeta Subbrahmanyam and Padmini Pandya

Subbrahmanyam and Pandya at the TRIBE launch event in Singapore

Sangeeta Subbrahmanyam is senior manager, legal counsel, Asia Pacific, Sapient Nitro. Padmini Pandya works in strategic business planning, APAC, Sapient Nitro.


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