Women in Leadership: Why it Works, and How to Make it Work

How can organisations reap the benefits of gender-balanced leadership? Mr Stephen Tjoa, Senior Advisor at Influence Solutions, gives his take.

19 Mar 2021 Interviews Recruitment Work-life harmony Trending Best practices

Mr Stephen Tjoa, Senior Advisor, Influence Solutions

Q: As an HR leader, what do you see as the key motivation for incorporating gender equality at the board level? What impact from shifts towards greater equality at the senior management/board level have you witnessed first-hand?

First and foremost, gender diversity in the boardroom makes fundamental business sense and is a competitive advantage for any company. A significant body of research has demonstrated that gender diversity increases an organisation’s productivity, innovation and quality of decision-making. 

Moreover, it is believed that women on boards may inspire greater cultural change and push the thresholds on our Environmental, Social and Governance agenda. There is also evidence to show that women in boardrooms will better curb excessive risk-taking, promote ethical practices that in turn, improve organisational reputation, enhance quality and maintain sustainable performance. 

The presence of women on the board has been linked with good governance and effective diversity management. This leads to more positive effects on shareholder value and overall company performance, according to a recent research by McKinsey & Company.

There has been considerable attention directed to an increasing representation of women on boards in recent years. This is important as having women in the boardroom will have significant trickle-down effects on the entire workforce, moving the needle on gender equality as a whole.

When I was serving as a partner in a Big Four firm, there was a deliberate move to ensure that we had adequate representation of women leaders at the firm’s highest levels. The journey began a long time ago as we were well aware of the value proposition of how diversity serves to boost the overall quality of leadership decision-making. While globally, we were tasked with achieving a minimum of 25% of women at the top, the Singapore firm achieved well over this expectation and remains strong till today in ensuring female representation at the very top. 

Q: What are some of the best talent management approaches organisations can use to ensure constant diverse representation in leadership?  

Firstly, there needs to be buy-in at the very top. The top leaders have to believe that gender diversity is a critical success factor and not just a good-to-have. 

Organisations can then create diversity-friendly policies throughout the entire employee lifecycle. This can start from implementing non-discriminatory, equal-opportunity hiring policies and putting in place employee benefits with a diversity lens. It should also apply to reward and promotion policies, as well as training and development opportunities. Ultimately, the objective should be to build a succession pipeline which focuses on equality, inclusion and diversity.

Clear key performance indicators should be set to communicate gender equality, including swift actions against discrimination. Organisations can also make it a point to identify and prevent unconscious biases through training and dialogue

Q: Unconscious bias against women is often embedded in work processes ranging from recruitment to performance reviews and career growth opportunities. What are some best practices that can help organisations, recruiters, managers and employees check for unconscious gender bias and nurture a culture of gender equality?

In my opinion, inherent biases are inevitable. Consciously or unconsciously, we develop stereotypical assumptions. The point here is that education and communication are key to dispelling myths that prevent objective performance assessments. They also provide developmental opportunities and create productive conversations about career progression.

Apart from commitment by leadership on the gender agenda, there should be an organisation-wide adoption of the principles of equality. This can be created by consistent communication on the positive impact of gender equality and providing psychological safety when discussing sensitive issues such as gender.

One way to do this is to appoint a champion mentor. Having an influential female leader as a role model presents a powerful personal and business case. It creates avenues for mentorship, networking and socialising for role models to demonstrate what success looks like, how challenges can be confronted, and to expound the possibilities.

An organisation should also make it a point to celebrate achievements by female employees to effectively inspire them to embrace the possibilities in store.

Lastly, organisations must demonstrate to employees their commitment towards upholding gender equality by adopting a zero-tolerance policy against discriminatory behaviour and practices and ensure that the workplace remains a safe place for them – calling out such behaviours as you see it, if necessary. In my experience heading the implementation of such policies, taking a firm stand on this issue is key to achieving success.

Q: Please share some best practices and tips on how organisational leaders can mitigate inherent assumptions on gender preferences and capabilities.

Firstly, organisations can review hiring practices to ensure proper representation and  diversity at every level. This can be achieved by having gender-neutral job descriptions, and having diversity on the interview panel, and constantly monitoring trends on gender diversity .

Organisations can also work on practising and constantly ensuring a performance management philosophy that is entirely free from any gender bias, and based solely on the talent, performance and potential of the individual, including developmental and promotional opportunities. For example, there should be fair and equitable compensation practices – pay, rewards and benefits must be aligned to the job role and not tied to any demography. 

Q: As we commemorate International Women’s Day 2021, are there any points on the subject you wish to emphasise to employers/organisations looking to advance towards greater gender equality at all levels?

Gender equality is not just about pushing for an equal playing field between the sexes. It is more about making perfect business sense as gender diversity has been proven time and again to be critical in creating an inclusive and successful environment – one where ideas are respected and innovations are introduced.

To me, gender equality is not an elusive concept. We simply have to create the right conditions for success, operationalise them and embed them in all our strategies and processes to ensure appropriate gender representation at all levels. We can then measure our successes. If need be, we recalibrate them from time to time. We also need to establish that gender equality is a business imperative and not a passing fad.

Increasing board-level participation for women in leadership broadens the talent pool for board nominations and ensures that the women appointed have the experience, skills and legitimacy needed to impact decision-making. It also creates considerable advantage for sustained success and talent diversity, especially in challenging times like this.
Only then can we truly have company cultures which celebrate and embrace true gender equality, and consistently hire, develop and promote those aligned with their culture and belief systems.

Read more about Stephen’s collection of thoughts and writings on HR-related topics and issues at https://stephentjoa.com/.

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