Why gender diversity makes good business sense

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Not nurturing half of your talent pool is just plain silly.

Ask any senior executive and they will tell you it is always better to have all the options available when it comes to hiring, especially for top leadership positions. But a large number of companies tend to miss out on a big chunk of the pool: Women.

We need to truly understand why there are fewer women at the top and to put in place a comprehensive suite of concrete actions to rectify this.

It is a well-known fact that female representation at the board level is low across Asia. According to latest data from Diversity Action Committee, the percentage of women holding positions on company boards is 13 percent in China, 11 percent in Hong Kong and 9 percent in Singapore.

It's not that companies aren't hiring women, but the ratio tends to decrease as the seniority level rises. Just take this example: The rates for female representation in senior management positions are 40 percent in China, 30 percent for Hong Kong, 27 percent for Singapore – much higher than what we see at the board level.

Though it is hard to determine the numbers for junior and entry-level staff, it is safe to assume that women representation at those levels is much higher again. Even in the 'new tech' companies, the female representation rate goes down drastically as we go up the seniority ranks.

Some women take time out to care children or aged parents and then find it difficult to get back on the fast track. Others find the working environment not conductive and they leave. And there will be women who fall prey to bias (conscious or otherwise) and end up falling behind. Examples could include those who do (a lot of) the real work and miss the networking activities or those that set the bar too high for themselves and never get encouraged to ask for the promotion.

Business decision

Most of the recent discussion and debate about gender diversity has focused on the "feel-good" factors. The arguments have centered on why ensuring gender equality is the right thing to do.

And while those are credible reasons, companies should look at this from a business perspective as well.

Firstly, to hire women at junior levels and invest in them only to lose them before they can take on the senior roles is a poor outcome business-wise, returns-wise and image-wise.

Secondly, women are increasingly becoming the decision-making consumer. Not having a proper representation of women at senior levels would mean firms are losing out on an opportunity to have leaders who have a better understanding of the needs and psyche of their target consumers. That is a bad business decision.

Thirdly, women will increasingly be the decision-maker and enterprise-buyer on the corporate side as well. Not having top leaders who can easily relate to the situation of senior female executives across the table can have adverse consequences.

What can be done?

As such, there is economic value to ensure the female participation remains high.

Governments are already doing their part. In China, besides maternity leave of 14 weeks, there is paternity leave from three days to fourteen days depending on geography. Hong Kong instituted paternity leave in February 2015. In Singapore, women get 16 weeks of maternity leave with the government partially reimbursing employers. More importantly, the Singapore Government has schemes to financially support employers to provide additional leave for women specifically to care for their children.

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From our experience, there are various things that companies can do to help maintain gender diversity over time and across all levels.

First and foremost, there has to be commitment and support from the top. The firms need to make this visible and credible. To do so, they need to set and monitor specific metrics (upstream, pipeline, development, time-to-promote, recruiting, attrition, yield, etc.). Companies should tie rewards and recognition to gender diversity goals - outcomes as well as interim measures.

Companies need to be proactive and teach senior executives (women and men) to mentor and guide women as well as to develop specific development programs; effective mentoring may not come naturally for some. Women could benefit from being told enthusiastically that they could take on the bigger role, rather than being asked if they were sure and ready.

Companies need to focus on the talent pipeline. They need to provide support to talent with diverse work/life balance and remove bias for those who can work 24/7. This would benefit all employees, not just women. Promotion must not only go to those who can work long hours, relocate overseas and attend after-hours events. Women who can't do that but have delivered results should be considered and statistics should be examined for any bias, intended or otherwise.

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A key part is also encouraging women to use the support structure (seek out mentors, talk to role models, explain work/life needs, suggest alternatives to company practices to accommodate personal needs). Employers should also publicize high-achieving role models with diverse work/life patterns to show there is not one single pathway, or that one has to sacrifice all else to achieve professional success.

There are various other initiatives firms can take to ensure staff are doing the right things. These include:

  • Invest in monitors to evaluate environment (do we call on women to speak, do we unconsciously screen out women during hiring?)

  • Consider evaluation of resumes without names or hints to gender

  • Remind managers to insist on women on slates of short-listed candidates and ensure discussion with action steps for when there are none

  • Monitor and make use of analytics to discern significant patterns

Finally they should benchmark themselves against peer companies and publish achievements and gaps in annual reports. After all, no one should be proud to admit they ignore half the talent pool.

Chan Wai Leong is a founding partner of DTCA, a Singapore-based, Asia-focused boutique executive board-level recruitment firm.