Many organizations today are committed to making gender diversity a priority by setting aspirational goals for greater representation of women in leadership roles, insisting on a diverse slate of candidates for senior positions and developing mentoring and training programs. However, these programs often see little success and talent teams are left feeling frustrated and defeated.
The lack of success also often disrupts the learning cycle at the core of leadership development programs, especially women leader focused programs. So how can the industry address this challenge? How do we boost representation and make it impactful, instead of a tick-in-box number driven goal? In an attempt to find answers to these questions, People Matters and Harappa Education hosted a Roundtable at the People Matters L&D SEA Conference 2021 on the theme “women leadership on the winning track”.
Moderated by Yasmin Taj, Managing Editor, People Matters, the discussion witnessed leaders from across SEA sharing experiences and learnings on the best practices to eliminate bias and self-limiting beliefs. Leaders also explored how learning interventions and leadership development programs can be leveraged to accelerate the growth journey for women at the workplace.
Read on for highlights from the discussion.
Unseen barriers in capability building leadership programs
As Yasmin set the ball rolling on the discussion, industry leaders were quick to contribute their observations and perspectives on what barriers continue to hold women back. Pragati Sethia, Regional Asia Pac Head, Talent and Learning & Development at Levi Strauss & Co shared that when you look at leadership development, in certain functions, there are unsaid barriers. “No one says you can’t take the role, but it just doesn’t come to women. At the outset, many employers advocate that they are equal opportunity employers, and anyone can apply but you will see that very few women land into these roles over a period of time.
Bringing an interesting perspective here, Harappa Founder & CEO, Shreyasi Singh recalled a thought-provoking question she came across, “How many mediocre men make it to the top and how many talented women don’t?”.
To shift the needle on women representation in leadership roles, Shreyasi advised fellow participants to work towards eliminating the biases and thought processes that establish an association between gender and role fit by placing women in such roles and witnessing the change.
Shreyasi added that when it comes to the barriers on women leadership, “Make the high visible changes quickly, to set in an optics change which can be very useful in demolishing some of these barriers.”
Eurida Razo, Specialist, Learning and Development at JG Summit Petrochemicals Group highlighted a key aspect when it comes to accepting leadership positions. Razo said that while men can almost immediately say yes when offered a leadership role, women are often met with considerations that they need to factor in prior to sharing acceptance, for instance, family commitments and responsibilities, or location constraints, among others.
Eliminating bias and self-limiting beliefs
As leaders discussed barriers, an overarching theme that emerged was the overwhelming presence of self-limiting beliefs—not only causing women professionals to hold back but also having a likely impact on what is being called the aspiration deficit.
Kanykei Omorova, Group Assistant General Manager, L&D at International SOS noted that a lot of times it is our own self-limiting beliefs, or the impostor syndrome, that the female population primarily falls prey to. “We tend to diminish ourselves in our own eyes somehow, which is a challenge, that requires a lot of self-work, self-evaluation, self-appreciation, and looking at what we bring to the table.” Speaking of how women leaders often get “too operational in their approach with the desire to prove their worth to the business”, Kanykei shared that specialized mentoring programs have the ability instill a self-driven agenda for personal growth and development, removing self-limiting beliefs, and overcoming the psychological need to prove one’s worth.
Shruti Koshy, Global HR Director, Zilingo brought to fore the role of the employee life stage in their willingness to take on more work or cut down on it. She spoke about the trend of women approaching motherhood often slowing down their career aspirations. Agreeing with Shruti on barriers including self-limiting beliefs and aspiration deficit, Harappa Founder & CEO Shreyasi Singh said that there are external interferences and internal interferences. “In all of the self-limiting beliefs, we have to acknowledge our internal interferences and identify how to move from our aspiration deficits to aspiration surplus.” Advising women leaders to write down a vision for themselves, Shreyasi said that when you use strong words, they can become guidelines for decision-making. “Do it for yourself and then encourage others to do it.” She suggested having accountability partners - help each other reach individual goals by holding each other accountable through consistent reminders and check-ins.
“We do need to have that support structure that many women struggle with, particularly young mothers, or those coming from different cultures who are caregivers for the elderly. These are the things that restrict us because women are the primary caregivers through some circumstance or the other,” said Faith Ngeow, Regional Director Talent Development APAC at Herbalife Nutrition APAC.
Faith asserted that we are way past awareness and must think about what we are doing to support each other as women, particularly if men aren’t helping or modeling the behavior that is required to further the equity agenda.
She recommends having programs in place, primarily programs that address the self-limiting beliefs, “whatever it is that causes stress and makes us feel that we can’t do it or makes us want to give up, and turning those into possibilities, or opportunities.”
MayKym Ooi, L&D Head at IHS Markit shared how her organization runs a “connect and learn” session for women in leadership, inviting women leaders to share their experiences and struggles with women colleagues across the company, and at the same time help build confidence in themselves. “A lot of times it isn’t just the bias or stigma that holds them down, but also a lack of self-confidence that keeps them from applying for leadership positions,” said Ooi.
Building on Ooi’s learnings, Pragati Sethia emphasized the impact of employee resource groups, “We have created these safe spaces to talk about various issues whether it is related to women issues, or more broader D&I issues. The ERGs are able to prioritize the voice of that group, whether it be pay equity, or managing professional and personal responsibilities during extraordinary circumstances, such as prolonged remote working.”
Tailoring women leadership programs to accelerate representation
With limitations to progress, internal as well as external, coaching becomes crucial to keep the momentum, intent and action strong on enhancing gender diversity across levels at the workplace, especially in leadership positions.
While some employers work on women focused programs, and some run common leadership development programs without creating the gender divide, despite both having their own pros and cons, there is a definite need to tailor programs in order to enable women in fulfilling their potential.
Ichdina Daya, Head of Capability & Talent at Coca-Cola Amatil Indonesia spoke about tailored women-focused development programs for senior managers or leaders first, where functional leaders are the facilitators instead of HR. “This attracts enthusiasm from participants as they see their senior leaders living up to the values and behaviours. These programs also encourage leaders and participants to be more vulnerable in the interaction to keep the conversations authentic.”
Sharing how gender neutral development programs work, Siew Lee Tee, Head of HR at CEVA Logistic (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, said that while the organization does not really cater to women focused leadership programs, it gives equal and fair opportunity to all, encourages motivation, and at the same time is driving women participation in multiple roles. “We also work towards creating greater awareness at the top to encourage more participation from women and enable women in certain roles to role model capabilities for women across the business.”
Swarnaa Sanmuganathan, Learning and Development Specialist (Digital, Agile & FutureSkills) at RHB emphasized the relevance of knowing the day-to-day environment you work in—is it supportive of your decisions? How does it nurture you to become a leader?
“The day-to-day work has a bigger impact on building that confidence and the support system that you need— building allies within the working environment, having managers supportive of your growth, having peers as accountability partners.”
She added that having an idea on how to build the environment and the social cultural drivers to empower women leaders is really important, and that stretches beyond learning interventions.
Moving on from tailoring programs to measuring them, Vivek Gupta, Head Talent Management at Rentokil Initial touched upon an effective way to measure the effectiveness of leadership capability building programs. Measuring how many leaders or potential leaders who were a part of talent development programs have gone on to take on bigger roles.
“From the Asia experience in the last few years, more than 75% of all the leaders, including women leaders who we put through this program, have actually gone on to take on much bigger roles, either in the same country or even other countries. As part of the development program, we administer the psychometric tool to measure someone’s judgement, drive and initiative. In terms of empowering women leaders, we also assess how many women leaders really have the drive and for anyone who shows high scores on the parameters, those are the women leaders we actually start focusing on,” said Gupta.
Choose to challenge
In sync with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #ChooseToChallenge, leaders concluded the discussion with choosing to rewrite the perceived extent of a woman’s capability, whether established by the world, or by her own self. Here’s what the leaders unanimously chose to challenge:
- Under-representation of women in leadership roles
- Challenging the option of opting out from the workforce with the mantra “Stick with it”
It is a known fact that 2020 indeed pushed back years of progress in the advancement of women’s rights at the workplace and in the society.
The economic recovery needs to be mirrored in societal and workplace reforms as the ecosystem rewires itself to thrive in the new normal.
This moment in time is a golden opportunity to reset the gender balance and incorporate delayed equity.