Women represent huge economic power and offer tremendous consumer insights, yet they are underrepresented in key leadership positions. In this issue of Business 360, we spoke to some women leaders in the corporate sector on how women can be encouraged to aspire for and achieve leadership positions, and what are the challenges holding them back.
Secretary, South Asian Women Development Forum
Women are still treated as household figures in our society. Our income is rarely considered as the main source because of our gender. In my personal view, women tend not to sacrifice their family responsibilities for their careers or their ambitions. This is due to the ingrained views they have regarding their roles as a mother, a caretaker, or even simply as someone’s wife.
If, as a society, we can develop a culture of sharing, mutual respect and financial independence, we will be able to clearly see how much women can achieve. And there are examples of women performing at par with men even in Nepal.
As women, we have so many strengths that have not been acknowledged in our society and it is high time for this to change. According to a recent World Bank report, Nepal has made the fastest progress among South Asian countries in closing the gender gap. This should come as an inspiration to all Nepali people that there are still many things to be done to better our society for women. Hopefully, this will be a stepping stone towards giving women more leadership opportunities and not suppressing their rights.
Deputy General Manager Sanima General Insurance
Being in a key position, I wouldn’t say women are underrepresented. Yes, there are very few women who are in leadership positions but to tackle this in its entirety, we women have to work for it as well. In any sector, be it business, banking or at the national level, women do face obstacles to reach a certain position, but we should not let the obstacles act as a barrier. We have to move forward on our own merit. Rather than competing with other genders, we must compete with ourselves.
In our country there are examples of women having held key positions. For instance, Sushila Karki was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the work she did while leading the country’s judicial system speaks for itself. That is but just a single example. There are so many women and we must take them as role models.
However, we definitely do need the support of our families. Women should be supported and encouraged by their parents, spouses, in-laws, to reach their career goals. From my personal experience, it was a step at a time, there were many challenges along the path, but you can either choose to sharpen your skills and excel in life, or lament the hardships.
Both men and women face difficulties and struggles in life. And yes, women do have to work harder in a patriarchal society but I believe that women are as gifted as men if not more because as we are also able to balance responsibilities and multitask.
If we look at our country’s statistics, the literacy rate is only 41%. Working from the grassroots level is important. Society has changed a lot, from joint families to nuclear families, and if there is support for married women from their husbands, it opens up a portal for women to explore and reach different heights.
Being from the insurance sector and in a leadership position, I have always tried to uplift the women in the organisation. Also, as a member of Zonta, an international club, we are trying our best to encourage women to move forward in their careers and personal lives. On a personal level, I am focused on financially empowering women in multiple ways.
Aarti Rajyalaxmi Rana
Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Sunrise Bank
In the Nepali context, we all have to accept that it is still a patriarchal society. Culturally we are a male dominant country and there’s a major belief that women should stay at home and take care of the family whereas the male goes out to earn money and sustain the family. This culture has been rooted not only in Nepal but in most Asian countries. So, culture is one of the major causes of women lagging behind.
At present, there have been visible changes since the past two decades where women have started to take on key leadership positions. From the experiences gained in the past 20 years of my career in banking, I have witnessed that many women are taking the role of managerial teams which is a sign that later in the future, they will be more women in leadership positions.
By looking at the statistics and comparing them, we can see that 10 years back Nepali banks had 70% male and 30% female employees but as of last year, there are 61% male and 39% female staff in banks. There has been a vertical growth in the number of women joining the workforce. I believe that women joining the workforce will encourage more to take on key leadership positions.
When in a leadership position, one must be competent, confident, good at communication, and a person who can drive a team. These are the traits any individual needs to have in a leadership position irrespective of their gender. They should be hardworking and determined to perform their absolute best. Similarly, the 3Hs are equally important while in the position – head, heart and hands – these are vital.
On the other hand, literacy and the management of households are other barriers for many women still, and a supportive and understanding family is required.
Executive Director, KGH Group
Women are 50% of the world. There in itself lies the economic potential of women without much explanation. If one does not include half of their country in their economy, they are already losing out. According to Bloomberg’s opinion piece by Mihir Sharma, Bangladesh was able to move faster than both India and Pakistan in GDP per capita, although Bangladesh was much poorer when they started out. Part of the reason was women’s labour force participation. In 1971, Pakistan was 70% richer than Bangladesh, today Bangladesh is 45% richer than Pakistan. If you look at the numbers, you see that the labour force participation for women in Bangladesh has increased since 2009 while India’s has decreased significantly and Pakistan is puttering around the same labour force participation rates since 2004. This proves that women have much to add to the GDP metric as is and as a collective (country, institution, household), we should enable women, not disable them. Policies need to be put in place that make it easier and safer for women to earn income and thereby move up the ladder.
But lack of economic and social policies that enable women’s labour participation is not the only thing that is stopping women from moving up the ladder. The problem also lies in our household structure and our inability to recognise women’s unpaid labour. Once women get married and especially once they have children, they have a difficult time balancing their income generating work and their non-income generating work. Numerous studies over the past 20 years have found that women do a majority of these unpaid work irrespective of the proportion of household income that they bring in. Once women have children, the unpaid work increases and they are often made to take a back seat from their income generating work. They look for opportunities that are below their skill level but provide flexible hours and is part time with little to no benefits. Part time careers rarely position women for promotions in their respective institutions making it difficult for women to find themselves in leadership roles.
At this point, I want to add a circular problem to the mix: part of the reason why we don’t see women in leadership positions is because there just have not been women in these positions to pave the way for other women to succeed in these institutions. It took a pregnant Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, to change some of the corporate policies around women in Facebook. It took the first American female astronaut to go to space to teach NASA about menstruation. So, one of the solutions for making it easier for women to rise to the top is to make a deliberate effort in giving women leadership positions and providing a system that will allow them to stay in that position. Diversity of experience at the top matters a lot.
The income generating world was designed for a man with a wife and/or mother/sisters who will handle household affairs without him having to think about it. We are now transitioning into a world where both men and women choose to generate income. In our transition into this new world order, we find that women aren’t able to rise up to key leadership positions because of the residual effects of the previously designed system. In order to dismantle the previous system, we need to make deliberate attempts as a country and/or institution to put capable women on as many leadership positions as we possibly can.