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‘What’s needed in the C-suite is not an evolution, but a revolution,’ says R3’s Shufen Goh

A topic discussed at the recent World Economic Forum was the reluctance of male executives to mentor women, as awareness grows on issues of gender bias and inequality. The concern that men need to watch every word they say and every move they make indirectly suggests an unwelcome consequence to women rallying to find their voice, but also raises the question if women are being overly sensitised or are overly sensitive.

Based on the latest Bloomberg Gender Equality index, which tracked 230 companies committed to transparency in gender reporting and advancing women’s equality in the workplace across 10 sectors and 36 countries, women had a 40% increase in executive level positions between 2014 to 2017. About 60% of the firms conducted compensation reviews to reveal a 26% pay gap in Asia Pacific. For a meritocratic country such as Singapore, only four publicly listed companies made it onto the index – Singtel, DBS, UOB and CDL.

In Singapore, women only make up 7% of CEO and chairman positions. This is clearly untenable and suggests that what’s needed in the C-suite is not an evolution, but a revolution. So in this article, I have put forward three suggestions on how we can address this imbalance.

Transparency in measuring progress

Greater gender diversity has proved to deliver better business results. To quote the group chief executive of Singtel: “[Diversity] allows us to tap … fresh perspectives and creativity which are critical to building a vibrant, successful and sustainable organisation.” Therefore, a lack of action is not a result of lack of reason, but a lack of will.

This is a conversation that touches on commercial performance. Comfort of status quo and inertia to make changes could be the reason why only 10% of eligible companies are disclosing their workplace gender policies and practices. For both public service and publicly listed companies, we should make disclosures on gender policies and practices mandatory, not discretionary.

Equal resources at home and at work

Acknowledging that family-work balance is not just an issue for mothers alone is a start. Why would we invest equal resources in educating both genders and then stop reaping the benefits once women enter the workplace? If we’re truly embracing a coparenting model, men should also be given equal paternity leave and flexible work arrangements.

For fathers, this means more ownership of home affairs, embracing fatherhood and stressing less about being the sole breadwinner. For mothers, this helps avert a career break which might negatively impact the pay gap when/if she re-enters the workforce.

Courageous policy changes

In trying to answer the question why girls consistently outperform boys academically in school, yet that advantage evaporates when they enter the workforce, my own experience as a mother of two daughters and a son corroborates with the observations of clinical psychologist Lisa Damour. Damour offered a hypothesis that our schools are confidence factories for our sons, but only a competence factory for our daughters.

Girls have a tendency to be overly prepared, have a higher capacity for work, and colour coded notes in order to feel confident of good grades. Boys build confidence from years of winging it, studying just enough. These habits become barriers contributing to a crisis of confidence among women in the workforce. It explains why women don’t lean in for top jobs even when they’re overqualified.

Women feel only confident when they are perfect. Corporates need to acknowledge this gender difference and rethink their approach and policies to prepare more competent women for leadership roles. One of the countries that has implemented the suggestions above is Iceland. This is a story of a country that was facing bankruptcy after the global financial crisis, and how it came together in difficult times to reinstate fresh leadership in its political and financial institutions. Its approach included making gender diversity a key component of its restructure, and today, the cultural change is palpable.

As we brace ourselves for a new age of technological disruption in the workplace, it is important that both genders are in decision-making positions when it comes to who gets to work, how we work and how we are rewarded for our intellectual and physical labour. We are past a point where we can claim ignorance, with sufficient examples available that supports the ethical and business arguments for change, and I hope the pragmatic nature of Singapore eventually prevails to punch above our weight on how we truly leverage half our resources.

The writer is R3’s co-founder and principal Shufen Goh. The article first appeared in Marketing’s March print edition.