In December 2020, the Financial Times1 reported that countries led by women have weathered the pandemic better than male-led countries. They had more rigorous testing strategies, fewer deaths from COVID-19 and registered a lower economic impact.
The paper conceded that the presence of a female leader could be a symptom rather than a cause – with many of the countries in question already considered more progressive in terms of gender equality.
Still, the finding adds to an established and growing body of evidence that women in positions of leadership improve the quality of decision-making.2
Despite this, only 7 per cent of last year’s Fortune 500 were led by women – and this was a new high point in the history of the ranking3. This is just one of many examples underlining that gender remains a barrier to progress in the business world and beyond.
“When you start looking at data and numbers, I don't think we can pat ourselves on the back with the progress that has been made,” said Tanuj Kapilashrami, Global Head of Human Resources at Standard Chartered, in opening the bank’s webinar on “Disrupting Diversity – Women: Leadership, Power & Influence”, in celebration of International Women’s Day.
The webinar brought together a panel of high-profile speakers to discuss their own experiences, how women at the top can use their status to help others further down the ladder, and how men must play a key role in challenging the status quo.
Hidden gender bias
Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s former China Editor4, shared her experience of her battle to receive equal pay.
She said she considered her experiences “a measure of how deeply entrenched unconscious bias and issues with pay structures were and how these narrowed the management’s options,” when it came to raising her salary to the same level as that of her male colleagues.
On top of this, she came up against a negative discourse in both traditional and social media.
“The language was reminiscent of what had been used a century earlier for the suffragists who were trying to fight for the vote. The wider conversation was disappointing,” she added.
While her case was ultimately successful, she also highlighted the many women who approached her to express their feelings of helplessness:
“All over the UK, all over the world, women were saying: your story is my story, but I just don’t have your public platform to talk about it,” she explained. “Many of these problems should have been sorted. It’s a century after women got the vote in the UK, but we are still confronting issues of structural sexism in the workplace.”
Challenging gender inequality
Inclusion in the workplace is a deeply-held value at Standard Chartered, as Tanuj Kapilashrami explained.
“We believe that our diversity helps us innovate and makes us a better bank for our clients and our colleagues,” she said. “Female representation in senior leadership roles has increased from 25 per cent in 2016 to 30 per cent this year.”
The goal is to get to 35 per cent of women by 2025.
Inclusive leadership training, a coaching programme for women named Ignite, and enabling more flexible ways of working for all genders, are some of the bank’s cornerstones of building a culture of inclusion.
Mastering the dual challenge of work and family is also close to the heart of Jane Sun, the CEO of the Trip.com Group5, one of the world’s largest online travel agencies.
“As a working mother, I understand it’s very challenging for a woman to take care of her family as well as her work. So, I put in extra effort to make sure we create a good organisation that provides a lot of support for women,” she highlighted.
At Trip.com Group, pregnant women can avail themselves of a free taxi to get to and from work. They receive a bonus when their baby is born and are given flexible working hours and a dedicated training budget when they return to work.
Thanks to such policies, 50 per cent of Trip’s workforce, more than 40 per cent in middle management and over a third of executives, are women. “And that number is much better than many companies in Silicon Valley, which I feel very proud of,” added Jane Sun.
Boosting confidence for gender equality
Jane Sun underlined that board representation is needed for women so that these issues are being considered adequately, while Carrie Gracie stressed the key role men have to play in championing inclusion. She highlighted how valuable support from male colleagues had been in her campaign for equal pay.
“It is an issue where all genders need to come together and engage in finding solutions,” agreed Tanuj Kapilashrami.
What is just as important is that women put themselves forward more confidently – and are supported in doing so.
“Every year, the people who come to my office and ask for promotion are mostly men,” said Jane Sun. “So, I always ask women who I thought did a fabulous job: why don’t you go through the promotion process? The answer is always: give me another two to three years, then I will apply for promotion.”
Male leaders are much more forward in demanding a promotion, she added. “When I see a female leader who isn’t confident enough to step up, I always try very hard to push them. I very much like to encourage women to be brave and assertive – and realise that their work deserves equal pay and equal promotion.”
Carrie Gracie agreed that assertiveness is critical, especially when it comes to pay. She sees her own role as giving women a voice: “It is about encouraging women to stand up and have the courage to talk about these issues, not allow themselves to be silenced.”
Choosing gender-equal employers
She also pointed out another action women can take both to ensure fair treatment and to root out bias, namely choosing employers who are serious about gender equality.
“Because I think this will speed up progress towards a more equal world. It’s survival of the fittest – making sure that those employers get rewarded by getting the support of their female staff.”
In closing the discussion, Simon Cooper, Standard Chartered’s Chief Executive, Corporate, Commercial & Institutional Banking and Europe & Americas, stressed that closing the gender gap is not an issue for women alone and that it will take a concerted effort at all levels to achieve it.
“I do believe that we make better decisions if we have a more inclusive workforce. It’s good for business, as well as being the right thing to do.”