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Ideas & Debate

More women in management no longer tokenism for firms

gender balance
Countries are turning to legislation on gender equality as moral persuasion can no longer be relied upon. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Recently there was an interesting chat in a WhatsApp group of 32 young professionals. These are some good friends who were former classmates at Strathmore University. Dispersed across five countries, they are concentrated in the finance industry working in banking, audit, deal advisory, real estate, asset management, insurance, transfer pricing, development finance, energy investing and private equity.

Being peers, many topics fly in this group: careers, relationships, politics, science, religion, weddings, and of course memes.

On this day there was a topic of interest: Why are women overly under-represented on boards and in senior management?

For Kenyan firms, the situation is so appalling. Take one tier 1 bank that has 18 directors on its website and only two are women, for example. Not even the company secretary role, which many companies use for tokenism. While other tier 1 banks are not as glaring, it’s nothing close to party. This was a topic of common interest for discussion – for women and men alike.

A 2017 McKinsey study, “Delivering through diversity”, using data from more than 1,000 companies showed that those in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams had a 21 per cent likelihood of outperforming their fourth-quartile industry peers on profitability. Similarly, the most ethnically diverse executive teams were 33 per cent more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.

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Having more women on boards and in management is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s an economic imperative for businesses keen to improve financial performance by embracing inclusion.

While the positive correlation from these industry studies may not necessarily imply causality, there are many channels through which an inclusive leadership team enhances performance: better decision making from diverse perspectives, improved employee satisfaction, retaining female talent, and enhanced company image.

For these young professionals, there is an urgent need for bold and practical steps to achieve gender diversity at the corporate level.

In the midst of the ideas and discussions, consensus emerged on two manager-led initiatives: flexible working practices and management-led sponsor initiatives.

Many companies are seeing more women at entry level but it becomes harder and harder to get into the C-suite because of family commitments. Frank referred to cases where women are denied promotions after coming out of maternity leave because “they were not there when all the money was being made.” This is not uncommon across many professional services firms.

For Ivy she considers it fortunate that her employer, an impact investment fund, has created flexible system to support working mothers, including the flexibility to work at home on occasions.

Instead of seeing more of such initiatives, some companies are adding layers of timesheets and digital sign-ins on top of demanding face-time, even for industries where face-time is least wanted.

While this is no one flexibility model that can work for all companies, there is no doubt that companies need to get creative around flexible working practices if they are to attract and retain top female talent.

Some common practices that companies can try out include flexitime (employees have set weekly hours but can customise their schedule), schedule control (focus is on the deliverable and employees determine their schedules) and teleworking (the flexibility to work remotely while using tech to stay in touch).

For companies to embrace flexibility, practical implementation requires a strategic approach and proper transition. Even more importantly is a threshold of willingness, courage and open-mindedness by the management team, given that the economic benefits of enabling inclusion are not in question. Beyond flexible work schedules, mentorship and sponsorship have proved effective tools for women’s advancement in male-dominated fields. Simply put, mentors offer guidance and advice while sponsors create visibility and opportunity. To see more women (and men too) advance in their careers, managers at all levels need to boldly take up the role of sponsors.

Take Anne, for example. She is a forex trader and corporate dealer. Within banks, this is a role mostly occupied by men and there are industry undertones that women – and especially young women like her – are not most suitable for these high-risk roles.

Her journey is, however, one of career sponsorship. She noted that early on on her job, her direct bosses (all men) were supportive and brought her to the trading table with them. They went beyond mentorship and created space for her in a male-dominated industry.

Sponsorship takes many forms. It could be a manager taking with them younger colleagues to high-level meetings, entrusting junior team members with client presentations, a manager offering access to career networks that would otherwise not be accessible, or giving personal recommendations for young professionals applying to graduate school.

Samira, however, points outs that young women need to watch out for predatory managers posing as sponsors yet they are only interested in being “sponsors”. Sponsorship needs to be kept professional.

The Kenyan business landscape is still far from achieving gender parity despite the potential benefits that could be unlocked. According to IMF global estimates, closing the gender gap could increase GDP by an average of 35 per cent. While most of these is due to increased labour force participation, up to 20 per cent of these gains could come from the effect of gender diversity on productivity.

Increasingly, countries are turning to legislation on gender equality as moral persuasion can no longer be relied upon.

A good example is France’s recent laws that include obligations for firms to publish pay gap indicators and to provide catch–up measures where inequality exists, with penalties for non-compliance.

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