Leading people

Promoting gender parity through empowerment

Insights for companies in Singapore to tackle the issue of bias and ensure equality of opportunity written by, Arlene Wherrett, VP and Managing Director, Sage Asia.

Ever wondered what it would be like to swap genders at the workplace?

That’s exactly what happened when a male employee at a US-based movie-review website accidentally used his female colleague’s signature on emails he sent from a mailbox he shared with her.

As a result, the two decided to undertake an experiment to understand the impact of gender bias. They both decided to use each other’s signature for a fortnight. They found that while he struggled to gain respect from clients, she was able to complete tasks much more quickly as a result of using her male colleague’s name.

Aside from being the right thing to do ethically, addressing gender bias is also vital to attract and keep top talent. In fact, advancing women’s equality in the countries of the Asia-Pacific could add US$4.5 trillion (a 12 per cent increase) to their collective annual GDP in 2025, according to a recent McKinsey report.

Here are some practical steps companies in Malaysia can take today to tackle the issue of bias and ensure equality of opportunity.

Implement gender-neutral recruitment processes

Carefully word your job adverts. Research shows that adjectives such as “competitive” and “determined” put women off. On the other hand, words such as “collaborative” and “cooperative” tend to attract more women than men.

Standardise interviews, anonymise CVs and use blind evaluation processes to help your company recruit from more diverse backgrounds and attract people based on skills, rather than gender.

Protect against unconscious bias, review salaries and standardise pay

Frequently review salaries with the eye to achieving parity between genders, races and other areas where diversity is a priority. When recruiting, set the pay range offered on the size of the role and breadth of responsibility, rather than on how well candidates negotiated their last pay package.

Additionally, be sure to educate employees about their own unconscious biases. Although this does not guarantee that attitudes will change, it does help employees to understand their biases and to work towards eliminating them. After all, knowledge is power.

Have a clear policy on anti-discrimination

Create a clear, unbiased, non-retaliatory, anti-discrimination policy that ensures employees have a proper way to comment or report on inappropriate treatment in the workplace. Make sure everyone knows and understands the policy. Implement severe penalties for sexual discrimination and harassment.

A Unilever study found that women and men struggle to acknowledge gender discrimination and inappropriate behaviour (most likely sexual harassment) in the workplace. And, in fact, 67 per cent of women said they feel pressured to overlook inappropriate acts. And most women (64 per cent) and slightly more than half of men (55 per cent) said that men don’t confront the perpetrator when/after witnessing bad behaviour.

Provide flexible working and de-stigmatise shared parental leave

Shift your company mindset to assessing workers’ performance on their delivery and achievements rather than time spent in the office. This benefits both working mothers and fathers, as well as those caring for elderly parents, and everyone in general.

Ensure managers are actively encouraging women to progress

Make sure that female employees are applying for promotions and asking for pay rises.

At KPMG, when a promotion is advertised, line managers are encouraged to check whether their high potential female colleagues have applied and if not, ask why. According to an internal Hewlett-Packard review, if faced with a job description list of 10 criteria, for instance, women don’t feel they’re up to the task if they cannot tick off every item on the list, whereas men are confident about their ability if they meet just 60 per cent of the requirements. Women must be encouraged to be bold, take risks and have faith in their capabilities and strengths.

It’s also important to promote a culture where great ideas come from all levels, genders and races, and all voices are welcome and respected around the table.

When President Barack Obama took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men. Women had to elbow their way into important meetings. And when they got in, their voices were sometimes ignored. So, female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”. When a woman made a point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to her. This forced everyone in the room to recognise the contribution.

I personally believe in the power of gender-balanced teams, from providing a holistic view on strategies to enabling different styles of company leadership. At Sage Asia, where we have a corporate focus on Diversity & Inclusion, our 50/50 gender-balanced senior management team have had a great impact on our company culture, dialogue and decision-making.

It is time for companies to take action instead of simply waiting for change. These practical steps, taken today, can help businesses in Malaysia play their role in tackling the critical socio-economic issue of gender inequality.