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Top jobs: Women historically disadvantaged

Only 24 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, which is less than five percent. In Sri Lanka women in top management positions are around five percent and the female labour participation rate is 38 percent. This is despite women obtaining more degrees than men, clearly not a productive economic outcome. Socially, most business leaders tend to treat both genders equally and be gender-neutral when picking people for key jobs.

It is the right thing to do. But, women have historically been disadvantaged and not given an equal chance in jobs. This situation could be due to -

* Not having the experience, training or skills due to not being in the workforce for as long as most men

* Choosing to participate in a mothering role, which takes her out of the opportunity space for some time

* Leaders often selecting successors who look and feel like them, and some men having not had women peers or bosses.

Great strides

Globally, in the past two years, women have made great strides in closing the gap for c-suite jobs. Today, women now better educated than ever, are stepping into high profile roles and are also outnumbering men as the primary breadwinners in households.

In most US companies, the percentage of women at or near the top has flattened.

However, despite this shift most professional women continue to suffer from occupational segregation in the workplace and find it hard to break through the so-called 'glass ceiling' or the 'glass cliff' created by their male colleagues separating them from top-level jobs and the middle level professional positions.

While South Asia has made substantial progress mainly due to the efforts of the State to close the gender gap in top managerial and professional jobs, for most women in top management it is still lonely at the top, and the glass ceiling still remains relatively intact.

Low

According to non-profit research group Catalyst, despite a few headline-grabbing gains in 2012, women still hold a low percentage of the top jobs in the private and public sectors, even though they represent more than 50 per cent of the world's labour force.

Yet their share of management positions still remains unacceptably low with just a tiny proportion succeeding in breaking through the glass ceiling to obtain plum top jobs.

One explanation for this small number of female executives is the persistence of negative stereotypes about women as top managers. What should we do to help women 'catch up' and be noticed?

Attitudes about the role of women in society may have changed dramatically, but women are still perceived as being less suited than men to manage the top stressful, demanding and male dominated managerial positions.

Such perceptions about female managers may cause firms to under-use a significant part of the workforce.

Culture

Today, even though women represent nearly half of the total labour force, discrimination based on sex continues to occur in such areas as overseas training, foreign postings, performance appraisal, mentoring opportunities, pay and available career paths.

Therefore, shifting culture to improve the day-to-day experience of women to ensure that they can build great careers will encourage greater gender diversity.

Talent pool

We often hear the argument that even though more and more women are obtaining professional qualifications, there are still an insufficient number of professionally trained women to fill top jobs.

This argument is rapidly becoming outdated. For example, the number of women qualifying as technology professionals, accountants and lawyers has increased drastically over the past few years and many of them make that extra effort to grow and build soft skills.

While gender differences still exist in professional study choices, women worldwide are demonstrating their intellectual ability and are approaching the level of men in educational and intellectual attainment.

However, women with family responsibilities find that their upward movement is often hampered as they fight for time to devote to career and family.

An important feature of professional and especially managerial work are the long working hours that are necessary to gain recognition and eventual promotion.

Women also need to work on c-suite skills such as business acumen, ability to negotiate assertively, strategic thinking, lead senior staff and invest in leadership talk time and also to manage adversity.

Several women and probably some men think that women are bad negotiators. This perception hardly comes as a surprise as women compared to men are on average paid less and occupy fewer leadership positions, despite some reduction in the gender salary gap and an increase in the number of women in leadership positions in the past decades.

Women when compared to men have on average fewer or worse negotiation opportunities and conditions. Even when given similar opportunities, women still get on average worse outcomes than men.

There seems to be much evidence that women are indeed bad negotiators or at least worse than men.

On the other hand, research suggests that women's negotiation outcomes are claimed to be more a consequence of learnt gender behaviour than of genetic imprint.

Indeed, women have great potential to become great negotiators if they only understand and overcome a few internal and external gender barriers.

Today, having women on boards is a subject for much debate. Earlier research was contradictory. A paper in the Journal of Financial Economics, 'Women in the Boardroom and their Impact on Governance and Performance', contended that where management was good, it is better to leave well alone rather than tamper with gender balance, though in cases of weak governance, female directors brought improvement because they tended to exercise stronger oversight and also the belief of many senior business leaders that women have a beneficial effect on the character and culture of the boardroom.

Advantage

In the final analysis, setting quotas and introducing legislation may not be the best way to increase the number of women in leadership roles.

Because it may not be fair for men to have men pay for social justice by promoting a disproportionate number of women and also to women to take jobs where they may not be the most qualified and where gender gives them an advantage.

Instead, we need to make sure that the talent pipeline is filled with women, in school and early jobs.

This will increase the pool of women and ultimately increase the number of women qualifying for key jobs.

This may take some time but it will ensure a firm deploys the entire workforce productively and inclusively.

 

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