Businesses in Asia and the Pacific are discovering that putting women in leadership positions is good for business and good for the economy overall.
Asian companies are implementing change management combining the empowerment of women and a boost in profits. In doing that, they are recognizing what research has been telling us for a while: investing in women is good business. In fact, enhancing women´s economic participation generates higher returns for economies, and indisputably improves the lives of everyone in a community.
Despite these changes, deeply entrenched and gender-biased belief systems still hinder the possibility of filling leadership and decision-making positions with women, and prevent women-owned businesses from fitting the traditional perception of an ‘ideal’ business investment. This keeps women disadvantaged, especially in labor and capital markets.
What if we looked at women as a crystal-clear opportunity for business transformation? Let’s look at the airline industry. Globally, the industry is male-dominated with few women in leadership or technical roles. The CEO of Fiji Airways, Andre Viljoen, said that his mindset shifted the day he asked a highly qualified, senior member of his finance team if she saw herself becoming the Chief Financial Officer of the company. Her reply was telling: “This is out of the question for women. Men are CFOs.”
How do we address this? A change process can happen with three acts.
The first act of leadership requires acknowledging the reality of an unequal playing field and understanding that, beyond building a gender-equal workforce, the ‘leaky pipeline’ issue still prevails with the number of women dwindling rapidly the more senior the leadership position.
Business leaders must pause to recognize the root causes of this outcome, where most evaluation criteria and processes for promotion are based on men´s conditions for economic inclusion. This perpetuates an environment where few women leaders ‘fit in’, which is hardly conducive to encouraging more women to take the leap.
The second act is to initiate change starting at the top. More than ever, business leaders must probe the lens through which decisions are made and reinforce a culture that is inclusive and forward-thinking.
Beyond high performance, they must question how employees arrive at decisions and what biases these reveal. Is there a reframe needed? Even for results-driven businesses, what companies need is to first and foremost be people-driven.
Third, having more women in key decision and innovation positions delivers steadfast organizational transformation. Beyond the obvious impact of role-modelling that elicits women´s higher aspirations is the ‘flywheel effect’ that a shift in dynamics creates. Studies have shown that the conversation changes significantly with a critical mass of women in boardrooms bringing with them fresh perspectives on proactive collaboration and innovative problem-solving.
Studies have shown that the conversation changes significantly with a critical mass of women in boardrooms bringing with them fresh perspectives on proactive collaboration and innovative problem-solving.
Becoming “gender intentional” – defining strategies and measures with a focus on gender, setting targets and measuring results on gender equality – is critical to break through layers of cultural barriers and unconscious biases. In Pakistan, the microfinance institution, Kashf Foundation took a stand from its inception to view women as a prodigious banking opportunity. Under the leadership of Managing Director Roshaneh Zafar, the Foundation has remained committed to changing the way society views women by showing that they are powerful economic actors.
When Kashf Foundation started, $1 of micro-lending went to men and only $0.20 to women. Lending to women was deemed ‘impossible’ because women were not acknowledged as economic agents with growth potential.
Understanding the biases underlying this perception, Kashf Foundation debunked this myth and successfully introduced group lending to women at scale. The foundation was the first to deploy a women-centric model in Pakistan, developing women-friendly products and delivery methods that addressed women's unique collaborative strengths.
Gender intentional leadership also means fostering “gender accountability” by introducing realistic efficiency targets throughout the organization to ensure gender equity in operational performance. In addition to counting the amount of lending to women, measures such as a 50/50 gender balance in staff as a condition for opening new branches, or tracking the percentage of staff who are managed by women and the percentage of women who are promoted year-on-year, trigger unparalleled organizational transformation. These smart designs ensure women´s growth within the organization, which makes for genuine company-wide inclusion.
How did women transform these two organizations? For Fiji Airways, the promotion of a woman to CFO resulted in a more transparent and innovative culture within the finance department. Applying gender parity among senior management, Fiji Airways was able to optimize its business processes. It also commissioned its first-ever woman pilot of a widebody aircraft.
Kashf Foundation was the first microfinance institution in Pakistan to become financially sustainable and won the COVID-19 Action Award at the 2020 UN Women Asia Pacific’s Women’s Empowerment Principles Awards.
It is clear that women’s leadership drives the change and innovation we need today.
Fiji Airways has partnered with ADB for financial support to sustain its operations in the face of a downturn caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Kashf Foundation is working with ADB to lend to low-income households and women-led micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises.