The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been making a case for greater representation of women in the decision-making positions of businesses for a long time. Since the publication of its global report 'Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum' published in 2015, it has been working with the Employer and Business Management Organisations (EMBOs) to promote higher gender diversity and suggest measures and strategies for improving the status quo. As a continuation of this effort, they have recently published the second global report on the theme titled 'Women in Business and Management: The Business Case for Change'. Based on numerous studies on the benefits of greater gender diversity including its own on a global scale, ILO has come to the conclusion that greater diversity enhances profitability and productivity in all enterprises; leads to increased ability to attract and retain talent; generates greater creativity, innovation and openness; enhances reputation and the ability to better gauge consumer interests and demands.
In fact, many societies are challenging the gender stereotypes as women are increasingly getting engaged in a more diverse range of jobs in many sectors and levels. Some of the interesting features in this changing dynamics of female employment include: more women are finding jobs in traditionally male-dominated areas, such as pilots, engineers and IT specialists. Although women tend to be concentrated in management support functions, more women are now serving as managers. As women surpass men in different regions of the world in terms of educational attainment, there is increasing recognition of women's talents and skills. 01
In the above backdrop, the ILO survey has found that enterprises promoting gender-inclusive culture and additional women at all management levels are more likely to attain better business performance. It has found that gender-sensitive policies and procedures are the most effective in enhancing the share of women in management jobs.
However, the ILO survey has also identified some challenges. For example, the male-dominated company culture is still predominant. A majority of respondents agreed that women with equal skills and qualifications face greater difficulties in reaching top management positions. The gender pay gap is 22 per cent at the global level, but the managerial gender pay gap is even higher in the surveyed countries.
Research conducted by McKinsey & Company (2018) indicated that women displayed better social, emotional and cognitive skills than men, which are expected to be more and more in demand by business enterprises in the coming days. The cognitive skills include flexibility, creativity, logical reasoning, problem sensitivity, mathematical reasoning and visualisation (World Economic Forum, 2016). Other studies have found the innate nature of women to be stronger than men in some human-centric essential skills like relational and communication ability, empathy and emotional intelligence.
Studies have repeatedly shown that gender balance at all levels of an organisation, especially at the top level, results in improved business outcomes. Apart from boosting profitability directly, increased representation of women at the workplace also makes indirect contribution through raising the image and reputation of firms and strengthening employee loyalty-cum-commitment. The ILO survey has revealed that positive relationships existed between gender diversity and profit margins as well as wider range of business outcomes. Firms with a gender-inclusive business culture are significantly more likely to reap the benefits of elevated business outcomes.
Tools and examples of good practices already exist, like those provided by ILO and other institutions, for eliciting the benefits of a gender-balanced workforce at all levels. Many tried and tested measures can be implemented effectively, but the enterprises will require their own appropriate and tailored approach, as there is no 'one size fits all'. The Employer and Business Management Organisations (EBMOs) can play an important role in providing guidance to their members regarding the right tools and in advocating the notion that gender diversity is beneficial for business growth and sustainability.
Tools also exist for effectively overcoming gender bias in recruitment and promotion, as well as for nurturing female leadership. Overcoming gender pay gap is another challenge, as it is a visible indicator of inequality that hinders economic development. It is to a large extent related to segmentation of labour market along gender lines and the way male and female workers are perceived and valued. There is also a paramount need to support more females in engineering and technology education and related industries in order to reduce gender segregation and meet future shortages of skills. The governments and private institutions can work together for eliminating the traditional barriers to women's employment.
Introducing a set of strategic initiatives and practices for gender-inclusivity in an enterprise can go a long way in bringing about positive changes. A comprehensive and holistic approach is needed for this, as no isolated measure will lead to significant outcomes. An effective way for ensuring equal placement of men and women in career paths is to review the procedure for merit-based recruitment-cum-promotion as well as to control gender bias. The ILO Survey has demonstrated that firms would benefit by devising an explicit strategy for addressing gender diversity and inclusivity in organisational culture. These measures should be accompanied by initiatives like flexible working arrangements that support work-life balance for both male and female employees.
The managerial acumen in supporting and promoting these measures holds the key to their success. A dearth of buy-in and lack of accountability among managers at various levels can seriously undermine the gender diversity efforts. Therefore, the move towards a gender diverse and inclusive business should be a strategic choice for the whole enterprise, not confined to only human resource management. It is critical that top management remains visible and vocal in promoting a gender diversity strategy, which can ultimately evolve into a virtuous cycle for the whole enterprise.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.