Heroes in high heels

Women have made huge strides in the workplace. Organisations are now trying to figure out how to high heel-proof the corporate ladder

Women have long been a part of Sri Lanka’s workforce, but their representation in corporate leadership is limited. Companies are now realising that women are not only just as capable as men in leadership, but can add more value to organisations. Women are known to have qualities of honesty, empathy and fairness, more than do men. Despite firms desiring to give women opportunities to play a greater role, it doesn’t seem to be happening; its business as usual. Many women prefer not to take on more responsibility, or drop out of the workforce altogether. Three passionate advocates for women in leadership – two women and a man – joined a round table discussion to share thoughts about the value women bring to the table and how firms can go about improving diversity in leadership teams. Chandi Dharmaratne, Human Resources Director at Virtusa Sri Lanka; Samanmali Chandrasiri, Human Resources Director at Ceylon Tobacco Company; and Shakthi Ranatunga, Group Director – Human Resources at MAS Holdings met for an engaging conversation, discussing everything from gender diversity programmes to gender stereotyping.

Shakthi, your organization employs a predominantly female workforce. Is value -add the predominant driving force regarding the issue of women in the organization?
Shakthi: We have a programme at MAS, ‘Women Go Beyond’, where we look at the challenges women face. We focus on empowerment and what we can do about that. We used women’s empowerment principles as a guideline and initially worked on three of the seven principles – career advancement, work-life balance and skills development.

hAt the beginning, our understanding of women empowerment was very basic, but we’ve evolved in the twelve years since then. Initially, when we looked at recognizing and rewarding women who excelled, we had many who came from the shop floor. But when we started to apply this to executives and beyond, we saw a lack of enthusiasm. Not too many women came forward with their stories. We had to push some of them by showing them we needed them as role models for the next generations. We got on board HR directors and merchandising heads who were women at middle and senior levels, who had been able to break boundaries in terms of being part of a leadership team. But those stories were few and far between, which concerned us. Some of them felt that it was almost like telling a sob story, and didn’t see it as a form of empowerment.

So, initially, we had a lot of challenges. But as we evolved, at least in the past three years, it became more about being conscious about having that right balance. Today, about 20% of our senior level managers are women. Is it a good number? Perhaps not, butit’s better than what we were. Our target is 30%. We initially set up women as role models to show other women what’s possible. It took us to a certain level, but after some time we realized we were still missing the point in terms of making the organization aware of the loss incurred by not having this balance. We didn’t see any major push to see women come up to a certain point. I wouldn’t say it was a glass ceiling, but there was no concerted effort.

About five years ago, we started this process. If you look at our industry, very few women used to come into management in manufacturing. But over the past ten years, we have seen female operation managers, plant managers and process heads. We recognized women who were enthusiastic and keen on processing or manufacturing, and found a way to retain them and give them the necessary skills, competencies and capabilities to develop themselves. They bring a lot of value add but we don’t have enough scale to say what it is. Fundamentally, every choice should be on merit. When we discuss quota systems with the women in our company, they themselves say no, saying they don’t need charity or handouts.

I also think we’ve become conditioned to sewing operators being women. Today we have both men and women in our plants. There’s a stigma attached to a man sewing. He won’t survive in the zone, but men still come because they need the job. This is where we are now. We see there’s a lot of work necessary to educate men in order to make this equality discussion more realistic down the line.

Sam, you’re from a firm that has institutionalized women in leadership. Can you give us some insight into how it works?
Samanmali: We’re certainly sensitive at CTC to the need of having women in the top management teams, but have we institutionalized or had a lot of success? We’re still getting there. Shakthi is talking about MAS being female-skewed, but I’m coming from the other end of the spectrum. It’s a controversial industry and a controversial product. Some Sri Lankan women may not want to be associated with this type of industry. That’s our challenge.

When they come into the organization, they break that initial barrier. We’re a consumer good, which means we need to interact with the consumer. But Sri Lankan women don’t want to go out and sell a controversial product. Society’s perception of a woman talking about this kind of product is not positive. So we struggle to enhance women’s representation in marketing and operations. In the service functions, we have quite a good representation, but overall, not so much. The consumer is the heart of our business. If you want to serve the consumers’ needs, you need diverse decision makers who can bring different thinking to the table, and those who can innovate. Also, considering the challenges the product faces today, we need to bring new thinking and fresh perspectives. One way to do this may be to increase women in those functions, among others.

Chandi, you have the unique challenge of dealing with millennials. Are women millennials different from the men?
Chandi: We researched millennials. Since this is a hot topic, we also researched females and males on social platforms and found that females are savvier than men on social networks. According to Google ad planner, 75% of women at Virtusa were on social networks versus 60% of men in 2013. Females also dominate Facebook – 57% are female and 46 million more females than males join each month. Virtusa has developed some in-house social networking platforms, and we’ve seen they mainly benefit females, because they’re much more comfortable on them.

h2This is the main thing we offer millennials, apart from process-driven performance management,  recruitment and training/promotion systems. We realize these platforms are helping females because you’re creating equality. If you want to innovate something, you have a system where you can go for crowd sourcing.

On this platform, whether you’re male or female, you have the opportunity to innovate for the organization. If you’re going into recruitment, we have a technology-driven system, where regardless of gender, you have to sit for an exam, which is then taken into the competency excellence group. It helps to decrease gender-biased decisions. Even promotions are based on standardized processes. We have what you call rolebased training. We like to give individuals ownership of their careers. Actually, we can’t say we developed it only for females; we developed it for all millennials. Luckily, from a gender perspective, females are more into these process-driven systems and social networks, which increases the possibility of a female employee seeing career progression.
Do any of your organizations have a bias towards promoting women? Is there positive discrimination?

Samanmali: I wouldn’t call it positive discrimination, but we do have a focused effort to recruit, promote and develop females. Earlier, I talked about increasing female representation in marketing, which means going into the field and selling the product. We try to base these females in urban or metro markets unlike males, who we deploy in all markets, including rural. Some males complain about this, but we do this with the understanding that females bring value and, if you want that in the organization, you have to provide some special support. You want to do that as an objective and priority for the organization. But that’s not to say that what is good for women won’t be good for men. Whatever development programmes and platforms we use to develop females are also available to men.

Shakthi, how do you justify this?
Shakthi: We believe we shouldn’t have a quota system, but our chairman has been fairly vocal in saying that we need to have 30% females. A marker is important, because it triggers action. If you want to bring in that diversity, you have to do something about it. It won’t be organic. We ensure a balance when we conduct training programmes or send teams overseas. We pick on merit, but we’ll go and find those people. If they aren’t too keen for whatever reason, we try to understand the challenges they face and give them the opportunity to come on board.

Today 20% of senior level managers are women due to the activities we started six years ago. We have had a leadership training programme for 25 years. Initially, we didn’t have a single woman, then maybe one or two. Today, 30% to 40% are women. It’s not because there weren’t enough capable women then; it’s just that today we’re conscious about who’s suitable for it and we address any practical challenges. Today, we try to structure these teams with 30-40% female representation. These are concrete actions that give women the opportunity to come into this playing field, because this won’t happen organically.

Chandi, equal opportunity versus positive discrimination. How do you rationalize or balance these two at Virtusa?
Chandi: Virtusa is an equal opportunity employer. It’s not just for gender, but also for disability. A quota system is a good catalyst. It’s a very short-term solution to a problem. It will help women get to the top, but won’t necessarily eradicate the issues women face. The question is, are we trying to increase diversity? That’s counting numbers. Or are we trying to increase inclusion? That’s making the numbers count. The latter is more important – increasing inclusiveness and creating a platform that helps men and women equally. All our social platforms and processes are in place to create that inclusiveness for every employee.

Then there’s the question, will it be organic or will we need to push it? It needs to be a bit of both. We have about 33% females at Virtusa Colombo. That percentage has increased tremendously in the past few years, but we need to improve it further. The 2013 Sri Lanka gender gap report shows equal numbers at the primary education level, slightly more females at the secondary level and even more females at the university level. But in the labour force, females to males are at 30:70. That’s the root cause of the problem. We’re trying to find solutions within the workforce, but there’s a lesser number of females coming into the workplace in the first place. So you have to go into the schools to solve this problem. We do that. We go to school tech days and IT days and talk about IT careers and how enhancing it can be for an individual. The world is technology-driven. With these systems and processes, you don’t need a work-life balance as a female. You can integrate both. You can work from home or anywhere in the world and still be as productive. We’re trying to give that integration to female employees so they don’t have to make a choice. That’s how we’re trying to make it inclusive.

You say women are more qualified than men at the tertiary level. But you recruit from a pool that studies IT. The concentration there must be lower than overall?
Chandi: I was under the same impression. But we recently checked with the primary place we recruit from here, and there is quite a high number of females in IT education. When it comes to the labour market, somehow they drop out. A certain number decides to get married, some decide to stay as teachers or do something more conducive. So the number that joins the industry is lower.

CTC is keen to see women go beyond stereotypical roles assigned to them. Why does that matter?
Samanmali: Stereotypical roles are cultural. You need to act affirmatively to change these because that increases returns on your business. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much research in Sri Lanka on whether increased diversity in boards gives increased returns. I did some basic research and found that the 10 companies performing the best financially have gender balance in their senior management teams. I found that nine of the ten firms have a pretty good (when I say good, it’s always subjective) representation of women – 20-30%. The top five firms have 3% more women than the bottom five firms. If you have more women in leadership teams, you gain more returns. This is why we as a business are trying to improve this.

There are many stereotypes in Sri Lankan society. These get transferred to the workplace, because the workplace is a microcosm of society. At every point, females need to fall out of the productive labour force – when they exit university and then at every point in the career ladder. At a certain point, females get married and have children. And in Sri Lanka, even with both parents working and dual income families rising, a mother is expected to look after the children. This is why females don’t enter functions like marketing, because they have to work away from home. In a factory operation where they work 24/7, they can’t do a night shift. So there are limitations. We have to take affirmative action to overcome this. That has to start from the top. So, like MAS, we also have a target. We have a 3/5/10-year road map, whereby we want to increase the number of women in these functions and in the leadership teams. That gets translated to every team member’s performance objectives. It’s not just “nice to have”, but something you need to do and on which you’re assessed. That way, we keep the focus. At the same time, we have platforms to create the right eco systems for females to thrive.

h3How did people react to being evaluated on diversity?
Samanmali: Obviously, there was some disbelief initially and a not very positive response. It’s a group-wide globally accepted programme, but end markets have the choice of adopting it. There is certainly support from the group, and we make use of the platforms available in the group in terms of leadership training etc. But we have also done a lot of initiatives locally. When you introduce anything new, people take time to consider it. In some functions, we had to get over certain traditional mindsets that you cannot increase women in this function, women can’t do this kind of role, they can’t be a regional manager or head of trade, etc. A process of awareness helps in slowly enlightening those individuals and groups. We’ve been doing that, and it’s working. We’ve now started increasing the female presence in our field force as well. We also have other support mechanisms – leadership training, executive coaching and mentoring, and a network with two partner companies that exposes females to role models to share success stories.

Shakthi, what would be the top items on your affirmative action wish list?
Shakthi: Focused development programmes. Its cliché, but I think that’s the exception when you talk about putting programmes together and participation. If you want participation from capable women in these programmes, you must seek it out. We have a process called a talent review, where the board talks about potential leaders and their future careers. We’ve done it now for about two years, and we’re integrating more structure. I don’t see it as positive discrimination. You asked, what value do women add? The reason I can’t answer that is because there is no science to say this or that. But I can say that we don’t really know what women bring to the table because 50% of that population is not participating. The best operations director could be a woman, but I don’t know that. The only way I could know is by getting them to participate.

We also need gender sensitivity. We have run 15 programmes and covered 238 males in a focused programme for males and executives. I can’t talk about the global context, but in Sri Lanka, there are societal cultural norms people subconsciously bring to the organization. You may not even be conscious it’s contributing towards no one participating in an activity or a woman presenting a point of view. This programme has really opened their eyes to the challenges they perhaps subconsciously bring to the organization.

I’ll give you an example – say someone is making a presentation to a group of men and women. If the presenter asks for a cup of tea, the first person to get up would be a woman. I may be wrong, and I have no data to validate this, but I have observed this? Why doesn’t a man get the tea? Subconscious beliefs in the system are influencing behaviour. A woman wanting to express a point of view may think she may be seen in a different light if she does, so she won’t make that point. We wouldn’t know that.

A lot of work needs to be done with men to understand this. It’s not going to be easy, because you need a certain level of exposure, maturity and understanding to get there. In the west, these barriers are being broken. But it will take a while in Sri Lanka. There are certain norms and practices that influence us. Programmes such as this are affirmative action. The reason this programme caught on and we continue to do it is because the men are now asking for it. It brings this issue to the forefront. It says the problem is there and I’m fully supportive of fixing it, but I don’t know what to do about it. When you educate people and they are conscious of it, then they figure out ways of doing something about it.

Chandi, what is on your wish list to increase the number of women in leadership, and what are you doing about it right now?
Chandi: Most of the stuff we do is built around inclusiveness. We discuss why it’s important at the senior leadership level. Even when we did the social networking platforms, we encouraged females by giving flexibility, work-life balance and maternity leave, and ensuring the projects they get into are conducive to a working mother once they return. The problem is, when you’re system-driven, even when you come back from maternity leave, you’re allocated to work. The resource management team goes into a site where you have a certain confidence excellence in the group saying which tier technical executive each person is and check who’s available for the new project. They won’t know that some person has just come after maternity leave. That’s the negative side of being system-driven. The recourse management team and the others who select are very sensitive towards the needs of females as well. Just because it appears in the system, we don’t put them in. We make sure we gravitate towards ensuring there’s most sensitivity towards females returning from maternity leave, etc. We also have a programme called ‘Women of Virtusa’ aimed at ensuring females have a long and fruitful working career at Virtusa. It’s important to focus on inclusiveness and ensure females are given equal opportunities in the workplace, because, as the saying goes, ‘you can’t have half your players on the bench and expect to win the game’. You pick your best players for the game, regardless of gender. Together with the quota system, equal opportunity should be there.

Research also shows that females are much more passionate about what they do, and they seem to be asking the harder questions at the boardroom level. Females are also much more strategic in decision-making. If you don’t have more females in the decision-making team, you have groupthink, where a homogenous pool of males makes the decisions; you don’t have a diverse point of view. They say groupthink was a contributing factor for what happened to Lehman Brothers and Enron Corporation. Decreasing groupthink is critical. When I returned to Sri Lanka, I faced many interviews. The only company that had a female on the board was the company that I joined – MAS. Sharmini Ratwatte interviewed me so I immediately knew this company was more conducive towards females reaching that level. That’s another reason we should have more females. More females tend to join companies when they see a female at that top level.

Do stereotypes about women stand in the way of them reaching the top?
Samanmali: I think so. It’s a double-edged sword. Naturally, women have a more participatory type of leadership style, they communicate in a different way – maybe more softly and contextually. But if you speak softly or try to engage someone else in a decision and get their viewpoint, they view you as weak. On the other side of the coin, if you try to assert yourself or be a little aggressive, you’re seen as opinionated and that goes against you. Then people think you’re too tough or too aggressive. Women have to walk a tightrope. I feel you shouldn’t be trying to find that right balance; you should just be who you are. If you try to be someone else, you’re not going to perform your best or as effectively.

Chandi: I think it was Oscar Wilde who once said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”. I read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook Chief Executive, and that taught me a lot and helped me grow continuously. You just have to be yourself. When you go into a conversation, you have to have your points ready, make sure its data driven and logical, and the conversation is at a different level. So however I communicate, whether softly or aggressively, the point makes sense because it’s not how I talk or what I’m wearing or whether I’m male or female; the point is about the decision that has to be made and the decision is very clear. Not because I say so, but because these are points that prove it. I believe in that.

If an organization doesn’t take me seriously, I shouldn’t be there. I believe that, as a female, you don’t always have to think about going up the career ladder. This book says it’s a jungle gym. When you have kids, you don’t think of it as a career ladder. And, as a female, it’s not practical to think that you have to go up the career ladder every two or three years. You can have time periods that are static where you don’t grow from a career ladder perspective. But you can grow from a learning perspective, in professionalism and skills, or you can study, or do so many things to build your careers, not your resume. Just put your head down and focus on what you want to achieve and do it. If there is an organization that doesn’t take you seriously, you need to go somewhere where they do.

Samanmali: That said, I think it’s sometimes difficult for females when they’re caught in that kind of trap. Some may have the option of leaving and finding something else, but some may not. That’s another area where organizations have a role to play. It can be simple things. At a meeting, when someone is speaking, you don’t interrupt. You sometimes find that, when a female is trying to make a point, no matter how data or fact-driven it is, a man would interrupt.

This has also been proven through research. It may be Sheryl Sandberg who did this research; I think they call it ‘manterrupting’. They found that two female executives in a firm weren’t contributing at meetings because, every time they tried to talk, someone would interrupt them. The company noticed that and instituted a ‘no interruption rule’, so everyone could make their pitches and have equal opportunity. There’s always a role an organization leader can play to reduce this kind of challenge a woman faces. Yes, it’s up to you, you need to build your career. But if you’re facing some kind of issue, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak to someone who will take you seriously and respond to you. That’s also something females don’t do often enough. They will keep quiet and suffer, or they will leave. But sometimes just opening up about it will open other doors.

Shakthi, in the top level at MAS, it looks like the old school tie dominates. How do you create a culture about diversity and women in leadership in an organization like that?
Shakthi: At the lower levels, the balance is greater – 45-50% women. As you move up, this drops. I wouldn’t say its old school per se. MAS is probably one of the few companies that had a woman on the board, especially in apparel. At the next director level, we have about 15-16% women today. Also, at the board level, the founders to the next level of leaders are in their early 40s and late 30s. It’s a very young team and a lot more blanched. That’s important to us. At the end of the day, we have to make sure the best person for the job is in that position, irrespective of gender.

What is key is to ensure equal participation. The best people should be there; whether it’s a man or a woman is irrelevant. I’m definitely not advocating 30% as a quota, but you need to put a stake in the ground to have the mechanisms to take that opportunity. You have to take conscious action to ensure this happens. Be conscious of the challenges preventing people from presenting themselves to an opportunity and help remove those barriers. There’s a lot of discussion about it. Even at the board level, there’s a conscious effort to consistently look at female talent. At the end of the day, we don’t want to lose out on 50% of the population. We want the best talent; we don’t care if it’s a man or a woman.

Sam, in your industry, getting into leadership requires wide exposure (being posted overseas, etc). Is this challenging for women?
Samanmali: It is and, unfortunately, we have had to lose talent at that point of the pipeline. This is a challenge women face, especially when they’re married with children. In Sri Lanka, even in dual-career families, the cultural concept of breadwinner goes to the man. If a woman has to move overseas, will her husband come with her? We’ve had many females who’ve had to unfortunately decline opportunities for global mobility because of issues like this. We try to support them wherever we can. We offer learning opportunities for the husband, we provide financial support if they want to do higher studies, we help with job searches, and sometimes even find jobs for the partner in the same company. But sometimes even that’s not enough.

I was quite fortunate to be able to take up an opportunity abroad. My husband is very supportive of my career. As a family, we took a decision that this international exposure would benefit not only my career, but both of us and our children by exposing them to a different environment. They’d also gain in terms of flexibility and adapting to different situations. But I was one of the fortunate few.

It wasn’t easy for my husband, because he had to let go of a very good job. He didn’t sit around; he volunteered with the UN and was productive, but when we came back, he found it difficult to find a job. So the challenges are real. You just need to have that conversation with your husband and take a decision as a family. For us, it was beneficial, and I think other women would also benefit if they take the plunge and take their husbands with them.

Getting into leadership is not limited to the job. How can an organization help or be sensitive? The
choice of life partner seems to be a big deal if a woman wants to get into leadership.
Chandi: Of course. The most important decision an empowered woman makes is who they choose to marry. I’m lucky because my husband is also quite supportive of what I do. That helps a lot. When I go home, I’m a wife and mother, and that role won’t change no matter what happens in my career. It’s not stereotyping, but what I want to do. I love to cook and spend time with my family. My biggest challenge is balancing my kids’ school life and my work life. Sometimes I go late to my kids’ PTA meeting because of conference calls, or sometimes I have conference calls until 7 or 8 pm. Sometimes I feel I’m not the best mother I could be and, when my children are sad that I’m not there for them, it’s a really bad feeling. I’m trying to be the best mother and wife I can be, and it’s nice to have a husband who reassures me of that, but the biggest challenge is the guilt trip I sometimes go on.

Virtusa is very flexible for working mothers. One of our female employees, the head of all architects at Virtusa, recently wanted to leave the organization. But the global architect intervened and told the senior directors that she needs to have a work-life balance, with three days at office and two days at home, so she stayed with us. If someone tells us they really love being at Virtusa, but is facing a challenge, we bend over backwards to ensure she doesn’t have to make a choice and has the best of both worlds. As a result, we win too because, after some time, they want to work
full time again.

Any final comments?
Shakthi: There’s great societal pressure on a husband with a strong career wife. That’s where gender sensitivity is necessary. When the wife is seen as the breadwinner, it can have a psychological impact on the husband, because he has to deal with a society the career wife may not necessarily see. In South Asia, these are things men have to take without letting it affect them. To do this, they have to be really strong and at a different level.

If you’re a house husband, you have to deal with being called incapable and a loser. These are real time conversations that can impact you as an individual over time. It might impact your children’s respect for you as a parent and as their father. I think there’s a big role to play in preparing these men and the society for this. When we talk about the women empowerment programme on the shop floor, we learn that women who’ve become more financially savvy, more skilled and conscious of health and hygiene, see increasing violence levels at home. Men become more insecure, because they’re at home and the women are becoming more sophisticated. The intention of these programmes is right, but they need to cover all these angles. I think it’s important to take a holistic view of women in leadership or gender equality.

Chandi: Females wouldn’t hear of it. Honestly, I’ve been asked whether being a working woman makes you less of a woman. An empowered woman is one who can make choices, has control over her choices and has self worth. If you’re an empowered woman, what you do is your choice. I openly tell people I want to go home because I have to cook dinner for my husband. If that makes me less of a professional woman, too bad. I don’t see anything wrong with it. If a guy says he has to go home and cook, I’m sure it’s a different story.

Women shouldn’t have to fit a certain mould. I don’t think you necessarily have to be in a leadership role either to be an empowered woman. If you choose to stay at home, you’re an empowered woman because you’re not doing it because your husband is telling you to do it, but because you want to. I also don’t think we should overrate a working woman. You can be a wife, a mother or a working woman, whatever you like to do. One role doesn’t make you any better or stronger than another.

Samanmali: I think that’s the beauty and value of being a working woman. The more holistic and balanced you are, the better able you are to bring that different perspective to the organization. Sometimes, if you’re trying to stereotype yourself to the image of what a professional should be, your worth to the organization may lessen. I fully agree with what Chandi said. I’ve also experienced some of what Shakthi said, but I hope no one was unkind enough to say things like that to my husband. That’s why we need this debate to happen in Sri Lanka. It’s just starting. I was really happy to see some of these forums recently, but as Shakthi mentioned, they were very female-focused. The more research we do as a country and an economy on the value add women bring, the more we understand what that means for society and educate men as well, I think we’ll be able to make more progress.

Shakthi: The fundamental question is, ‘Is our society losing out because we don’t have a significant percentage of that population participating?’ The question is about what we’re losing, not about how much we’re gaining. That’s the question we need to answer.

Chandi: I truly believe that it’s not about trying to creating diversity, but about creating inclusiveness. It’s not about having a certain number at the top, but what you do to foster that inclusiveness and make the numbers count.