Triumphing over imbalances

Rumal Fernando - Head of Procurement, Unilever Sri Lanka

Unilever’s Global Diversity Board supports women climbing the corporate ladder. With this support, Unilever Sri Lanka’s head of procurement Rumal Fernando has conquered two male-dominated area in the company.

Women accounted for 42% of global managerial positions at Unilever in 2013. Unilever achieved this number through a structured programme established by the company’s Global Diversity Board to achieve gender-balanced management. In 2007, women held only 29% of senior management positions.

The Global Diversity Board is chaired by Unilever Chief Executive Paul Polman, showing the importance placed on its work. It hopes to achieve gender-balanced management in 2015 by creating an inclusive culture and developing the company’s best talent through initiatives like flexi hours, immersion and mentorship programmes.

Rumal Fernando, the head of procurement at Unilever Sri Lanka, believes these policies have benefited her. She joined the company 15 years ago as its first female sales employee. Thirteen experienced salesmen made up the rest of her team, while Rumal had only a few weeks of job experience. The team approached two kinds of vendors: (supermarket chains) and general retail (smaller shops). Unilever tasked Rumal with selling to the supermarket chains and sent the men to general retail stores. “If I’d done what the others did, if I had to go to Hambantota or Habarana, I might not have performed as well,” says Rumal. The company treated Rumal differently as a female only in where they placed her, but assigned the same targets and deliverables, expecting her to perform equally.

Rumal believes that establishing processes like this, which cater to female employees’ different needs, are important to retain them. “If they put me in general trade, I’d have probably failed,” she says, adding that understanding a woman’s thought process helps.

Unilever, which has 179,000 employees worldwide, established a global mentoring programme in 2009 to develop a diverse group of talent, especially for senior positions. The first group of mentees comprised 23 females, because the company wanted to support high-potential women taking leadership roles. The second group onwards included men and women. Mentors guide and support the mentees through mentoring sessions and work with them on development priorities. Rumal is part of this programme. “If I have a problem and can’t go to my line manager, I can talk to my mentor, and he gives me a different perspective and advice on what to do,” Rumal says. “He also talks to me about my weaknesses and strengths. Mentoring grooms you to be stronger and acquire skills you don’t have.”

In turn, Rumal mentors three others. Unilever Sri Lanka has activated this mentorship programme to develop an inclusive culture at its factory. Male employees used to dominate the company but today, its head of quality, head of go-to-market – another quality assurance process – and IR manager, as well as some engineers, are women. The company has fought stereotyping of certain areas of its work by building in flexibility and processes to encourage women to join these functions.

Generally, an equal number of men and women join entry level jobs, but by managerial level, the number of women falls behind. “A lot of women are mothers or they’re looking after their parents or extended family,” says Rumal. “If a company’s processes are simple, and it is responsible towards its employees and is flexible, things are different for females. When I need to be at home to look after my daughters, Unilever lets me work from home. I have peace of mind that I’m doing what I need to do for my children while also working.”

Unilever has a child day care centre and flexi hours, which are especially valuable to young mothers. It also has an online company-wide software to support those who are about to go on maternity leave.

Rumal heads the purchasing of all material, services and goods necessary for the company’s operations in Sri Lanka. Her portfolio’s total annual spend tops EUR100 million. Four years ago, when Unilever moved its factory from behind its head office in Grandpass to Horana, Rumal led the entire set-up, from negotiating rates to nitty gritties such as machinery and other infrastructure.

Procurement is traditionally dominated by men; there are three men to each woman in Rumal’s team. But she believes that, as a company producing household goods, Unilever can benefit from the personalized outlook females bring to the table. “In most homes, purchasing decisions are made by women,” she says. “We know what’s going to work for our family. We think in a personal and practical way, and that’s important, because you’re selling a product to a man, woman or child. And, generally, it’s the woman who takes that decision. I think that understanding comes from a woman. A company will thrive from women’s experience and expertise.