Talking – not arguing – about gender diversity

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DIANE S. YAP

Just in case you thought gender diversity is no longer a hot-button issue, the controversy at Google is a good reminder otherwise.

A couple of weekends ago, an engineer at the tech giant penned a memo criticizing the company’s efforts to increase the number of minorities and women in its ranks. With regard to women in particular, he argued that they are biologically ill-suited to the tech world to begin with, hence special efforts to accommodate them in Google could prove disastrous for the billion-dollar enterprise.

That young man has since been fired, but his 10-page manifesto and the very heated debate that followed it are interesting signposts as to where we are now when it comes to gender diversity.

Recently, Deloitte released the fifth edition of its “Women in the boardroom” report, which looks at the efforts of 64 countries, including the Philippines, to promote boardroom diversity. According to the report, 15 percent of board seats globally are occupied by women. This is a modest 3 percent increase from the 2015 edition of the publication.


In Asia, that proportion is even smaller: Only 7.8 percent of board seats in the region are occupied by women, suggesting that they are still largely under-represented on corporate boards. But the good news is all the Asian countries included in the report showed an improvement when it comes to board gender diversity from two years ago: In the Philippines, 10.4 percent of board seats are held by women, up 3 percent from 2015. India posted the biggest improvement in Asia, with 12.4 percent of board seats now held by women, compared with 7.7 percent in 2015.

But here’s the more interesting finding from this year’s report: There is a direct correlation between female leadership (CEOs and board chairs) and board seats held by women. That is, organizations with a female chair have nearly double the number of women serving on boards (28.5 percent) compared with boards that are led by a male chair (15.5 percent). Deloitte found that the inverse is also true: gender diverse boards are more likely to appoint a female CEO and board chair.

That there are so few women occupying these top leadership posts – 4 percent globally and 2.6 percent in Asia, based on Deloitte’s report – is probably one reason why we’re still debating the rationale behind promoting gender diversity in the workplace. But it’s certainly no reason to stop talking about it and, more importantly, working on it.

In the case of Google, many cheered when the engineer behind that viral memo was removed from his job, but some also criticized the termination as an attack on free speech and more “conservative” beliefs. I won’t attempt to weigh in on the management decisions of another company, but I would like to offer an alternative approach to behavior that may be damaging to an organization’s diversity goals.

Just last month, Deloitte US announced that it would begin phasing out diversity groups such as its Women’s Initiative (WIN) and its LGBT group called Globe in favor of “inclusion councils.” Instead of creating networks specific to minority members of the organization, Deloitte US is engaging the majority by including them in the conversation and helping them develop the skills to become more inclusive.

It’s a novel approach to a persistent issue and perhaps something we could use in our own backyard. Deloitte’s study revealed that in the Philippines, only 5 percent of board chairs are women. Instead of carving out “safe spaces” for women with leadership potential, maybe we should be asking men how they can help us improve that proportion.

I hear that former Google employee has gotten a number of job offers since his termination. Here’s hoping he chooses an organization that has a framework for dealing with his personal views and can engage him in a healthy conversation about the very real benefits of a diverse workplace.

The author is the financial advisory leader at Navarro Amper & Co., the local member firm of Deloitte Southeast Asia Ltd. – a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited – comprising Deloitte practices operating in Brunei, Cambodia, Guam, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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