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IWD 2024: Valued & celebrated: How leaders can drive positive change with gender-inclusivity
Thu, 7th Mar 2024

This year’s International Women’s Day is a rallying call for business leaders across the world to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to gender inclusion. Entitled Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate Progress, the UN Women’s annual theme emphasises the significance of real-world commitments, where actions, not words, matter. As a senior woman leader in the technology industry, I want to see a more visible commitment from executives that empower women at every level.

According to UN Women, there is still very much a glass ceiling for women across the 10 ASEAN countries. Data shows that the share of female managers rose by only two per cent in 20 years, from 39 per cent in 2000 to 41 per cent in 2020. The share of middle and senior management stands at a much lower 26 per cent.

If business and technology leaders cannot break this glass ceiling, then millions of women in Southeast Asia will lose out on higher wages and agency to shape decisions that have important impacts on this region. It is time for us, as a business community, to step up and make gender-inclusive leadership the norm. 

Commitment in action

At the heart of gender-inclusive leadership goes beyond mere representation numbers on a board or in an executive position. A business leader may see improving leadership diversity as a mere case of quotas or simply ‘hire more women’. But it’s about much more than that.

Real gender inclusivity is the recognition that diversity of thought and experience breeds innovation and resilience. It's about cultivating an environment where diverse voices are not only heard but also valued and empowered. The results of this are twofold: not only are you having a positive impact on your team, but you might even be making a smart business decision. Evidence suggests that the presence of women in corporate leadership roles may improve a company’s performance. 

So just how do you turn gender inclusivity at a leadership level from a buzzword or a fleeting trend into a fully-fledged reality?

Step one is to simply lead by example. The power of visible commitment from senior executives cannot be underestimated, from policies to culture, to who they even surround themselves with in the boardroom. The right visible commitment sets the tone for gender-inclusive leadership, signalling a corporate culture where diversity is not just valued but celebrated. 

Leaders must also be prepared to set targets and hold people accountable. Clear diversity targets should serve guiding principles, ensuring that gender diversity initiatives are integrated into the fabric of the organisation's overall objectives. By holding leaders accountable for meeting diversity targets, organizations can ensure that inclusivity isn't just a lofty ideal but a tangible reality.

One of the most important facets in fostering inclusive leadership is challenging biases – both within an organisation and even with ourselves. Gender-inclusive leadership requires a fundamental shift in mindset, challenging stereotypes and fostering inclusive behaviours across all levels of the organisation – from top to bottom. 

In tandem with this, leaders should instill a culture of transparency and feedback throughout their organisation. They should be amplifying voices, and cultivating a culture of transparency and openness that fosters trust and engagement. One good example is of  C-Suite executives establishing employee resource groups (ERGs) dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion, including a women's network. They should actively engage with ERGs by attending meetings, listening to employee concerns, and supporting initiatives aimed at creating a more inclusive workplace culture.

Last, but by no means least, is mentorship and sponsorship to nurture talent and drive progress. Mentorship and sponsorship initiatives provide women with access to invaluable networks, connections and resources both internally and across industries. These give women the opportunities to form professional relationships that can be instrumental in their success. Senior executives should actively participate as mentors and sponsors to provide guidance, networking opportunities, and advocacy for female employees.

Re-addressing the leadership balance is undergoing a seismic shift in the corporate zeitgeist. But this vision remains an elusive and distant mirage on the horizon of possibility. Every year, IWD reminds us that women’s economic empowerment and inclusion are active, everyday processes. Leaders can and should play a pivotal role in this process, bringing a distant vision into a clear and present reality. It's a journey—a continuous evolution towards a future where inclusion isn't just a goal; it's a lived reality.