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Women in business: Gender empowerment is the key

Comments / 1673 Views / Tuesday, 16 October 2012 00:00

From Zimbabwe, not the safest of places by all accounts, especially for women, we hear of an interesting and unusual story of a private security firm headed by a woman.

Securico was started in 1999 by Divine Ndhlukula. It is currently one of Zimbabwe’s top three security companies. The firm started out just providing guards, but today has branched out into supplying alarm systems, rapid response teams, CCTV and undercover investigations.

Now that Zimbabwe has dollarised its economy, transporting cash is also a big business. The Zimbabwe’s currency used earlier was so ruined by inflation that there were virtually no robberies; you would have had to rob a container load, to get anywhere!

What is unique about Zimbabwe’s Securico is that Ndhlukula employs large numbers of women. She has 900 female employees, working at every level; 70% of the directors and 50% of the senior managers are women. Nearly one in three of Securico’s guards are women.

These proportions of gender equality would be high even in the developed world, let alone for developing countries. Ndhlukula is also Chairperson of the Harare branch of Zimbabwe’s Chamber of Commerce.



This sort of profile for women in business is something which is much talked about today. In Europe, the European Union with its headquarters in Brussels has proposed that a 40% quota be imposed for female representation on large company boards. This initiative is primarily sponsored by the Deputy President of the EU and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.

However there are objectors. For example Britain has launched a Europe wide diplomatic push to block the proposal. It is claimed that at least 10 other European states have indicated their support for the blocking move. A letter drafted by the British Foreign Office, circulated to countries opposing the EU move, notes that individual countries are already trying to address the issue either through voluntary or their own mandatory programs, and insist that the EU should not stick its nose into these national efforts.

The letter goes on to say that ‘ these national efforts must be granted more time in order to establish whether they can achieve fair female participation in economic decision making on European company boards’. The letter further says ‘For these reasons we do not support the adoption of legally binding provisions for women on company boards at the European level’.

Britain, which claims that ‘it is not leading the charge, but rather forming part of the pack’ opposing the EU move, claims it is supported by Sweden and Germany. However the German view seems to be divergent.

Family Minister Kristina Schroder has said: “Germany was doing very well without the interference by Mrs. Reding.” She claimed that that of the board level vacancies which opened up in 2012, 40% were filled by women.

But the German Labour Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, backed Reding’s proposal, saying: “If the countries of Europe want to maintain their international competitiveness, they will have to install more women in top positions.” Sweden’s Equal Opportunity Minister Sabuni, says that: “Sweden is opposed to any quota, as they fail to address the broader issues related to women’s role in business.”

The EU in fact some time ago, issued an ultimatum to European business leaders – appoint more women to corporate boards, if not legal quotas will be introduced. The current EU initiative proposes that there should be a 60/40 split between men and women on European corporate boards by 2015.

In Europe, women represent 45% of the workforce and 56% of those in higher education. But they are just 13.7% of the directors of big corporates. The British Government has set a voluntarily achievable target of 25% by 2015. Norway, which has had a quota requirement since 2002, today has more than 40% of women directors on corporate boards.

Quotas and questions

But there are those who question these achievements in reality. Critics argue that quotas do not address the obstacles that keep women from rising to the top in business- what is referred to as the ‘Glass Ceiling’.

Voluntary or legal quotas, it is said, results in women holding lower profile, non executive jobs, while the more influential executive responsibilities overwhelmingly remain with men. Setting quotas may only result in window dressing. Analysts say that the real dilemma is how to promote women through the ranks of business, when the pressure of balancing work with family are factored in.

Statistically women tend to drop out of the corporate rat race after seven to 12 years of work at the executive level. The reason is almost always due to scarcity of affordable care for children for aged parents and lack of flexible working hours. With nuclear families, lesser numbers of children have to care for elderly parents in addition to their own children. This is a huge burden, not only in Europe, where care homes for elders and home visiting by professionals is available, but for developing countries, where both child care and elderly care are not available.

Quotas and targets cannot address all the myriad of issues which keep women at the middle or bottom of the corporate power pyramid. But what corporates can do is to make a bigger effort to change expectations, both their own and those of their employees. Better management training and more flexibility about where, how and when, employees with children and ageing parents, both mothers and fathers, work would be good start to address the issues. Norway’s generous parental leave, flexi hours and crèche facilities have achieved something, but not totally what was expected, as an outcome.

More than gender alone, diversity of experience at the board level should be the goal to be achieved. Identifying at an early stage of the career those with the potential to do well at the board level, promoting more women into executive positions will contribute to this.

The reason is not simply that women directors guarantee better performance, that claim is unfortunately, not supported by hard evidence and research, but simply because any company that does not have systems in place that gives it access to the whole 360 degree total talent pool of human resources available in the market, both male, female and even differently-abled, will never be able to reach its full potential and be competitive with its peers.

Europe’s largest business organisation – Business Europe – has opposed the proposed EU directive. In a statement they say: “One size fits all quotas interfere disproportionately with the freedom of companies and shareholders to organise their own affairs. They disregard the highly diverse conditions on different sectors/companies and do not take into account the way corporate boards function and are renewed.”

But European states where a minimum threshold for women directors has been adopted have shown a marked improvement of numbers. France improved the numbers from 10% to 22% in one year. Italy currently has only 6%; legislation has been passed to achieve 33% by 2015.

France has come out in support of the EU initiative. In a letter to the EU, France has said: “The French authorities… resolutely support the logic of this draft directive. It is important for the European Commission to present such a project quickly to the Council and the European Parliament, the latter having expressed itself, on several occasions in favour of a community initiative in this direction, including introduction of quotas.”

The letter has been signed by the ministers of finance and women’s rights. By doing this France has clearly stood in opposition to the British led move to object to the directive. Netherlands, Hungary and Czech Republic have joined the British opposition.

There is a curios sexist division on the issue among the EU Commissioners. Five female commissioners oppose the EU-imposed quota directive, while the four male commissioners support it! The women commissioners say: “We support the goal wholeheartedly; we need more women at the top. But this progress should not be imposed from the European level.”

The male view point is: “We need stronger and more impactful Europe wide measures to enhance gender balance and the use of women’s capacity in business life than so far has been done, the voluntary approach has worked in some countries but not all sufficiently overall. Sometimes somebody must lead in gender business issues by example – why not the EU?”


Sri Lanka

The Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID) recently in connection with International Women’s Day, held a panel discussion on this issues in the Sri Lankan context. The subject was ‘A Female on the Board: Adds Colour, Seems Proper or Adds Value?’

The panel expressed the view that in Sri Lanka there is a considerable difference in the gender representation on boards of corporates. The few women, who were on corporate boards, were in the generality of cases due to being relatives of the owner – mother, spouse, daughter or daughter-in-law. (It is worth while noting here that this is generally similar to women in politics in South Asia.) The law does not require gender parity or indeed any representation at all.

The view was expressed that if women are appointed to improve the image of the corporate, or for mere gender diversity rather than on suitability, the appointment will have no credibility. Women have to be twice as good as men to achieve parity. Women do bring quality, diversity and out-of-the-box thinking to the boardroom and should not be appointed merely for reasons such as political correctness, decoration, colour, etc.

Of the 25 top corporate entities in the country which have a total 198 directors, only 10 are women. Women on Sri Lankan corporate boards are valued for what they can contribute and in every sense is considered no less equal to the job than their male counterparts.

In an economy which increasingly requires both spouses to be employed to make ends meet, gender sensitivity is important. Even though there is gender parity in tertiary education, it is not so in middle and higher management. Corporates need to access the human resource talent pool cutting across gender differences; corporates must provide equal opportunity to the best talent to rise to top management and corporate board whatever the gender, for the benefit of the individual, the corporate and the economy. Otherwise the massive investment in health and education, which the national economy has made for decades, will not give a return.

Women should be in the boardroom on their own merit which will add the necessary diversity and value required. The problem is that due to the lifecycle and the social and cultural values prevailing, many women prefer to resign and focus on the family at a certain age. There could be a certain amount of friction caused by what was describe as ‘minor and mundane matters’ when men and women work alongside each other, even when women work alongside women. The view was expressed that most men would prefer to work amongst men.

The disparity in female representation at executive levels in the public and private sectors was highlighted with the need to improve gender representation in the private sector was pointed out. (Summarised from Power Pages – September 2012)


Similar situation

Overall, the situation in Sri Lanka does not seem to defer from Europe. At the bottom of the economic pyramid women dominate, especially due to our low birth rate, 0.7% according to the 2012 census. Tea pluckers, rubber tappers, domestic aides (house maids), both here and abroad, Juki machine operators, hotel employees, government clerks, sales persons, school teachers, etc. At the operational level women dominate. But at executive and management level the situation is not good. The status in Government service is better than in business.

Further, 60% of all accountancy students are estimated to be women. 63% of all professionals are women. The teaching of the Thathagatha – Gautama the Buddha has set a high standard of gender equality among the Buddhist majority, even though it is said that reverend Ananda had to request the Buddha, thrice, before the Thathagatha agreed to women entering the order of the Sangha.

Sri Lanka needs both the brains and brawns of its people for enterprise and development. The official figure of around 48.4% for female participation in the economy is frankly suspect. Have the statisticians confined themselves to the formal economy only? What about the micro, small and medium informal businesses, the housemaids slaving in the deserts and in developed economies and in middle class homes in Sri Lanka’s urban and rural areas, homemakers, childminders, carers for the aged, the grandmothers, mothers and daughters who help out on small scale agricultural enterprises, paddy, tea, rubber, spices?

We are ageing rapidly and given our longevity, care for elders is a massive social issue. This reality of women’s participation in the economy has been borne out by the tiny ‘green shoot’ economic recovery in the USA, from the economic slowdown, being described as a ‘man less’ women-led recovery. Only sectors in which women dominate are recovering, sectors where men work such as construction, heavy manufacture and transport are still stagnating.


Empowering women

Women must be empowered to assert their power. Recently in India, a Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced to reserve seats for women in the legislatures.

Mallika Sarabhai, a traditional dancer of international repute, said: “India made a promise to its women at independence, a promise of living with dignity, opportunity, self pride, fearlessness. Today India has unleashed forces that could bring succour to her deprived, her marginalised, her unsung and her unheard. Some men plundered our bodies and souls and dishonoured us, made us afraid of further sanctions. For women are too often the loot – our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, our wombs. But aren’t women as greedy and corrupt as men? Yes, some are, trapped alone in the gutters, called male corridors of power, tutored by a patriarchal society that equates selfish self interest and greed as cleverness. But there is a very real possibility that women will not play by the same rules; that they will in a group let their instincts of cooperation, inclusiveness and caring, nurturing and problem solving, prevail. The road is long. Women need to be chosen, trained, tutored and equipped – not in corrupt ways, but in governance, in delivery of benefits and empowerment, in transparency.”

This is the one and only path to gender equality and empowerment of women.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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