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SLID launches Women Directors Forum


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The Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID) launched its pioneering initiative the Women Directors’ (INED) Forum recently, with the participation of senior and experienced directors from the corporate business sector. In keeping with its firm commitment to fostering good corporate governance and encouraging diversity in the Board, the forum aims at enhancing the number of women Board Directors and ensuring a female leadership pipeline in listed, unlisted, public and private corporate entities in Sri Lanka. The National Human Resource Development Council (NHRDC) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group, partnered with SLID for the launch event.

In Sri Lanka, we take pride in our women. Girls are educated on par with boys. Women are welcome in most careers, and the pathway up in terms of promotions and achievements is open. Women dominate our professions, academia, and the judiciary. Over the years, SLID has initiated many discussions to try and understand why there is a lack of female representation on boards and in senior management. SLID and its Council members, in their official capacity as well in their individual capacity, have collaborated and participated in various forums and task forces on this topic. The initiative to establish a forum for Women Directors was a result of these different discussions and findings of task forces.

SLID Council Member and forum Chairperson Aroshi Nanayakkara made the opening speech and gave an overview of the forum, its purpose, and objectives, followed by SLID’s Chairman Preethi Jayawardena. At the outset, he acknowledged and thanked the Chief Guest and SLID Immediate Past Chairperson, Shiromal Cooray for initiating the idea to promote women on Boards during her term of leadership at SLID.

He shared SLID’s work in this sphere, such as providing a platform to air the views and concerns of women on topics that many feel uncomfortable discussing openly. “We have had discussions with the SEC on the inclusion of women on Boards of listed companies, which resulted in the inclusion of progressive gender quotas in the budget presented by the Minister of Finance.” He thanked SEC Chairman Ranel T. Wijesinha for his leadership and support. He requested support from all companies to achieve these targets on a voluntary basis, as he felt that this would be more sustainable in the long run. 

Jayawardena spoke on the collaboration and work that SLID has done with IFC Corporate Governance, including the first global training for IFC’s Women on Boards and Leadership Program, which was held in Sri Lanka as a regional event, supported by the Government of Australia via their Women in Work program in Sri Lanka.  SLID is represented by Jayawardena at the ‘High level Advocacy Group for IFC-led Women in Work Program’ of the Australian High Commission, which meets regularly to discuss empowerment of women, recognising their achievements and contributions, and promoting them as leaders. “Charity begins at home,” said Jayawardena who share that the SLID Governing Council maintains gender diversity with over 40% women, and that SLID has increased the percentage of female members to over 15%.

Jayawardena spoke about the great contribution made by women to our society at large, and mentioned the work done by organisations such as Women in Management and its founder Dr. Sulochana Segera.

The Chief Guest for the evening, Jetwing Travels Ltd. Managing Director SLID Immediate Past Chairperson Shiromal Cooray, delivered an interesting keynote address on ‘Breaking the Stereotype’ where she shared her experiences, thoughts, and views. Her keynote address started with her saying that ‘Life is not fair, get used to it!’ 

Cooray discussed reasons for gender stereotyping and suggested that it would take some time for it to change. She questioned whether women should conform or change? When women conform to gender stereotypes (e.g. by showing emotional sensitivity and concern for others), they are likely to be perceived as less competent. But, if they defy these stereotypes and behave “like a man” (e.g. by showing confidence/dominance, ambition and rationality), they will be penalised by a backlash effect. She was of the view that unconscious biases cause more harm than good. Gender differences are presumed to stem from internal factors: human nature and biology. This reinforces the idea that these biases are “accurate”, that a female’s prime role is to bear children and take care of them and the family home. The issues begin when women deviate from their culturally assigned role by being competitive or assertive, rather than warm and caring, and are punished for their “unnatural” behaviour. Most women overcome this by working in lower-paid, female-dominated sectors that do not offer much scope for career progression. Women also tend to self-segregate themselves to certain careers as they feel more comfortable. 

While men are generally portrayed as having characteristics such as competence, risk taking ability, achievement-orientation, inclination to take charge, autonomy and rationality, women are associated with communal characteristics such as concern for others, affiliation tendencies, emotional sensitivity, risk averse or too cautious. These characteristics are not only different, they tend to be oppositional. Research on these generalisations has been extensive, and shows they are consistent across culture, time and context. These stereotypes often serve as shortcuts for forming impressions of people and guide our decisions, without people being completely aware of it. Gender preconceptions have important consequences for the workplace.

To break this gender stereotype and advance in a woman’s career whilst bringing up children, running a home, being a wife, and very often taking care of aging parents and relatives, Cooray said that “We have to learn to ask for help when needed, accept we cannot be perfect mothers, wives, daughters, and CEOs all in one person.”

In conclusion she shared 12 key points that she thought was how women could move forward. 

  •  Learn. Because knowledge is power.
  •  Move confidently into male-dominated areas and speak up - be a role model for others. Let’s be honest: stereotypes won’t disappear unless people understand they are harmful. Women in male-dominated environments can help raise awareness.
  •  Claim recognition where credit is due.
  •  Prove yourself and get noticed. Men are promoted on potential, women are promoted for proven performance. Research shows that women are held to stricter standards for promotion: so you have to prove yourself. 
  •  Don’t let the backlash effect of competent but bossy and unlikeable put you off. A 2016 survey of more than 30,000 employees found that women who negotiated for promotions were 30% more likely than men to be labelled intimidating, bossy, or aggressive. Learn to speak up.
  •  You will not be “Bro” or “Machang”: don’t let that intimidate you. You may often be the only woman in the room, and when a woman is a token or significantly in the minority, that brings out a lot of gender stereotypes. It also increases the scrutiny and the pressure on that woman in terms of her performance.
  •  Mentors are important.
  •  Learn to negotiate. You may be called too aggressive or too self-promoting, No one else will do it for you, just do it.
  •  Share your ideas in group discussions, go prepared.
  •  Don’t shrug off the praise and lowball your own abilities.
  •  Develop self-confidence. Believe in yourself, otherwise nobody else will. Network, network, network.
  •  Anticipate and prepare to react to inappropriate or discriminating comments. When the American celebrity Lauren Conrad was asked on radio “What is your favourite position?” she briefly paused and replied “CEO”. Accept that biases exist, own them and retrain our brains to overcome them. Life might not be fair, but we can do something about it.

IFC Corporate Governance Consultant Lopa Rahman shared the research findings for the Business Case for women on Boards in Sri Lanka, followed by NHRDC National Gender Committee Coordinator Navoda Edirisinghe sharing the work done by NHRDC on promoting women.

Nanayakkara introduced the working committee members, who represent different industries. The Chairperson was Nanayakkara, Nadija Tambiah the Vice Chairperson, Shiromal Cooray, Gayani De Alwis, Janaki Kuruppu, Ranjani Joseph, and Malika Wijeratne, the working committee members.

At the end of the event, the vote of thanks was given by SLID CEO Chamindā de Silva, followed by a drinks reception and networking. 

Participation in the Forum will be open to SLID women members who fall within the ordinary or associate member category only. Women board directors wishing to actively and regularly participate may contact the SLID CEO on 2301647 and express their interest in joining the Forum.


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