IWD 2021: Rising to the challenge of gender equality

·4-min read
Close up portrait of Asian businesswoman, beside male senior coworker, smiling and laughing, respect, admiration
Everyone has a part to play in championing a workplace that embraces gender diversity by choosing to challenge and call out bias, stereotypes, and inequality. (PHOTO: Getty Creative)

By Carmen Yuen

SINGAPORE — Gender disparity is a real issue: the trailing numbers in wage amounts and leadership representation compared to men are clear for all to see. We recognise now that women are just as capable as men, especially in the workforce, and broadly agree that maintaining gender diversity is not just a sensible thing to do but it also makes a lot of business sense.

Being part of an organization that invests in transformational technologies, I could resonate deeply with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #ChooseToChallenge. I believe that everyone has a part to play in championing a workplace that embraces gender diversity by choosing to challenge and call out bias, stereotypes, and inequality.

Accepting and adapting to differences

Businesses see securing the best talent as one of their key priorities and may even relate it to their profitability. On paper, men are the more reliable hires because they don’t need months of maternity leave. This means less disruption to business operations, which can be appealing to companies with limited manpower such as small and medium enterprises (SMEs). However, this ignores the individual value of female workers, as well as the ability of companies to adapt workflow processes to their needs.

I believe that with the right support, women can be strong leaders without neglecting their other roles as wives and mothers. Businesses that genuinely value their female employees will consider arrangements that help them balance working and caring for their families. Remote working is one such example. Now that companies are more familiar with it due to COVID-19, working mothers have a new option for more flexible work.

Meaningful change vs jumping on the bandwagon

It’s true that there are more women in leadership than before, but many still tend to hold ‘supporting’ roles such as in human resources, communications, and marketing instead of ‘frontline’ roles, such as being CEOs or being on the Board of Directors. In fact, the Singapore Board Diversity Index showed that 45 percent of listed companies in Singapore lack female representation on the Board of Directors.

Women are not asking for special treatment. We just want to compete on an even footing with our male peers. I am fortunate that the leaders in Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India are progressive enough to consider having women partners before it became fashionable to do so, but my experience shouldn’t be an exception.

Gender equality is not altruism. It isn’t unreasonable to want the removal of barriers such as gender-based discrimination and prejudice, or to want to be judged on merit instead of gender, being paid what the role is worth, and having zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

Having quotas for female leaders and staff is a good PR initiative, but it’s still just paying lip service if they are filled based purely on gender and are limited to certain types of roles or levels. While all companies should strive to support gender diversity at the workplace, only an authentic approach will inspire true change. I believe the shift is starting but it will take time for a multi-generation bias to change.

Rejecting stereotypes in favour of merit

Women have been called the ‘weaker sex’ for generations – not just physically, but mentally as well. This is especially a disadvantage at the workplace, where the archetype of the ideal leader continues to be predominantly masculine. Leadership qualities such as being direct, firm and no-nonsense are celebrated in men, but are seen as being undesirable in women – even among other women. Yet these are just stereotypes created by our society. They have no bearing on actual performance.

Ultimately, organisations want to hire the best talent. Talent does not discriminate between gender, age, race or religion, so neither should we. Employers should focus on the abilities of an individual when making selection decision. Companies shouldn't fear diversity and difference. In fact, diversity builds stronger organisations by virtue of creating a more informed and tolerant workplace, making us better people by extension.

Taking on the challenge

Change must always start from the top. The onus will be on the management to lead the way in shifting the gender mindset. For myself, being at partner-level in what is still a predominantly male-heavy industry is already pushing the boundaries for more inclusiveness.

An inclusive workspace means respecting the difference of individuals to ensure people are valued and empowered, whoever they may be. As the cycle of leadership continues to turn and a new generation — one that is more exposed to inclusiveness and equality — steps up, I hope that the shift away from this multi-generation bias will become less of a challenge and more of an eventuality.

Carmen Yuen is Partner, Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India