Home Opinion Putting women ahead is the need of the hour

Putting women ahead is the need of the hour

Arup Chatterjee
Greater inclusion and gender parity yields better outcomes for society and business
Principal Financial Sector Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department at Asian Development Bank
Women working at a brick factory in India

We often hear women are better off today as many of them perform job roles traditionally considered the preserve of men alone. Even women working in factories or at call centres are happy to narrate their experiences at the workplace as both liberating and empowering due to the impact of earning a regular wage. 

In a nutshell, women have more choices and greater independence than if they remained at home. 

However, the sad reality before us is that girls and women worldwide face the indignities of discrimination, harassment and often violence. 

The ordinary woman

We often miss the picture of an ordinary woman living in a developing country. Instead, we imagine someone working in an office or the rare instances of women who have broken the glass ceiling. 

This ordinary woman is poor, and so is her family, and other women in her community. She has four or five kids and works in the fields or at a construction site for the entire day. She does the same heavy lifting as a man, but her pay is significantly lower. And at home, she is also responsible for feeding her family.

Yet, she is always smiling and never feels like a victim. She, too, has dreams and excellent ideas for a business that will benefit families like hers. Perhaps it’s with solar cooking stoves or a smartphone. But all her money is currently spent on survival, trying to make two ends meet. 

This is the reality for millions of women around the world. 

Gender inequality undermines sustainable development

Regardless of the direction one looks at, women bear the prime responsibility for holding societies together, whether at home, at school, in healthcare, or in caring for the elderly. Yet, women mostly perform these tasks without pay. And COVID-19 has driven gender-based differences more sharply.

Lowering gender inequality in Asia-Pacific could add $4.5 trillion to their collective annual GDP in 2025, a 12% increase over the business-as-usual trajectory over 10 years.

Bringing more women into the fold is beneficial to economies. Organisations can benefit from their talents, skills and unique perspectives. Gender diversity can boost productivity and lead to enhanced welfare for all. 

And even through all of this, men do not lose out. 

We are underachieving sustainable development by not factoring women in and supporting their engagement with the economy and society. And, this is at a time when we need to overachieve and overachieve fast. We need this growth boost to support the post-COVID recovery. 

Identifying blind spots

It is important to become more aware of women’s potential in business by considering their known strengths, unknown strengths, known weaknesses and identifying blind spots.

Known strengths pertain to awareness of the knowledge and skills women possess and how they can leverage them to benefit their organisations. Known weaknesses help enhance awareness of women’s shortcomings and build capacity to minimise any negative impact. A thorough understanding of unknown strengths can help organisations become fully aware of women’s knowledge or skills, identified by practicing self-awareness. 

There are also different levels of blindness resulting from lack of awareness, faulty assessment and failure to act. For example, organisations tend to be unaware of a woman’s vulnerability and how much risk she may represent. Although they are aware of the exposure, they do not understand its potential impact due to faulty assessment. And there are occasions when organisations fail to act as they are not adequately equipped with the requisite skills to address them while being aware of the vulnerability.

For discovering women’s strengths, weaknesses and their unknown capabilities, it is helpful to assess the blind spots. Also, informing organisations of women’s qualities that they are unaware of can make them realise just how wrong they are in their judgment.

Bias towards linear thinking

Another aspect of why we fail in successful gender mainstreaming is linear thinking in a nonlinear world. Our brains prefer to think linearly, in straight lines and hierarchies. This bias towards linear thinking often traps unwary decision-makers who fail to recognise the nonlinear relationships they are dealing with, leading to the failure of considering women for leadership roles.

Leadership is a big nebulous word for many, one that can mean many different things to different people and across all cultures. Great Leaders are not always in front. It is all about the situational need and timing. At times, leaders lead from the front, which can be an excellent position for a short period, especially during a crisis, where there is an expectation to take charge and blaze the trail as a leader. Sometimes, one can lead from the middle. Leadership here is less hierarchical and more supportive. Many times, leaders lead from behind. Leading from behind offers a unique perspective about the team.

Leading from behind is also the best position to take to develop future leaders. From here, one can see who is most effective at handling obstacles and influencing the rest of the team. Again, we have seen our mothers at home often assume this role without taking all the credit.

While building a compelling case for gender diversity, advancing women’s leadership in the workplace should consider all these dimensions.

Emerging trends

Empowered women are great entrepreneurs who understand their families and communities’ multiple economic, social and environmental benefits. Organisations that hire more women have been found to generate more revenue, probably due to the increased production of women-friendly products and services due to the implementation of human-centric solutions.

The rise of the SHEconomy will help overcome missed opportunities. As a market, women represent an opportunity bigger than China and India combined. They control $28 trillion in consumer spending. 

Irrespective of whether women are at home or work, women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchases. Due to the multiplier effect, even if women are not making the transaction, they will still be impacting the decisions as primary caregivers of children and the elderly.

Given the power of this audience, women have to be at the front and centre of content and product development. Beyond just seeing themselves in advertising a product, women’s needs should be key in developing it.

Women will make FEMProducts for women. Businesses wanting a piece of the pie of the $28 trillion female economy needs to start with a gender bias, albeit a positive one.

And those who realise this fact can truly move market shares, win votes, foster values and strengthen the bottom line. Women’s growing economic and political power will determine how we perceive business, products and politics.

ECOFeminism will drive sustainable development. The pandemic has triggered a domino effect and has revealed inherent flaws in our current development and business models. Women are closer to nature when compared with men. Therefore, this closeness makes women more nurturing and caring towards their environment. The shift in focus presented by ecofeminism holds the key to truly sustainable and inclusive development.

As Amartya Sen has said, “Advancing gender equality may be one of the best ways of saving the environment.” He maintains that the voice of women is critically important for the world’s future – and not just for their own future.

Educating and actively involving women in discussions on climate policy can also have a quantifiable effect on reducing a country’s emissions and promoting more sustainable development.

Women are primary beneficiaries of a sustainable future and can be one of the most ardent advocates of mitigating climate change. For example, by popularising the increasing use of clean energy, they can help reduce the harmful effects of carbon emission on a mass scale such as pollution arising out of the burning of biomass. Not only can it help improve general health levels, but access to renewable energy (like solar energy) can provide them with better livelihood prospects and improve the educational opportunities of their children.

SHEcosystems that will support women to take a step beyond “micro”. Conscious efforts are needed to promote ecosystems that support female entrepreneurship. Some 70% of women workers are employed or self-employed in informal jobs that are insecure, unprotected and poorly paid.

Areas where significant gender inequalities in the economy are observed include women’s predominance in the informal economy, occupational segregation and discrimination in recruitment, career progression and re-entry after a gap. Gender pay gaps, lack of ownership of assets, unequal and inadequate access to productive resources, finance and capacity building are also present. Additionally, a heavy and disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work, and sexual harassment at the workplace remains a challenge.

Women’s economic empowerment requires that market-based approaches and financial gains and incentives must go hand in hand. Additionally, the entrepreneurial ecosystem should enable women to realise their rights and level the capacity and opportunity playing field. 

For economic empowerment, entrepreneurship and decent work are the bedrock. And they support the economic empowerment of women and men, families, communities and countries. 

Historically, systematic discrimination against women has constrained their full and equal participation in the economy. And this necessitates adopting special measures, both by governments and the private sector. 

FEMinisation of risk management will drive firm performance and corporate governance. But, unfortunately, leaders who seek guidance from the old paradigm of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus are likely to get fooled about risk and gender.

Using old gender stereotypes about risk aversion and tolerance to inform any decision can lead to unintended consequences. 

Ninety-five percent of the risk preferences of men and women overlap. Yet, it will be erroneous to say there are no differences at all between the genders. There’s a wide variation among men and women depending on whether they are single and married or young and old. 

It’s also important to understand the context and type of risk that explain any behaviour. Research shows that when under stress, men make riskier decisions than women. Women are better at evaluating their behaviour in hindsight – which can better inform future decisions surrounding risk.

Evidence points to the inverse relationship between gender diversity and risk-taking during decision-making in boards. Organisations with a critical mass of women board members tend to approach risk more holistically. As a result, in some ways, they can squeeze a little more value out of decisions.

According to the International Monetary Fund, incrementing a company’s board by just one women member can be linked with a higher return on assets while keeping the board size unchanged. In addition, having women on corporate boards can also reduce the risk of fraud substantially. 

The future of technology is FEMTech. In recent years, the technological field has taken revolutionary steps to balance gender disparities. The tech world needs the perspective of more women tech founders if we’re going to tackle some of the biggest challenges impacting us, from ‘food systems’ to the ‘future of family’.

It has led to the emergence of a female-centric technology market or FEMTech, with the development of tech solutions to respond to the specific needs of women. Therefore, there is merit in considering how increasing the involvement of women in the workforce might lead to a wholesome digital product and better human-centric tech solutions.

With the increasing participation of women, the problem-solving abilities of teams can improve. Additionally, greater diversity of experience and new perspectives can translate into more human-centric approaches while solving problems. 

Men must benefit too

The response to the feminist movement from men has been a rather mixed one. Some are supportive, while some are antagonistic. Many times, the feminists, too, have taken a hard line, sometimes even a separatist stance. However, if we see the challenge of achieving gender equality as resting exclusively with women and ignore the socialisation with men within the patriarchal system, that would be a grave mistake.

Gender inequality remains a significant concern for both women and men as it strongly impacts their daily lives. However, it should not be contextualised mainly as a ‘women’s issue’ – solely because women have been at the forefront of gender equality struggles.

And striving for equality alone won’t just improve society’s treatment of women and girls: men, too, must benefit.

We still live in a man’s world. Research reveals that when men advocate for gender equity, their efforts are taken more seriously. To change the status quo, men may have a greater responsibility to work towards it, as a group with more power, influence and capital than women. 

The way forward is together

The general perception that women’s rights are gained at the expense of men’s is far from the truth. There’s now enough evidence to demonstrate that quality of life improves for everyone in more gender-equal societies, not just for women. Men also benefit as they are half as likely to be depressed, less likely to commit suicide, and have a 40% lower risk of dying a violent death.

The way forward is together. And men, as allies working alongside women, need to act by placing women ahead of them – not just because it is morally right but because it is in their enlightened self-interest.

By standing up and being vocal about the rights of girls and women and fulfilling the aspirations of the ordinary woman, men will truly measure up as gentlemen.

The views expressed are personal.

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Principal Financial Sector Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department at Asian Development Bank

Arup Chatterjee is Principal Financial Sector Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, Asian Development Bank. His current work involves financial, governance, risk management, and regulatory reforms across different industries. He has held stints with the Bank for International Settlements in Switzerland, and Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India.

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