Thursday December 16, 2010
Moving gender issues forward
AS the opening verse of Spice Girls’ song Wannabe was blared over the loudspeakers during the Women’s Summit 2010, most of the people in the audience started wondering what the 1990s pop hit had to do with women in the workplace. As it turns out, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox wanted to draw attention to the song’s first line: If you want my future, forget my past.
“When companies recognise the women we’ve become, and forget the women our mothers and grandmothers used to be, we will all be moving ahead much faster,” she explains. As CEO of one of the world’s leading gender consultancies, she certainly knows what she’s talking about.
Apart from being the founder and honorary president of the European Professional Women’s Network, Wittenberg-Cox, who hails from Paris, also wrote How Women Mean Business, A Step By Step Guide To Profiting From Gender Balanced Business, and co-wrote Why Women Mean Business: Understanding The Emergence Of Our Next Economic Revolution.
According to her, companies and governments can ill-afford to ignore a woman’s needs when it comes to balancing her work and home life. With 60% of the university graduates in the United States and European Union being women (with many other parts of the world following suit), women are an important resource. In order to tap into their potential, governments and companies have to think of ways to facilitate having a family and working at the same time.
Otherwise, the result may be a rapidly depleting population and workforce, she warns.
“In countries all over the world, birth rates are declining because women are working. Women in the 21st century are voting with their wombs, and it’s obvious that they have chosen work. Companies and governments need to realise that if they don’t facilitate women in caring for their children, they may stop having them. Gender roles have to be allowed to evolve,” she says.
The lack of support for a family life accounts for the relative scarcity of women in upper management positions, she explains. This, in turn, affects the organisation because it is losing out on valuable talent. Furthermore, Wittenberg-Cox adds, gender balance in a company translates into better bottom line financial results.
“When you lose talent, you’re also losing leadership skills.”
Most companies, even those that recruit 50% women at entry level, see women dropping off at every management level – women who have to leave in order to focus on a family life. The solution, however, requires companies to take a hard look at themselves and their policies, she adds.
“Is it women that need to change, or the companies and organisations? Isn’t it time to ask, what is the matter with these companies that they can’t attract and retain 60% of the most educated people in the world?” Wittenberg-Cox asserts.
Gender issues in a company, she says, are not the responsibilty of women alone. Instead, it should be a business issue.
“Gender is one of the biggest business opportunities of the century; it is not just a women’s issue,” she says.
To facilitate this, she suggests promoting “gender bilingualism” as a management competency.
“Much like managers had to become multicultural and multilingual to cope with an increasingly globalised workplace, companies should also learn to become ‘bilingual’ when it comes to gender, in order to cope with the increasing number of women who are now working.
“Companies and countries will be far more economically successful and pleasant if we all danced together!” she concluded. – By Sharmilla Ganesan
Overcoming the hurdles