Her tales of obstacles and successes

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Photo by Brooke Lark

By Romsanne R. Ortiguero

Gender diversity in the global workplace has been a long, continuous battle — where women have to fight for their voices to be heard, their skills to be recognized, and their earnings to be equal to that of their male counterparts. In the Philippines, it seems that some battles have been won, as the country consistently ranks among the top countries with the largest proportion of women in management positions.

In fact, according to a recent Women Business Survey by Grant Thornton International Ltd. — published just in time for the International Women’s Month celebration this March — Philippines ranked as the top country among 35 others with the most number of women executives.

The report, which surveyed 4,500 senior executives across 35 countries, revealed that 46.58% of women hold senior management positions in the country, which is above the global average of 24.14%.

Such is the case with McDonald’s Philippines. Margot Torres, the company’s executive vice-president and deputy managing director, told BusinessWorld in an e-mail that women dominate the highest positions in their company.

“At McDonald’s Philippines, for top management positions, two-thirds are occupied by women,” she said, adding that their company has always believed in gender equality, inclusiveness, and diversity.

“I personally believe that in today’s changing environment, successful companies place culture as their topmost priority. With a woman’s empathy and intuitiveness, coupled with their business savvy, these could spell the difference for a company to transform and succeed in the future,” she continued.

On the other hand, some companies remain to have a larger proportion of men than women in the management team. LafargeHolcim Philippines President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sapna R. Sood told BusinessWorld in an interview that 32% of their senior management team are women. Although she thinks that their company is not as male-dominated as what others perceive it to be, she noted that there’s still a long way to go to change the perception that the construction industry is dominated mostly by men.

Meanwhile, before assuming a top management role, some women have experienced discrimination related to their gender at some point in their career. Hyundai Asia Resources, Inc. (HARI) President and CEO Ma. Fe Perez-Agudo said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld, “Being a woman seemed to be a disadvantage which I constantly had to disprove, and a stereotype that I had to break.”

According to Ms. Agudo, who was tasked to develop the Philippine market for Hyundai back in 2001, starting the company was a challenge because some questioned her capabilities as a woman.

“I was a woman and a newbie in a traditionally male-dominated industry. I can never forget my first meeting with the Hyundai Motoring Company officers. They asked, ‘You are a woman. What do you know about cars?’ I calmly replied, ‘Will you allow me a minute to address you as an equal?’ I got my minute. And I asked them in return, ‘You are Korean. What do you know about the Philippine market?,” she narrated.

Ms. Agudo shared that, at present, the automotive industry generally remains male-dominated with a gender ratio particularly in HARI as follows: 57.5% male: 42.5% female supervisors; 61% male: 39% female managers; and 65% male: 35% female executives.

To address these persistent challenges, genuine inclusion is crucial. Francesca Lagerberg, global leader for network capabilities and sponsor of women in leadership at Grant Thornton International Ltd., said in the report that the interviews they have conducted with business leaders around the world suggest that the businesses creating real change are those whose policies and practices are rooted in a genuine conviction of the benefit of diversity; that leaders of companies recognize the advantages of gender diversity and create inclusive cultures in which a wide range of voices are listened to.

The report further stated that inclusion incorporates all forms of diversity, recognizing that aside from aspects such as gender, age, or ethnicity, it’s important to have people with different backgrounds, experiences, behavioral styles, and skill sets to increase the effectiveness of a team.

Sharing the same perspective, Ms. Sood noted, “Diversity is just one part of it. It then has to be an inclusive organization, inclusive meaning that we are open to welcoming anyone — people who, of course, perform well, but anyone in terms of gender, ethnicity, etc. I think it also starts by having good policies, understanding that we need to be encouraging people whether it be flexible working hours, acknowledgment of different home situations, or different family situations.”

In the local setting, Ms. Torres also said that one thing that could be improved is the flexibility of working hours for employed mothers.

“With more women in the work force, this means that there will be more working mothers. I believe working mothers are the best multi-taskers. Allowing them to juggle their career with motherhood could mean allowing a flexible work schedule and options to work from home. Maternity leaves should also allow women to recover physically and emotionally from pregnancy and giving birth, and to spend time nursing their newborn child for a longer period. And with more working women, we should celebrate the role of househusbands, which traditionally is frowned upon,” she said.

Both Ms. Sood and Ms. Agudo also believe that education can empower more women.

“It’s really also about encouraging women into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) because there are women who are studying those subjects in university and then, often, they don’t actually pursue a career along those lines. We are a business who needs people with those backgrounds so I would like us to be encouraging women particularly to join us from those areas,” Ms. Sood said.

For Ms. Agudo, policy makers in the private and public sectors should continue to explore ways to further empower the Filipina, especially in the areas of entrepreneurship and vocational or technical skills.

“This means offering women, especially the underprivileged and those in grassroots communities, equal access to opportunities to education and skills training, financing, and, because we are in the Digital Age, connectivity,” she said.