Woman on top

Corporate Watch
Amelia H. C. Ylagan

Posted on March 14, 2016

How curious to see the macho Chief of Police teetering on ladies’ high heels, gingerly negotiating a kilometer-march (more a pained prance) down Main Street, at the head of a procession of his policemen, also balancing on six-inch stilettos. It was not funny. What was it for?

“In her shoes” was an advocacy event in celebration of women’s month held simultaneously in the National Capital Region, Naga, Baguio City, Cebu City, Iloilo City, Cagayan de Oro City, Davao and Zamboanga City last week. The National Youth Commission (NYC), which spearheaded the activity, said that “the advocacy event aims to instill awareness in the significant roles of women in nation-building and development.” Men wearing heels is symbolic of men’s solidarity for the promotion of gender sensitivity and support for women’s rights and their struggles, the NYC said (pia.gov.ph).

The intended message might have been painfully stretched to the point of an unintended slingshot snap at some macho men secretly wanting to be women by wearing high heels -- dangerous innuendo but surely, that is not the point. Poor thing, the Chief of Police. Perhaps Women’s Day celebrations could have been more dignified and not trivialized in gender-biased slapstick comedy -- for his sake, at least. Well, all in clean fun, and no malice intended.

What was more meaningful for International Women’s Day March 7 was the news report on the front page of BusinessWorld that “38.99% of businesses in the Philippines have women in senior management positions (and) 3.7% women among the 9.5% in senior management in these businesses,” as reported by the 2015-2016 Grant Thornton Survey covering 36 developed and emerging economies. To the Filipina -- you’ve come a long way, Baby, no thanks to those tortuous six-inch high heels, Prada or whatever the Devil wears.

And as in the movie, The Devil wears Prada, the woman executive is peaking in power and influence in this day, and the Filipina is confidently leading the changes in the corporate and business hierarchies in the global economy that the Philippines is ably competing in.

But it is nothing new for women to be “on top” in the culture and mores of the Philippines -- the matriarchal society even in pre-Hispanic times respected and revered women and looked up to women-sages/healers who reigned over even the political structures of the datus. It was only when the colonizing Spaniards came in the 1500s that women were relegated to lesser estimation and respect, as in the chauvinistic culture of Europe then. In Bago, Negros Occidental the Babaylan festival and rituals in remembrance of the high priestesses of early times and in honor of the present-day womenfolk are celebrated every February in street events akin to the women’s rights advocacies of the more urban areas (bagocity.gov.ph).

The historical veracity of women “on top” or more than equal to men is reinforced in surveys of the World Economic Forum (WEF) monitoring the closing of the gender gap, with the Philippines as number five of 142 assessed developed countries in 2014 for gender equality. The report analyzes women’s status in the economy, education, politics and health, with Iceland coming up first as the country with the narrowest gender gap in the world (for the fifth consecutive year, Iceland second, and Norway, Sweden and the Philippines third, fourth and fifth.

The Philippines is first in the Asia-Pacific region (APAC), the Philippines with its global number five position in gender equality, compared to neighbors Thailand in number 65 rank, Indonesia in the 95th rung and Japan in number 105 (WEF Gender Gap Index 2013).

The WEF Index identifies access to education as the most effective boost to women achieving gender equality in the workplace. Analysis of women competitiveness and corporate/business structural mobility proved the Philippines number five in educational attainment (tertiary and higher), number one in economic opportunity rank, number one in health survival rank and number 10 in political empowerment rank, to an overall number 16 rank in these aspects among 142 countries evaluated.

Yet the WEF said “economic equality between men and women will not be achieved globally for another eight decades. Women’s achievements and opportunities in the workplace are 60% those of men, up from 56% in the first such report in 2006. On this basis, parity will be achieved only in 81 years” (Bloomberg 10.29.14).

An analysis in CNN Money worried that “only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions at the companies in the S&P 500 are held by women (and of these) there are only 24 female CEOs” (CNNMoney 03.24.15). The next executive positions below CEO -- chief financial officers, chief operating officers and other key roles at major companies have only 16.5% women, and that’s still a small pool of leaders to draw from, Analyst Matt Egan complains.

Stereotypes persist, Egan says. There are roles for men and roles for women at the executive levels. The critical profit-and-loss jobs of operations, production, marketing that would lead to CEO positions go to the men and women are relegated to staff positions like human resources and investor relations, he observes. Citing Stewart Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life, “It’s traditionally and will be for the foreseeable future an all-in enterprise to be a chief executive. It becomes your whole life,” Egan insinuates that a career is less “full-time” and the be-all and end-all of a woman executive’s focus, unlike a male executive, who does not worry about running a household and rearing children on top of a more than full time job as a top executive.

The 2014 Pew Report (US) also decried the lack of women representation in top S&P 500, but contradictorily assured all that “Gender doesn’t matter to most. A vast majority of men and women agree that gender does not play a role in a person’s ability to lead a business.” Yet it reported that some 50% of women and 35% of men agree that many businesses aren’t ready to hire women for top executive positions (Pew Research Center 11.21.14).

If even in ultra-liberal, broad-minded America, gender still significantly matters for top executive positions, perhaps there might be something deeper than the surface gender fight for equal opportunity to make money. The resistance to narrowing the gender gap seems more determined than the passion of gender activists -- why have the big economic powers clung to the lowest rungs of the WEF Gender Gap Index and the Pew Reports?

The answer must be that the bottom line is the overriding concern of the hard-nosed businessmen that the S&P500 US and other developed countries are. When it comes to choosing who their CEO will be, it would not matter whether man or woman, as long as this person can bring in a robust bottom line. Qualitative gender preference or superstitious sexual discrimination has no room in an objective, quantitative business expectation of profit.

Perhaps passion should be consumed in fighting against violence to women, suffrage and political, social and economic rights, marital abuse, sexual harassment in the workplace -- there are many issues worth fighting and dying for other than neutral-gender fame and glory as CEO.

That Filipino women enjoy the most opportunity to be “on top” in senior corporate positions in Asia-Pacific -- that was earned from a focus on education and the hard work of individual women who collectively created a new image of the Filipina as a trustworthy, reliable and consistent worker worthy of being a nurturing leader in the workplace as well as in many aspects of life.

Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.