Vital Voices Global Partnership, a non-governmental organization that identifies, trains and empowers emerging women leaders around the globe, will host Vital Voices of Asia, a regional leadership and training summit, in New Delhi starting Tuesday. The summit’s aim is to recognize the critical role that women in South Asia and East Asia Pacific can and must play and includes speakers such as Kiran Bedi, retired Indian Police Service officer; Bharti Gupta Ramola, executive director, PricewaterhouseCoopers and co-founder Basix; and Usha Thorat, deputy governor, Reserve Bank of India.
The closing evening will also feature a performance of the documentary play Seven, with well-known actors such as Shabana Azmi (playing Inez McCormack).
In an email interview, Alyse Nelson, president and CEO, Vital Voices Global Partnership, tells us about some of the key steps that she believes can bring more women into boardrooms. Edited excerpts:
Why are there such few women in board-level positions?
I think it’s an unfortunate reality that women have often been overlooked for board-level positions within corporations, not only in a particular region, but around the world. While unwarranted biases certainly play a role in women’s traditional exclusion from these senior-level positions, I do think we’re starting to see a marked shift in perceptions, as new research comes to the fore that illustrates a strong connection between women’s increased participation on boards and higher returns for companies.
A 2007 Catalyst report, The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards, shows that companies with more female board members outperform those with the least. Boards with more than three women on them have an 83% higher return to shareholder value than boards without women. Not to mention, higher returns across the board: Return on equity is 53% higher, return on sales is 42% higher and return on invested capital is 66% higher.
Boardroom-speak: Alyse Nelson.
I think it’s clear to see that when we increase women’s access to opportunity, and increase women’s participation at the board level, whole companies stand to prosper.
We’re excited to contribute to expanding research in this field through a new partnership with The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Women’s Economic Opportunity report, an innovative study launched earlier this year to analyse policies and attitudes that affect women in the economy.
How can companies work on their diversity programmes to include more women in higher or more prominent positions?
I think the adoption of equal opportunity employment policies is a necessary step in safeguarding fair access for all, while ensuring that companies enjoy the proven benefit of diversity. Professional development seminars and training are also great opportunities for growth and advancement.
Who are the key players in an organization who can boost the number of women promoted to key positions?
I think that leadership on this issue must come from the top, but an entire organization has a role to play in adopting fair policies and creating an environment that enables women to advance as equally as men. I think if companies promote a culture of equal opportunity, inclusiveness and merit-based promotions, women will have a fair chance to ascend the corporate ladder and take on leadership roles within their companies, showing the great value and contribution they have to offer in this sector.
Companies are usually resistant to concessions (as in flexi time, working from home) and that often leads to a large number of women quitting the workforce at some point. Should companies make such concessions to keep women in the workforce?
Certainly, I think companies need to adopt fair, non-discriminatory policies for all employees. Working or expectant mothers should not feel that they are excluded or limited from ascending to the highest levels of corporate governance. Women around the world not only balance the demands of their personal and professional lives, but thrive in their work and go on to rise to top positions. As corporations increasingly come to realize the tremendous value that women have in the business world, I think we will see that companies stand to prosper if they adopt policies and working cultures that are amenable to women and their role in business.
Women candidates at most business schools seldom get the same job offers or positions as their male counterparts. How can this be remedied?
I think increasing awareness of newly released studies on women’s value as drivers of economic growth would contribute greatly to promoting women’s equal access to opportunity. If we ensure that research is widely disseminated and, indeed, if we commit further resources to this critical kind of research, we can tear down barriers that would seek to limit women’s full participation or consideration for employment.
One of the central messages we’re looking to impart in our work at Vital Voices, and particularly through our regional summit here in Delhi, is that women are proven catalysts of progress—socially, politically and economically. It’s not that the world’s women need our help—we need theirs. When women have increased access to opportunity, companies, governments and civil societies, all stand to benefit.