Women in the Boardroom: Things better now for women but cultural biases may still be prevalent

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Anne AbrahamAnne AbrahamAnne Abraham is fully committed to preparing women for leadership and corporate board service.

It is no mean feat to have a very successful career in the corporate world – and Anne Abraham is as exceptional as they come. Starting as a technical trainer in a software company, she left to start her own company LeadWomen Sdn Bhd, where she continues to train, coach and mentor, though with a slight twist – she now exclusively leads and mentors women, grooming them into corporate leaders.

LeadWomen is focused only on Women Leadership Development and Consultancy. We have been involved in boardroom training, coaching and positioning women for board and leadership opportunities – and we have just completed building our portal (www.lead-women.com) as well,” Anne, who is clearly passionate about leading more women into leadership roles and into the boardroom.

Besides being the first portal for corporate women, the website also offers boardroom and leadership webinars, as well as coaching-related resources and videos. “The platform can be used by partners, organizations and recruiters to post boardroom and leadership openings. We provide a free screening service, to ensure that the women candidates match the requirements, in order to ensure that the rate of success is high. We also provide a networking platform for corporate women to come together – either through technology or face-to-face – to do a host of things: discuss topics and issues relevant to leadership, increase boardroom placements, and even have invited guests/recruiters to support women in their pursuit of board positions,” Anne added.

It was exactly this kind of support that was lacking when women of Anne’s generation entered the corporate world. There were no women role models to look up to: they had to set the benchmark for the next generation of women in the corporate world, becoming the standards to admire and emulate.

“Role Models help us to aspire to roles that perhaps we have not thought of or not encountered personally, particularly for young women – heads of government, heads of corporations, leaders in political, movements and especially leadership positions in “male-dominated” industries. Seeing women succeeding in these roles helps inspire young women to broaden their expectation for their own possibilities.”

So does the present generation of women have a better chance of making it into the boardroom? Anne believes that it is so. “I think it will be easier for the present generation of women, because cultural barriers are slowly being removed. Their mothers were from the generation that had been trying to bring about that mindset change. Both sons and daughters of this generation are given equal opportunities – hence, the rise in the number of women with tertiary education,” she said.

“The current workforce is a mix of multiple generations. It is only a matter of time for the workforce to experience a complete shift in social norms, and to be more open to gender equality and diversity, at all levels. There is more acceptance from the current generation of men when it comes to sharing responsibilities at home. This generation of men wants to be a part of the child’s development and growing-up years – in fact, recent articles regarding this topic have reported that many men have given up power and position, opting to bring more and better integration of their career and family life.”

Anne

AnneAnne also felt that the younger generation of women are more confident, thanks to their mothers’ upbringing, and that this confidence is visible in the workplace. “The younger generation women feel more equal to their male counterparts. We can also see many of the larger Malaysian private limited companies (PLCs) giving the leadership position of their corporations to their daughters – which would have been totally unheard of for the baby boomer generation. With all this happening, women may not need to leave the workforce to start families, and this will allow them to stay and compete for equal opportunities,” she said.

It will take a few more decades before the effect of Gen Y women in the workforce can be seen – but at present, there are still invisible barriers that Malaysian women need to overcome.  Statistics show that while many Malaysian women are capable, they do not seem to break the glass ceiling, particularly at board level. It appears that if something is not done to deliberately include high performing women in leadership roles, companies may inadvertently exclude much needed talent – not a good idea in a highly competitive business environment.

“We are still not there in Malaysia. When we talk about CEO-level women leaders here, we still struggle to name anyone beyond Tan Sri (Dr) Zeti (Akhtar Aziz) of Bank Negara Malaysia, and Datuk Rohana Rozhan of Astro, to name a few. However, in functional leadership roles, we have many more senior female leaders,” Anne opined.

She felt that there are still unconscious biases that can sometimes create some barriers for women. “There are a large number of corporations that are still very ‘old school’ in thinking, which tend to gravitate towards more of the same, often male-dominated characteristics of leadership. It is difficult to generalize, as culture has a big part to play in changing the game.”

Perhaps mindsets need to be changed on what makes a good a leader.  A growing body of research shows that traditionally “male” characteristics – such as assertiveness – have been overemphasized in the past and need to be coupled with the more “female” attributes – such as empathy and risk aversion – to avoid group-think. Acceptance of a more balanced approach to effective governance may equalize the playing field for a larger pool of talent, including more women to complement their male counterparts in decision-making roles.

However, Anne is optimistic that things will only get better overall for Malaysian women in the corporate sector. For women who aim to reach the top of their profession, Anne gave some advice:

  • Women must be good at what they do.
  • Women must know what they want.
  • Women must network and create visibility in the corporate space.
  • Women must identify strong sponsors who can help them get there.
  • Women must build a strong personal brand, by getting involved in various activities, including thought leadership, speaking engagements and panel discussions.
  • Women must find an opportunity to get some experience by sitting on boards of not-profit organizations, as well as private boards.
  • Women must communicate their interests to the people who can make decisions.
  • Women must read and keep abreast with the latest economic trends, business innovations and strategies.

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