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Stellar Search founder Shailja Dutt on boosting gender diversity in boardrooms

Dutt says that conversations around women's representation in the boardroom in Asia is marked by an air of general resistance.

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New Delhi: As a female leader in the 21st century, my professional career is a testament to a global shift in mindset, away from the archaic perspective of the boardroom as a male bastion, and into a more inclusive and socially forward space that views leadership as a gender-agnostic virtue.

However, the conversation around female representation in the boardroom in Asia is marked by an air of general resistance. 

A popular tool employed by policymakers in promoting diversity in the workplace, the emergence of gender quotas has been something of a double-edged sword in the fight for equality. The movement, which began in 2003 when Norway instituted a 40 per cent quota for women on its country’s corporate boards, has since seen the global powers of Belgium, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Israel, Italy, and Spain, amongst others, following suit. 

This institutional requirement has indeed proven its effectiveness, but is not a one-size-fits-all solution, promoting an unfair trend of tokenistic female hires and window-dressing amongst corporates.

According to recent surveys, India as a nation fared better than Asia as a whole in gender diversity in both executive and non-executive chair roles, with women holding 17 per cent of board positions in 2020. On the other hand, Asia’s average of women in executive chair roles stood at 2.6 per cent with non-executive chair roles at 5 per cent.

While India is slowly following in the footsteps of the global market, the larger Asian market’s aversion to equal representation in the boardroom is something of a cultural phenomenon, that requires more than institutional quotas to rectify.

Gender roles in Asian and global society

Just as values are dictated by tradition, Asian cultural tradition and religious teachings socialise young girls towards social and collectivistic values, while simultaneously encouraging higher personal or individualistic values amongst young boys. 

As a report by UNICEF states, “In all South Asian countries, patriarchal values and social norms keep gender inequalities alive. Discriminatory practices begin even before birth and affect every aspect of a child’s future.”

This is apparent in the typically assumed gender roles of women in Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Indonesian society as caregivers and homemakers applauded for values such as obedience, respectfulness and subservience. The patriarchal structure of Asian society deems working and ambitious women as amoral, or misguided. 

This is not a uniquely Asian phenomenon, either. From the British, African and Western suffragette movements to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the annals of history bore witness to women from every culture and every tradition breaking free of the shackles of societal norms, and towards social equality.

While the perception of women as equals to men in Asian societies is still in its nascent stages, the Indian trend of effective female leadership is a glimmer of hope that cannot be understated.

A turning tide

As I said before, the global perception of leadership qualities in the 21st century is gender-agnostic. Certain traits, such as possessing a long-term, compelling vision, effective communication strategies, adaptability, and a high emotional quotient are common amongst effective leaders, regardless of their gender.

While leadership is indeed gender agnostic, globally, women have demonstrated their effectiveness in the boardroom and across leadership roles by tapping into these inherent values — the very same that once served to alienate them from corporate and professional spaces.

As a gender, women were undervalued and overlooked as candidates for positions of authority due to the perceived constraints of womanhood. From pregnancy to motherhood, from marriage to spousal relocation, and from menstruation to menopause, the corporate gaze tended to view women as flight-risks.

However, it is these very perceived constraints that prove the resilience of women in professional settings. From full-time working mothers to corporate leaders who struggle with the hormonal pitfalls of menopause at the very peaks of their careers, women have proven time and time again that their compassion and dedication is not in defiance of their biological imperatives, but rather is a direct consequence of them.

While there is a long way to go towards equality in the boardroom, gender equality has been achieved world-over through intellectual and social revolution. However, the Asian gender revolution is not one characterised by large-scale protests, violence or strife, but is rather a silent revolt that is not localized to any one gender. I believe that the future will bear witness to a momentous rise in female leadership on boards, both in Asian countries, as well as elsewhere in the world. 

Shailja Dutt is a top global executive search consultant with over 26 years of experience in leadership talent acquisition, assessment and development, with an exceptional understanding of markets in Asia, Middle East and Africa. She is the founder of Stellar Search, a rapidly expanding, deeply respected global leadership advisory & executive search firm with a strong India footprint. 

(ThePrint ValueAd Initiative content is a paid-for, sponsored article. Journalists of ThePrint are not involved in reporting or writing it.) 

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