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How can we really achieve gender equity in the C-Suite?

May 6, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

In this episode of Borderless Executive Live, our host Els De Cremer, founding partner of Borderless, is joined by Reshma Ramachandran, former Chief Transformation Officer at Adecco and currently, Non-Executive Director of ISS A/S and Oxford Instruments.

Where do women in business stand today?
As someone who has been active in the corporate world for over 20 years, Reshma believes social awareness around gender equity has improved. Organizations have become mindful of the power of diversity, especially when it comes to the power of female leaders. Soft skills such as empathy, humility, and compassion, while often considered ‘feminine traits’, have proven to achieve better business results compared to more dominating leadership styles. It’s no surprise that recent studies confirm that countries with strong female leaders have fared better during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while the strength of female leadership is gaining recognition, real progress is still lacking. A recent report published by McKinsey and LeanIn showed that women remain underrepresented in C-Suite roles. “We still don’t like women with ambition,’ Reshma explains. “The moment women have ambition, and are saying things that are radically different from traditional thinking, is the moment the labeling starts and we’re perceived as aggressive. We have given ambition to women, but we have not created systemic changes that allow ambitious women to be accepted.”

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the issue. During lockdown, the bulk of domestic and care responsibilities fell on women, resulting in higher burnout numbers among female workers. And while the pandemic gave rise to a hybrid working model and enabled women to maintain a better work-life balance, this new way of working has been detrimental to their career aspirations. Reshma calls this ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ “Research shows that women are unduly penalized for not showing up at the office. Promotions are based on potential. Showing potential means being visible. Women pay the price for not being visible enough,” she explains.

Establishing your personal brand and your tribe
So, what can women do to carve out their own path in the workplace?

First, Reshma emphasizes the importance of building your personal brand.

Disruptive technological advances such as AI, mean that current skills and experiences have a shelf life; they may no longer be sufficient to stand out in the job market. Additionally, working for the same organization until retirement is no longer a reality for current generations. Reshma emphasizes that the time to build a personal brand is NOW. “In a world drowning in information, how are you going to be found if you’re not visible? If you don’t know your values, how are you going to match with organizations? It’s important to carve out a niche for yourself. Build on your skills, and expand your network. Be visible. Become your own biggest ambassador.”

Reshma stresses the value of authenticity. “I rebel against the idea that we must have a different personality outside of work. That’s completely defying your authentic self. You need to identify with the values of a company, and they need to identify with yours. If there’s not a match, then that’s not the space for you.”

Second, Reshma urges female leaders to build their tribe.

As a woman at the intersection of gender and ethnicity, Reshma has had her fair share of direct and indirect bias. The group of women she has gathered around her has allowed her to share and normalize those experiences. “As women we often see ourselves as the problem, and we’re focused on fixing ourselves. But it’s not us, it’s the system. Talking about shared experiences helps me to see that I’m not the problem.” To Reshma, creating a sense of belonging and validation is what has allowed her to grow. “Look for like-minded and similarly motivated people and build your tribe. They will lift you up any time you hit a low.”

Promoting tangible corporate action
Of course, gender equity isn’t and shouldn’t be solely a women’s issue. Corporates have the responsibility to introduce concrete actions that go beyond celebrating Women’s Day.

Reshma sees gender targets, such as the gender quota, as an essential step to bring diverse people into specific positions. “The quota is necessary because the natural process has failed,’ Reshma explains. “If the natural process had worked, we wouldn’t have to talk about percentages. Anything that can be measured can be improved and can’t be dismissed as just a perception.”

However, setting targets becomes meaningless if there are no concrete action plans to back them up. Diversity targets need to be more than just a box-ticking exercise. “Many organizations take the first step in terms of setting diversity targets but not the second step, which is understanding how systemic issues can be fixed. If you don’t fix the systemic issues, you’re not going to address the targets,” Reshma explains.

An important example of this is sponsorship for women. While mentorship is often widely accessible, sponsorship opportunities for women remain scarce. “Mentorship means something is lacking that needs improving,” Reshma explains. “But women don’t need fixing. We have vision, skills, and leadership abilities. What we need are people who speak our names in rooms full of opportunities. That is sponsorship. Unfortunately, women don’t have control over this. We need more sponsors and fewer mentors for women.”

Ambition is not a dirty word
Reshma believes that what will ultimately help drive progress and boost representation of female leadership, is women fully and unapologetically embracing their ambition.

“Don’t feel guilty about your ambition. Be brave and bold enough to speak about it. There is power in numbers. The more of us who talk about it, the less the system can shut us down. So, don’t keep quiet about your ambition,” Reshma concludes. “Make yourself visible and be your own sponsor. We own our future. Take control, go out there and be authentic and genuine.”


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