Corporate America needs to get on the path to gender diversity

November 3, 2015

I began my very first week with Women’s World Banking in Mumbai, observing the Leadership and Diversity for Innovation Program hosted by Credit Suisse. What I saw was nothing short of inspiring. Leaders from Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, India, Jordan, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Uganda all came together with one shared intention: to become even more effective leaders so they and their financial institutions can better serve low-income women. Their commitment to women’s economic development and gender parity was clearly evident in Mumbai, perhaps made more meaningful given the assumptions many of us make about women’s roles and opportunities in developing countries.[Tweet “”From what I saw, leaders in developing world are more progressive regarding commitment to women in the workplace””]

So imagine my dismay upon reading the headline of the McKinsey and Lean In study, Women in the Workplace, shortly after I returned from India: “Corporate America is not on a path to gender equality.” The study finds that women continue to face barriers to advancement and “based on the slow rate of progress over the last three years, it will take twenty-five years to reach gender parity at the senior-VP level and more than one hundred years in the C-suite.”

My experience in India immediately came to mind. Was it not just a few weeks ago that I saw the opposite happening before my very eyes? I had watched a group of leaders undergo rigorous, all-day training to ensure that their institutions excel at serving women clients by enhancing their own skills as leaders and investing in the next generation of female talent for their organizations.  But based on the findings of this study, these leaders from the developing world are actually more progressive than many from advanced economies when it comes to commitment to women in the workplace, especially in leadership positions.

Thankfully, the analysis is not all grim. The authors conclude that progress is possible, however “changing the structure and culture of work to advance women will take a comprehensive and sustained effort,” and the great news is, we’re already doing that at Women’s World Banking!  Our approach to developing leadership and diversity in financial institutions embodies these very principles.  Achieving gender parity in the workplace requires commitment from the top and supporting leaders’ development with multiple, and different kinds of inputs over time. Our year-long leadership program for institutions committed to financial inclusion is the culmination of Women’s World Banking’s experiences and insights from training leaders and managers from financial institutions globally.

Each participating organization sends a senior leader and a high-potential woman leader to participate in leadership training on parallel tracks.  Content for each group focuses on individual skill-building and institutional change, set against the macro contexts of financial inclusion and today’s leadership challenges.  The curriculum then solidifies this learning by giving participants the opportunity to apply key leadership concepts to the challenges or opportunities they are facing in their particular organization.  While the sessions are customized to each group’s level and needs, the program includes a number of paired learning opportunities, wherein the senior leader and the high-potential women leader work together on a strategic objective tied to serving more unbanked or underbanked women.  Additionally, the women leaders had the opportunity to hear about the experiences of senior women staff at Credit Suisse, giving the women leaders real-life examples of success in an institution and the various paths to getting there. Throughout all of the sessions, there was richness to the dialogue that just doesn’t come from didactic learning.

As the study indicates, “female leadership is an imperative for organizations that want to perform at the highest levels.” It is this type of sustained effort that has the potential to move the needle on gender diversity in the workplace, and more importantly, in leadership positions. This is something that can happen within our lifetime. The financial institutions that participated in our leadership program are already doing this important work and there is a lot that North American companies can learn from them.

A scarf embroidered with Microfund for Women's company slogan, "Empowering Every Ambitious Women"As I reflect back on my time in Mumbai, perhaps the best way to sum up my experience is a gesture from Eyad Nino, Deputy General Manager of Strategic Planning & Operations at Microfund for Women (MFW). On the last day of the program, he gave us traditional headscarves with MFW ‘s logo and the line “Empowering Every Ambitious Woman” embroidered in Arabic. Women’s World Banking, MFW, and all of the participating organizations, are paving the way for gender parity and women’s economic development in their own countries. We hope to see more companies, and countries, follow that lead.