Look at any graduating MBA class and you will immediately notice the glaring imbalance between the sexes. In a batch of 100, there might be 30 female students at most. These women perform as well or better than their male counterparts, are highly ambitious, and equipped with the skills and business acumen to succeed at the highest ranks of the corporate food chain. But 10 years after graduation, most are lost to mid-management and only two or three break through the glass ceiling and climb further up.
Last week at a conference of chartered accountants in Kathmandu, there were hardly 20 women in a hall of more than 150 participants. The sex ratio is similarly skewed in the boardrooms: there are no women CEOs, senior government officers, journalists, judges, hotel managers or tour operators. Very few HR managers are women.
According to the 2011 census there are now one million more women than men in the country. Education opportunities have improved drastically at least in the urban areas and the odds of progression are fairly equal. Yet the gender disparity in the entry level management is baffling and it only gets worse as women managers graduate to senior levels. Why do Nepali women shy away from senior management positions both in the public and private sector?
Does our traditional education system train them to undervalue their competence? Or are women so disillusioned with aggressive corporate competition that they have no aspirations to be a part of the C-suite? Or are there socio-cultural barriers and invisible biases at play?
One way to explain this gap is to say young, talented Nepali women are more attracted towards positions in NGOs, INGOs, and bilateral aid agencies. Job security, flexible work hours, perceived status of working with an international agency and a preference for more cooperative and less competitive environment are taking them away from the corporate corridors. This further discourages young girls because they have no role models or mentors to guide them.
The other reason why so few women are heading government institutions, judiciary, bureaucracy, financial institutions, businesses and enterprises is because of the boys' club mentality. Men have dominated the upper echelons and boardrooms for so long, that there are many visible and unseen barriers to entry for women. The male-culture prevalent within corporate circles alienates many women and the lack of family-friendly work climate makes it tough for them to balance the demands of work and home. Besides, deep rooted beliefs about women's roles mean that they receive unequal pay for the same job, or are pigeon holed into positions that have little prospects of career advancement.
However, research shows that women are more adept at skills needed to succeed in decision-making environments. Women display greater intuition, mental flexibility, long-term planning, imagination, articulation, and have better social and people skills than men. A Credit Suisse research shows that stocks of few global companies performed better after inclusion of women on company boards, which made these companies little more risk averse and a little less leveraged. Women on boards can make corporations a bit more conservative in taking unwarranted risks and building shareholder value.
If there were more women in Nepal's corporate sector, perhaps cooperatives, development banks, and finance companies could have avoided the current financial fiasco as their female board members would have tempered risky investments and checked for governance lapses.
Engaging more women in businesses, therefore, is not just about promoting diversity or gender equality in the workplace. It's about bringing the best talents on board and making use of their vision and skills so that the company can perform better. It's time the public and private sector recognised the unique contribution as well as the needs of its women officials and started providing flexible working options. Female managers on their part will need to take greater initiative to take their careers ahead, and become mentors for younger managers.