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OP-ED: Women leadership amid Covid-19

  • Published at 09:45 pm May 11th, 2021
SME woman entrepreneur
Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Behind some of the world’s most recognized brands today there are a number of CEOs who we might not have heard of. The obvious fact is that they are all women

IFC in association with Dhaka Stock Exchange (DSE) and Global Compact Network Bangladesh (GCNB) organized ‘ring the opening bell’ virtual program recently to encourage the private sector to extend opportunities for women as leaders, employees, entrepreneurs and consumers for sustainable development. 

Ringing of the opening bell to start trading was organized in DSE in carnival of International Women’s day 2021. 

This is good initiative in DSE, although women are underrepresented in leadership roles almost everywhere and gender inequality in leadership is responsible for vulnerabilities of women in the society.

If we want to talk about the women leadership in Covid-19 we need to talk about three remarkable Commonwealth Leaders – Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Jacinda Arden, the prime minister of New Zealand, and Mia Amor Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, for their leadership during Covid-19 with their individual roles in respective countries. 

The world will never forget these three glorious leaders for their extraordinary leadership during pandemic condition.

Today many of us know about the “glass ceiling”—the informal barrier to keep women out of upper management and it is thought that women may get a chance of breaking that ceiling, however Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, of the University of Exeter in UK have described the “glass cliff”—a situation in which women are only given a higher position in an organization where there are difficult situations which make them expected to fail. 

That means when a company is in trouble, a female leader is put in charge to save it. Women are often left shaking on a glass cliff after being given impossible jobs. 

The glass cliff is the prodigy of women in leadership roles, such as executives or managers in corporate bodies, being expected than men to achieve leadership roles during crisis or decline, when the chance of failure is the highest. 

This concept is also used to describe employment discrimination experienced by leaders who are disabled.

However, it has been found that women leaders are doing better during covid crisis. It has also been found that countries led by women have better outcomes related to Covid 19 pandemic. 

Similarly states in USA with female leaders have lower casualty rates. Women are rated as more effective leaders than men. Sophie Wilmes, Prime Minister of Belgium, had to fight coronavirus outbreak and manage the country during worst health and economic crisis. 

The Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka pointed to the share of women in government in Lithuania increasing from 8% to 43%, Rwanda leading the world with the largest share of women ministers at 54.8% and the percentage of women ministers in the United States rising from 17% in 2020 under former president Donald Trump to 46 percent in President Joe Biden’s Cabinet which is a “historic high.” 

The head of UN Women also called the COVID-19 pandemic “the most discriminatory crisis” that women and girls have ever experienced and women are losing jobs more often than men. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that despite of positive developments, men are dominating decision-making process during pandemic. The UN Chief further said “A study of 87 countries found that 85 percent of COVID-19 task forces are limited mostly with the men.” 

In addition, he said “Women’s equal participation is the game-changer we need”. 

He said women are at the centre of the UN’s COVID-19 response and recovery.

What we can see in our country that most of our women are still engaged in the household activities including housekeeping and home making specially in the rural areas. 

The UN Secretary-General rightly said “We create economic models that fail to measure the productive work that occurs in the home.” 

Moreover, our corporate sector is still dominated by the men. Women’s skills are mostly ignored in this sector in order to make them demoralized and passive as well as prevent them from going up. 

Changes need to be brought in private organizations to transform the gender balance which include bringing more women into senior leadership positions and attaining gender parity at the senior management levels. 

We need to move beyond fixing women, rather fix our system and pandemic recovery is our opportunity to create a pathway towards an equal future. 

Our women are marginalized everywhere, so their voice should be raised instead of being silenced in order to be involved more in decision making process. 

Thus, the gender balance in positions of power and influence within our societies should be considered as the most important issue from economic perspective.

Covid-19 is the greatest challenge for the whole world, especially for the women. Despite these challenges, women are shining examples for dynamic and effective leadership in the pandemic situation. 

The women leaders during pandemic were proactive in responding to the threat of the virus, implementing social distancing restrictions early, seeking expert advice to inform health strategies and unifying the country around a comprehensive response with transparent and compassionate communication. 

This is well understood today that the world needs more women leaders during Covid-19. 

A recent study on the performance of 194 countries fighting against Covid-19 has revealed that women-led countries are generally more successful in fighting the pandemic than those led by men. For example, Jacinda Ardern has been highlighted as an exceptional leader during the pandemic on whom several studies went on throughout the world. She represented five leadership aspects, 1) an evidence-based approach, 2) decisiveness, 3) co-ordination and alignment, 4) social solidarity and 5) education and information. Her lessons in “Lives and livelihoods” are useful  for leaders elsewhere and indicates adamant focus on minimizing harm to lives and livelihoods. Moreover, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin, President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-Wen are also famous and successful leaders for fighting against Covid19. Their accomplishments to manage corona will inspire more women to become leaders in future. 

Kamala D. Harris is another example of a female leader who is the first woman, the first South Asian American Vice President after a long time of public service and having been California’s Attorney General and Senator of the United States. She promotes economic plan to fight COVID-19. She is an inspiration for millions of girls from marginalized groups. However, as soon as 24 women entered into the US Senate, all the headlines in the newspapers were “women take over the senate”. Actually 50% women population after getting only 24 seats in the Senate, can really take over! This is not at all fare takeover rather embracing for women.

In India KK Shailaja, first a teacher and then a Minister, known as Superstar Health Minister and Corona Virus Slayer who has been three times MLA and received a lot of international admiration for her prudence and fast thinking in preparing her state, Kerala, for the pandemic. Nita Ambany who is the first woman member of International Olympic Committee and also a Chairperson of Reliance Foundation is another example. Zia Modi is a queen of corporate law in India. The name of her corporate law firm is AZB. 

Another leader Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, a pioneer of the biotechnology industry in India and the head of the country’s leading biotechnology enterprise “Biocon India”, made significant contribution to the fall out of the Covid-19 pandemic. She is the second in Indian Philanthropy list and got several international awards. She has been recognized as the only Indian on Forbes' list of “World's Self-Made Women Billionaires”. She started biotech business with a seed capital of Ten Thousand rupees only. Within a year her Biocon, as a first Indian company, was able to manufacture enzymes and export to US and Europe. She has been featured in ‘The Worldview 100 List’ of the most influential visionaries by Scientific American magazine and was also included in the ‘100 Leading Global Thinkers’ list by Foreign Policy magazine. Most recently, she is elected as a full-term member of the Board of Trustees of The MIT Corporation of USA. 

Renu Kanad is another housing finance giant in India. During pandemic she offered affordable houses to the clients. 

Under her leadership HDFC has grown and disbursed five trillion rupees. She was awarded as “outstanding business women leader in India”. 

Samina Hamid is another private sector leader and third largest Drug maker. She overinvested on talent channel. 

Arundhati Bhattacharya, the former Chairman of the State Bank of India and SWIFT India and also CEO of Sales Force India, was the first woman to lead Fortune 500 in India.

Mallika Srinivasan, chairman and managing director of Tractors and Farm Equipment (TAFE) Limited has been appointed as the Chairperson of the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB) in India for a period of three years. 

This is for the first time a private sector specialist has been appointed as the head of the PESB, responsible for appointment of top management posts in the Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs) in India. 

Her TAFE is the third largest tractor manufacturer in the world and the second largest in India by volumes. 

She said that women constitute very important part of the talent pool of a country. She established Café Women’s Initiative Network. 

She is a core member of the BRICS WBA (Women’s Business Alliance), also a member of the Executive Board of the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad and a member of the Governing Board of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras. 

Rekha Menon, Chairperson of Accenture India, ensured its essential services for global clients without disruption at the time of Covid19. Under her leadership Accenture set up two Innovation Hubs-one in Hyderabad and the other in Pune. There are other women leaders like Nisaba Godrej who made Godrej products growing, Amirah Shah, a young global leader and MD of Metropolis Healthcare, which is now multinational chain of pathology centers in seven countries whereas she started with her father’s small pathology business only. She also worked with Goldman Sacs in New York. 

Behind some of the world’s most recognized brands today there are a number of CEOs who we might not have heard of. The obvious fact is that they are all women, but more than that, they have also proven to the business industry that they have their own potentials to win as a driving force in their respective fields. 

The number of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is 41 and average female top executives in the world is only 8%. 

Thailand has the highest proportion of female CEOs in the world with 30%, China with 19 %, the European Union with 9% and the United States with 5%, India with 8.9% in top management positions and 5.8% on the Fortune India 500 list. 

At present only 8.9% Bangladeshi firms have women in the top management positions. 

As of 2019, just 29 companies (5.8%) on the Fortune India 500 list had women in executive roles. 

CNN broadcasted about the study in 2019 in which S&P Global Market Intelligence is a single platform that affects essential intelligence about data to differentiate multiple analysis with workflow tools to uncover new insights and to tell the story behind the data with news & research. 

This platform also examines and interprets data from millions of hard-to-get sources by which one can make better decisions and can explore all their datasets available through Cloud, Feed and API on the S&P Global Marketplace. 

The study revealed that public companies with female CEOs or CFOs were often more profitable and had better Stock Price Performance. 

For example, Viki Hollub, the CEO at Occidental Petroleum, was the first woman to lead a major American Oil Company, had to outbid Chevron, a five times larger oil company than hers.  

Susan Diane Wojcicki is the CEO of You Tube is another example. Mary Teresa Barra is the first female CEO of General Motors Company, a major automaker since 2014. 

Carol Tomé is the CEO of United Parcel Service and she was CFO of The Home Depot and also, she was listed second on the Wall Street Journal’s list of best CFOs. 

Corie Barry is CEO of Best Buy Co. Inc. with approximately 125,000 employees in North America and nearly $44 billion yearly revenue.

In Bangladesh, Farzana Chowdhury is the first and youngest female Managing Director and CEO of Green Delta Life Insurance Company Limited. 

In the financial sector of the country, she is recognized for her initiatives particularly Nibedita, a comprehensive insurance scheme solely dedicated for women and by the UN Global Compact as a local SDG Pioneer for women’s economic security.  

Kohinoor Yasmin is the CEO of Tarango. 

Her company has been fair trade certified by WFTO and aims to improve the socio-economic condition of the rural women.

It works with more than 12,000 women all over the country who are trained by Tarango to make products with consistent quality in line with international standards. 

The business model of Tarango is working well beyond Bangladesh in different NGOs of Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Maliha M Quadir, founder MD and CEO of Shohoz Limited, holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, established a technological platform for online ticketing. 

Primarily she worked at some of the top institutions, Morgan Stanley, Standard Chartered, Nokia, and Vistaprint, spanning multiple countries, US, Singapore, India, and Indonesia.

However, her Shohoz.com, owned by Shohoj Limited, is an online quality travel service provider which makes long distance travel in Bangladesh easier and more convenient for the domestic travelers. 

It offers bus and train tickets, hotel reservations and ferry tickets along with movie and other transport tickets. 

Samira Zuberi Himika, a first-generation entrepreneur who has played a strong role as Trade-body leader of the ICT industry in Bangladesh and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Building (SME, Startup and Social Enterprise ecosystems). 

She is an architect, founder & managing director of her own venture ‘team engine’. Her role is very significant in tech and start-up field in Bangladesh. 

As an executive committee member of BASIS, she plays another important role in technology sector.

Taslima Miji is the founder and CEO of Techmania, an IT company which provides hardware and hardware related services to its customers. 

She is an encouragement for all women and her work will inspire others to take the ambition of confidence to break the glass ceiling and to think beyond their conventional knowledge and limitation to drive themselves ahead to make impossible to possible. 

Bangladesh JCI (Junior Chamber International) has recognized nine women for their outstanding achievement and contribution in different sectors with “Women of Inspiration Award 2020” on International Women’s Day. 

Women’s leadership in health care is also vibrant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several specialist doctors, nurses and all healthcare workers have sacrificed their lives to save human beings at the time of pandemic.  

Women doctors and nurses also died of Covid-19.  

They are the frontline fighters with plenty of challenges. Dr Sadia Afroz, as a physician, clinic manager and supportive leader of her team, says that everyone’s life is better when women are brought into platforms where decisions are being made and a patient’s future will look brighter when her team create an enabling and friendly environment where everyone feels respected and cared for.

This is quite exciting that in the ranking of Global Gender Gap 2020 for South Asia, Bangladesh’s ranking was 50th whereas India’s ranking was 112th. 

There are more women leaders in the pandemic situation all over the world. 

Our women should learn the lessons from their success stories. 

If a leader can do, thousands of followers can also do. 

The leaders can do because they desire extremely to do, they believe that they can do as they are self-motivated, inspired, enthusiastic, courageous, loyal, committed to themselves as well as to their communities.   

Women in our country need to have visionary outlook that can keep them active instead of making them asleep. 

In most of the cases women do not know what else they can do. 

They are used to remain always within the circle. 

In our country, women need to know that success and leadership are not matters of luck, rather of accepting challenges. 

In order to be a leader a woman cannot be defined by what somebody says rather she can make a preparation of the moment of opportunity, because every moment is full of ample opportunities. 

What women can do, they can use it, prepare it, stay on it and can be resilient to get the result. 

If we look at Singapore, we can see that 27% business owners were women in 2018. 

Things are changing for women in the startup and venture capital world. 

Female founders got 2% of venture capital dollars in 2017. Stock market can be better option for women’s business. Capital market can be a suitable investment for woman.

In fact, if men are 60% qualified for applying a job, the women are required to be 100% qualified to apply for the same job. 

In that case women should not be afraid of failure, especially in Covid-19 pandemic. 

They should believe that failures are mainly setbacks, if they do not learn from it that means they truly fail. 

They should not be even scared about their mistakes. The greatest mistake of women is not to try at all. 

Every woman needs to build strong network of support and mentorship. The ideology is “women need to support women at any cost”.

In Bangladesh woman needs to believe that she is also a daughter of the soil. She should have commitments towards her community as well as her root. 

Few women in our country are fortunate enough to have good jobs and hold good positions but they should not forget about marginalized women in their communities. 

They should neither forget nor deny and they should not be confined within the city-centric circles only. Woman’s inner faith is her ability. 

She should motivate others who lag behind. She should come forward with proactiveness, positive mindset and attitude to help others.

Woman does not need any mercy as she is resilient. 

Undoubtedly her resilience is her greatest strength by which she can remove all her roadblocks. 

She can break her glass ceilings if she desires strongly.

Women in our country can follow the path of women leaders in the world, realize their contributions, analyze their works and at last make their own ways. 

Women should not miss any of their defining moments, if not suitable then they can redefine the moments. 

We know that International Women’s day colour is “purple” as it signifies justice and dignity. 

Therefore, women want justice and dignity. 

This year International Women’s Day theme is “a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change”. 

So, let all women choose challenges and believe that “Bell the Ring” is not a wake-up call rather it is a way forward call. Let me conclude with a poem written by a British poet, Moem:

 

Dare to self-care

Speak kindly to your inner self

Don’t take your demo’s view.

You are you and no one else

Will lead the life you do.

Kill your inner critic

And silence all his chatter,

Then write this truth inside your brain

I am worth it and I matter.

 

The author is a director in the board of Dhaka Stock Exchange and former additional secretary at the Ministry of Finance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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