Companies need to build a culture of nurturing and equal opportunities.
Like it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a whole support system for a woman to succeed, both at home and work. Rizna Dilshard, Finance Director of JAT Holdings, says the mindset towards working women and female leadership has changed for the better and in her case, mainly because her peers, superiors and her family continued to support her throughout her career.
“I think the main point here is the support of your family and your superiors or peers. In JAT, it comes from top-down, it’s part of our culture.
As a woman leader who has broken the myths about glass ceilings, what do you think are the most important challenges that women face today?
There are a couple of challenges that women face in the corporate world.
I think women’s representation at all levels is low: at the C-suite or senior management level, it’s around 20-25% for organisations across Asia and most parts of the world. This is symptomatic of prevailing attitudes that make women feel concealed or restrained. Unconscious stereotypes and deliberate discrimination prevent women from achieving their full potential.
There is a ‘Women ta care, men take charge’ mindset that needs to be dismantled. However, advances in science, particularly in psychology and technology have liberated women in many ways.
Over the last five years or so we do see improvements in female representation across all levels: many of them are taking up leadership roles, being assertive and making their voices heard, therefore it is a good sign. But there is still a long way to go for equality.
One of the main problems is the imbalance in pay structure and leadership positions which can be both constricting and demoralising for a woman.
Mental and physical harassment at the workplace is another serious issue that needs to be urgently irradicated. Balancing careers with the needs of a family or children is yet another challenge confronting women.
How do you think organizations could improve gender parity in the workplace?
Women must have support systems in place to help them become the best they can be. There are many things that they can do, that can have a lasting and profound impact on the fortunes of an organisation and its employees. Take the challenge of work-life balance for instance.
Most organisations set up day-care centres or creches at the workplace to enable mothers to engage in productive work while their kids are taken care of. Some pay an allowance so mothers can hire professional help to take care of young children, and sometimes even expectant fathers get paternal leave.
When considering the scourge of harassment at the workplace, many organisations have a zero-tolerance policy and structures to protect the dignity of women.
Also, to diminish the problem of not having gender parity in leadership positions, some organisations have deliberately re-evaluated job specifications for certain functions and roles in a bid to accommodate women at Senior Management levels and the Boardroom.
And they are doing so because woman do equally well as men, but they do better at certain things that matter in leadership positions like multitasking, being empathetic, less prone to conflict, and tend to have higher moral standards.
There is a lot that can be done and needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the workplace, and the evidence suggests everyone gains by doing so.
How is JAT contributing to increase women’s participation in the workforce?
The role of culture and management in gender equality and inclusivity in all forms cannot be overemphasised more. At JAT, responsibilities are assigned based purely on capabilities, and rewards are likewise based on performance.
This culture was instilled into the company by Aelian Gunawardene, our Managing Director who is also the founder of JAT Holdings. One-third of the Board is composed of women, as are 5 out 14 members of the Executive Management Committee.
The level of representation at the Senior Management is probably higher than average for companies across Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The diversity of the Board and Senior Management team has had a positive impact on the performance and growth of JAT Holdings and everything it has achieved over the years.
Gender equal leadership teams are believed to outperform their peers, what are your views on this?
I believe it is diversity that makes the real difference. Decision making is better and more dynamic because diversity prevents one-directional thinking and strategising.
The diversity of strengths is what makes us stronger. Women do better than men in some aspects, and men in others, but together, an organisation has much more.
Tell us your story of success, and what was the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome in this journey?
After completing CIMA, becoming a Sri Lanka Prize Winner in the process, I started my professional career as a Management Trainee at 21. I stayed with that company for 17 years reaching the position of Financial Controller before I left to join JAT Holdings.
My stint as Management Trainee to Financial Controller exposed me to diverse industries and businesses which laid the foundation for me to take on any role with confidence and ease. In terms of the challenges, I come from a fairly moderate Muslim family, where of course we have our culture and practices to abide by.
At times, this may have hindered my participation at the workplace, but my family always encouraged me to pursue my dreams and gave me the freedom and support to do so.
In a world that makes it so hard for women to be the best they can be, let alone climb the corporate ladder and break that glass ceiling, it was my family who showed me the way, and taught me the value of diligent hard work, which has helped me in my career.
My success is also largely due to the enabling environment at the workplace that gave me the opportunities to take on new roles and responsibilities and prove myself. This is why I believe women need support systems, at home and at work, which is beneficial for everyone, immensely.
In a post-COVID phase, what is your advice to an aspirational generation of young females out there?
Always have a passion. Have a goal in life and do the right thing. It will take you to where you want to be.
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