As Thiri climbed the corporate ladder, she struggled to balance family and career. “I had to work very hard not to be put on the mommy-track. This meant hiding your pregnancy, working harder than ever, and being willing to travel as late into the pregnancy as possible,” she recalls. Even today, at the pinnacle of her career as the owner of her own investment banking firm in Myanmar and a director who sits on multiple boards, she admits she faces a pervasive bias, sometimes couched as light-hearted banter.
Jackie Ogonji can relate to this. She’s worked her way to a top management position at a Kenyan telecom but it’s not been an easy journey. “As a senior leader in my organization I have faced challenges in different forms, such as offensive comments or situations that drove me to choose between my family and work.”
Women like Jackie and Thiri—female corporate leaders in the often male-dominated emerging markets business universe—also report that it can be lonely at the top.
Until now, that is. An innovative IFC pilot is bringing together female executives, board directors, and potential board directors of emerging markets companies.
In interactive, experiential workshops, the women share their stories and their professional struggles. Building on these personal experiences, they derive broader lessons and develop strategies to overcome obstacles. They also create strong connections that are intended to endure long after program end, forming the nucleus of an important network. To date, five workshops have taken place, in Almaty, Kampala, Lagos, Nairobi, and Yangon.
“The feeling of sisterhood was wonderful,” says Thiri, who attended the Yongon workshop. “We all have had similar experiences, so we now have each other to turn to. And we also can help guide the next generation together.”
Strengthening emerging market companies
The new program is part of IFC’s on-going effort to accelerate the pace of female board appointments and increase the number of women in corporate leadership positions, ultimately helping to strengthen the private sector in emerging markets.
The program makes the business case for diverse boards and illustrates how emotional and social intelligence enhance corporate governance.
Companies have been slow to change, despite a growing body of evidence linking increased gender diversity at the top with better corporate performance. According to McKinsey1, women comprise only 4 percent of CEOs, 14 percent of executive committee members in companies around the world and 16 percent of board directors.
For developing countries, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The International Monetary Fund has reported2 that closing the gender gap at all levels of the workforce could significantly boost their GDPs, contributing to reduced poverty and greater private sector growth.
Overcoming obstacles to advancement
Achieving greater gender parity at the top isn’t going to happen overnight, notes Leyal Savas, IFC’s corporate governance manager for East Asia and the Pacific. “There are the tangible issues, such as pay gaps, limited child care options, and the lack of mentorships and networking,” she says. “But there are also intangible issues, which can be even harder to tackle, like getting passed over for promotions, cultural or family pressure to quit, finding work-life balance, and returning to the workforce after taking time off.”
IFC’s Women-on-Boards training is aiming to help break down these barriers. By creating a safe space to engage in honest discussion about what’s standing in the way of advancement, and what solutions are available, such events are empowering a generation of women leaders.
They leave the program confident in their strengths as business leaders, aware of their value to the corporate world, and with plans to transform the culture of the workplace so that women can thrive alongside their male colleagues.
1 "Women Matter Africa: Making gender diversity a reality", McKinsey&Company, August 2016
2 "Women, Work and Economic Growth: Leveling the Playing Field", edited by Kalpana Kochhar, Sonali Jain-Chandra, Monique Newiak. International Monetary Fund, 2017.