Gender bias biggest hurdle for women execs

Ms Balaka Niyazee started in the sales department of Procter & Gamble when she finished graduate school. She rose through the ranks and past society's gender discrimination to become the vice-president of the company's division in South Korea, where
Ms Balaka Niyazee started in the sales department of Procter & Gamble when she finished graduate school. She rose through the ranks and past society's gender discrimination to become the vice-president of the company's division in South Korea, where she will be based from next month.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Fresh out of graduate school, Ms Balaka Niyazee joined the sales department of Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1999.

Her days were often spent meeting distributors of P&G products.

All men, they would question her stamina to travel around to check on the products sold in far-flung shops across western India.

"They had never seen a woman come and sit at a table and talk to them as an equal," she said yesterday at a forum for women executives. "They did not know how to react."

But her diligence, consistency and commitment dispelled their initial doubts and today, Ms Balaka is vice-president of P&G Korea, where she will be based from next month.

Now aged 44, she is among 100 senior women executives speaking in various panel discussions at the first Women's Forum Singapore, a three-day event, which ends today, on the obstacles they faced and the mentors they had in their climb up the corporate ladder.

The forum, attended by about 700 delegates from across the world, is part of an international entity that aims to foster women's leadership for social progress and economic impact.

But Ms Balaka's experience of gender bias in a male-dominated corporate world is not uncommon.

PERSEVERANCE

They had never seen a woman come and sit at a table and talk to them as an equal. They did not know how to react.

MS BALAKA NIYAZEE, on meeting distributors of Procter & Gamble products, who at first doubted she had the stamina to travel around to check on far-flung shops across western India which sold the products.

A 2015 global study by IRC Global Executive Search Partners found that in Asia and Australia, only 11.8 per cent of chief executives are women, while in Europe and the Americas, it slips to 7.8 per cent.

Ms Balaka's perseverance paid off. She won the distributors over by helping them increase their sales. "Once they saw the results, they trusted me," she said, adding that managers can be a strong influence in developing women as leaders.

Her managers were her main mentors, she said. She admitted that she had considered turning down an overseas posting that came with a promotion because she wanted to have a child.

"My manager said the fact that I will have a baby is a natural part of my life cycle and it will not affect my role. That inspired me so much," she said.

Ms Bertilla Teo, 48, chief executive of creative agency Publicis Media Greater China, said her late boss encouraged her to push beyond her boundaries.

"A great leader opens up the sky for others to strive in," Ms Teo said.

Dr Lavanya Wadgaonkar, 44, vice-president of communications at Nissan Asia and Oceania, said she was greeted with scepticism by friends and colleagues when she moved from academia to the corporate world in India in 2002.

"Many thought I will return to the university because I had a PhD in communications but no corporate background," said Dr Lavanya.

"My biggest support has always been my immediate bosses, most of whom were either a managing director or chief executive. They were all men. Their faith in my capabilities was the motivator."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2018, with the headline 'Gender bias biggest hurdle for women execs'. Print Edition | Subscribe