Lilani also discussed the huge contributions women bring to the business environment across Asia.
Singapore Business Review sat down for an exclusive interview with Pinky Lilani, the Founder and Chairman of the Women of the Future (WOF) programme, a portfolio of events and projects that support and celebrate the successes of women through the WOF Awards, WOF Summit, WOF Ambassadors and WOF Network. She is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), and she has been listed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK by the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power List.
Since launching Women of the Future Awards Southeast Asia in 2018, what has surprised you about the young female talent in the region?
I launched the Women of the Future Awards in the UK in 2006 to shine a light on the incredible achievements of young women in the UK, as well as to create a community of women who would support each other. A business delegation to Malaysia was the catalyst to launching the awards in Southeast Asia. We were struck by the passion, determination and humility of the women we met on the delegation and meeting these women was instrumental in setting up the Women of the Future Awards Southeast Asia.
Over the past three years we have been blown away by the extraordinary achievements, passion and energy of the women in the region. The Awards extend to 11 countries in Southeast Asia across 11 diverse categories, ranging from Business to Arts and Culture, Science, Technology, and Digital, Social Entrepreneur, Mentor of the Year, and Sport – a new category we added this year.
I have also been surprised and delighted by the commitment and support we received from both the public and private sectors in the region. The British Embassies have organised in person events for our winners and shortlisted candidates and HE Vicki Treadell, now British High Commissioner to Australia, has been instrumental to the success of the awards. Vicki has chaired our judging panel for the past three years and her unrelenting belief in the programme has been a driving force since its inception. We also have had the support of the wider business community with companies such as Google, RICS, The Financial Times and CNBC coming on board and supporting the initiative.
I am also thrilled that we now have the support of NTT as our headline sponsor. John Lombard, NTT’s CEO for Asia Pacific, is passionate about inclusivity and encouraging female talent. He is the co-founder of #HeforShe for LeanIn Asia, which helps create an environment that enables women to #LeanIn to their careers and passions. He also serves on the board of directors of Very Special Arts Singapore. I am delighted to have his support and the support of so many other leaders in the region.
What would you say are the key qualities that women can uniquely bring to the table in terms of contributing to positive change or success in the various spheres delineated in the Women of the Future Awards?
Women have a huge capacity for collaboration and bringing people together to find solutions that are win-win for all parties. I have seen that often women tend to place more emphasis on communication, cooperation and affiliation, as well being committed to community building.
Indeed recent research by Harvard Business Review has shown that women score higher than men in most leadership skills – women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty.
A woman that I particularly admire is Miriam Gonzalez Durantez. Miriam is the founder of Inspiring Girls, the charity we now partner with and has shown incredible passion, drive and determination to effect positive change and strengthen communities. For me community building is a vital part of our vision and I have been inspired by so many of our alumni who are committed to strengthening the communities they live in.
What do you think are the main barriers to greater acceptance of female contribution to business and other domains in Southeast Asia?
As with cultures around the world there are often stereotypes and biases that hold women back. A lack of women at the highest levels of organizations perpetuates these stereotypes and biases which I believe impede the progression of women across all fields. At times, these biases can be internalised resulting in women often scoring themselves lower on leadership traits than men when the objective data and research demonstrates the reverse.
How do you think these challenges might be overcome?
I feel it is particularly important for women to have visible role models whom they can look up and aspire to. However, it is more than just role models and mentors that will overcome the challenges that women face. It is also often said that women are over mentored and under championed. It is not simply enough to provide advice and wisdom to women; we all have to take responsibility for opening doors for women. That is where champions come in – champions invite you to opportunities, they put your name into consideration, they open doors. They take an active role in helping you make things happen. My hope is that through the Women of the Future programme we can encourage, motivate, and provide not only role models but champions to inspire the young women here and strengthen the female talent pipeline in Asia. In the process I also want to create a global community of supportive and collaborative women – who are not only determined to build fruitful professional and personal relationships with one another, but to also be advocates for an exciting new generation of female talent.
Can you give some examples of best practices that business can adopt to encourage and reap the benefits of greater inclusivity?
We need bold and visionary leaders – men and women – who are committed to bridging the gender gap. I feel it is instructive to look at what leaders such as DBS Group CEO Piyush Gupta has managed to achieve in encouraging greater diversity as examples of what can be accomplished.
Piyush is Chairing our judging panel for Women of the Future Southeast Asia for the first time this year. He was bestowed with our Global Empowerment Award in 2018 in recognition of his vision and leadership in changing the organisational landscape and enabling greater opportunities for women in Southeast Asia. Under his guidance, women make up 40% of DBS’ senior management, form close to 60% of DBS’ overall workforce, and more than one-third of their Group Management Committee.
He has created a female-friendly corporate environment including establishing a board diversity policy and providing a range of flexible working arrangements including flexible time, part-time, work-from-home and sabbatical leave arrangements. He also champions clear hiring and promotion practices based on objective criteria and frequent salary reviews to ensure parity between genders.
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