Unlocking Access to the Boardrooms

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BEIJING — For businesswomen gathered at the 20th Global Summit of Women here last week, the title of a talk on the final day of the three-day event, “Working Effectively With Men,” was irresistible.

Women have wondered how to do that all their lives, the conference’s organizer, Irene Natividad, had joked earlier in an interview. “I’ve been at this for two decades, and it keeps popping up,” the longtime women’s rights advocate said. “So I thought, on this, our 20th summit, I’ll have a stab at it.”

Around a century after women won the right to enter parliaments in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to the United States, they are still greatly underrepresented in corporate boardrooms, according to a preliminary report released at the conference by Corporate Women Directors International, a group based in Washington that promotes women in business, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corp.

Seeking answers, hundreds of women gathered around dozens of luncheon tables in a ballroom and listened intently as Ali Faramawy, vice president of Microsoft International, spilled the beans. How could they work effectively with men? What do men say about their female colleagues when they leave the room?

“Men are very quick to label women micromanagers,” said Mr. Farawamy, a jocular Egyptian whose father — and mother, he hastily pointed out — were bankers. A ripple of laughter went around the room. Perhaps more than a few women present were familiar with that accusation. “I mean, they’re used to telling their children, ‘Did you eat? Did you brush your teeth?’…” he tailed off, as laughter swelled.

Men sometimes label their female colleagues or managers “overaggressive,” he continued. “For a man, a macho male manager is irritating. A macho female manager is super-irritating.”

And then: “She’s being emotional.”

Finally: “Men are willing to accuse women of being protected by their gender. They say, ‘If you have a problem with a woman manager or employer it’s really difficult to solve.”’

“These four elements are there. I’m not saying they’re right,” he made clear.

The impact such prejudices have on women’s rise up the corporate ladder was reflected in the new report, titled “Accelerating Board Diversity.”

It found that in only a third of the 45 countries it examined, with at least 20 major companies surveyed in each, did women make up more than 10 percent of company directors. “What the data reveal is the dismal reality of women’s lack of access to board appointments,” it said.

Hong Kong led the way in the Asia-Pacific region — but with a low 8.9 percent. Still, that was ahead of Australia’s 8.3. China sported 7.2 percent and India 5.1, still ahead of Japan at 1.4.

The United States, with 15.2 percent female directors, lagged behind South Africa’s 16.4 and Bulgaria’s 17, but ahead of Britain’s 12.2 and Brazil’s 4.6.

Saudi Arabia scored lowest, with 0.1.

The truly bright spot was Norway. Thanks to quotas that took effect in 2008, women now make up 44.2 percent of Norwegian boardrooms. The trend is spreading across Europe, with other countries passing similar laws.

Why bother? “Diverse boards lead to a better bottom line,” the report said.

The case is not clear-cut; the report noted the studies showed “a correlation as opposed to a causality.” It could be that companies that are well run hire more women. Still, for countries in the grip of economic crisis, it’s got to be an important consideration.

In China, officials and Communist Party-led women’s groups say businesswomen are flourishing. Shi Qingqi, secretary general of the Chinese Association of Women Entrepreneurs, said 25 percent of private companies were owned by women. Yet China is not discussing gender quotas for its powerful state-owned sector, where they would be most easily implemented.

“That would be impossible,” she said, laughing. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 79.2 percent of managers in the state-owned sector are men.

For Wu Naifang, president of Tianjin Tasly Pharmaceutical, the secret to success is simple — act like a man.

“Don’t think you are a woman,” said Ms. Wu, a striking figure with long hair and towering stilettos. “You have to play the role perfectly.”

Chinese feminists say that’s a common attitude among successful businesswomen, who have internalized high levels of prejudice.

For while China’s booming economy undoubtedly offers women opportunities, Ms. Wu said bias was a major problem. “It’s really hard for women to rise,” she said, “harder than for men.”

She quoted Mao Zedong, “Women hold up half the sky,” then added, wryly, “but the world is ruled by men.”

Also, China’s business scene is too cutthroat to permit female mentoring, popular elsewhere, said Hiu Ng, chairwoman of FairKlima Capital in Beijing.

Over all, abstract concerns about equality were scarce on the ground at the conference. “Only money will give women power,” said Ms. Natividad, explaining why she had focused her career on promoting women in business. “The basis for all women’s empowerment is the bottom line.”

That message resonated among delegates, whether from Africa, North America or Central Asia.

Erdenechimeg Jambaldorj, president of the Mongolian Women’s Federation, was part of the 100-strong Mongolian women’s delegation at the conference, which drew 1,037 participants, including 30 female government ministers from around the world. She said she would take home a new idea — a first survey of Mongolian businesswomen.

“Usually in Mongolian companies the head of the company is a man, but the women are doing all the work,” she said.

She also plans a national women’s business forum in the capital, Ulan Bator. “Young Mongolian women have great opportunities now,” she said, pointing to mining multinationals that are investing heavily there.

“This area, and how women can succeed in it, is very important to us.”