The Women Directors Forum (WDF) of Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID), together with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Women Corporate Directors Foundation (WCD), recently organized a webinar on “Women on Boards: The Power of Networking” commemorating International Women’s Day. Moderated by Dinesh Weerakkody, Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka, the webinar comprised of an eminent panel of speakers – Sri Lankan and international women corporate leaders – who shared their thoughts and insights on the significant role of women board directors.
The panel comprised of keynote speaker Susan C. Keating – Chief Executive Officer of WCDF, Marie-Lawrence Guy – IFC Nominee Director Support Center, Premila Perera – INED John Keells Holdings, and Hajar Alafifi – Chairperson, Unilever Sri Lanka.
Welcoming the panel and the audience, Aroshi Nanayakkara – Chair of the Women Directors Forum, Vice Chairperson of SLID, CEO of Global Consulting Company and INED of Sampath Bank PLC and Hela Clothing (Pvt) Ltd, said that the WDF, which is a pioneering SLID initiative launched in 2019 to increase the number of women on corporate Boards together with the Securities & Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka, was instrumental in introducing a progressive quota for women on Boards of public listed companies with the aim of having 30% of Board seats occupied by women.
Introducing the WCD as a leading resource on high governance programming and thought leadership and a true global peer community of seasoned female corporate directors, Susan C. Keating said that the Foundation also serves as a catalyst in supporting global board diversity. She also iterated that WCD is clearly focused on stronger emphasis on diversity which is becoming an important focus for investors and committees that are looking at board composition.
“Over time, boards have recognized the importance of diversity – especially through the companies with diverse boards. This also showcases that there will be more opportunities for women and diverse candidates to serve on company boards” said Susan C. Keating.
On ways of increasing the number of women directors on boards in a sustainable manner, panelist Premila Perera said that senior corporate women need to build a specialization or professional brand which assists them in being invited to serve on boards. She also emphasized that global networks play a critical role in helping build the professional brand and specialization.
“There are also some drawbacks or personal barriers that women face such as cultural inhibitions, organizational barriers such as providing flexible working arrangements, transitional barriers such as being hesitant in taking that next step to accept leadership and face the challenges it brings. Coaching, mentoring, sponsorships should be provided from within the organizations that they serve to overcome these barriers, and unlike in MNCs where these processes/best practices are available, in domestic companies, a linkage to an organization like the WCD would help in facilitating the flow of best practices to help these women,” added Premila Perera.
Speaking at the panel, Hajar Alafifi said that at Unilever, they do not talk about gender balance – which was achieved in 2019 – but rather, about ‘gender neutrality’ where everyone comes as who they are, whatever their orientation and the possibility to contribute from a mindset perspective. She further said that diversity and inclusion is spoken about in a very light way, and that inclusion is completely different to diversity. She went on to add that there can be a diverse organization, which is not inclusive.
“One needs to grow one’s expertise to grow in an organization. Merit comes with deep expertise, choices made in your career, and the power of networking in terms of building relationships, and not being afraid of speaking to all types of people including those who do not believe in women,” Hajar Alafifi added.
Speaking about how IFC selects their directors, Marie-Lawrence Guy said that IFC looks at the company’s board, identify where the gap is with specific reference to industry sectors, regional experience, experience with mergers & acquisitions, restructuring, growth strategies, and nominate a suitable candidate who can add value to the board. She also said that in terms of women directors, IFC has a KPI in achieving parity on who they nominate to boards by 2030 and that they are already at 49% of the filled positions of women nominee directors.
“For the last 2 years, IFC has been building a strong and global pipeline of qualified women based on our portfolio. We build this through our own networks, people we know and also by tapping into entities as the WCD with whom we have a partnership. When we have a difficulty in finding the right profile for a position, we share and announce it by circulating it amongst the WCD membership. In the Asian region, we started working with institutes of directors to find good people” added Marie-Lawrence Guy.
The webinar was concluded with the announcement that the Women Directors Forum of SLID will be launching a special training programme by mid this year titled “Women on Boards” to serve the training and mentoring needs of women directors and aspiring women directors through a senior resource pool comprising of Chairpersons/CEOs of large corporates. The Women Directors Forum also launched a unique competition supported by IFC and the Australian Government under IFC-DFAT Women in Work Program, where eligible women board directors would be given the opportunity to become members of WCD for a period of one year. The deadline for applications is 31st March 2021 and all women directors were encouraged to apply.