A Webinar on Women’s Leadership Showed Good Practices for Supporting Women in The Corporate Sector

  •  July 21, 2020

“Having so many women in my organization is not by chance, we had to push for it” developing the D&I policies.

Anke den Ouden, General Manager CEE Multi-Country, Microsoft

“I have never been hiding in the closet and hiding to be lesbian. When my company (NIKE) embraced whole self of me it received the best of me – talent, time, engagement”.

Maria Bobenrieth, Executive director of Women Win and COO in Win-Win Strategies

These are just two of the highlights in the conversation on July 9th, 2020, during the next Diversity Pays Off Meet Up – Women Matter: gender diversity and women leadership. The meeting was online, having nearly 70 representatives of the corporate and non-profit sector participating. The web event was part of the Diversity Pays Off initiative and was organised by the Bulgarian Fund for WomenOpen Society Institute – Sofia FoundationGLAS FoundationDeaf NOW Bulgaria – Заслушай се and Social Future Foundation (JAMBA). The event was supported by DraftKings.

The keynote speakers at the online event were Anke den Ouden, Microsoft’s General Manager for Central and Eastern Europe, and Maria Bobenriet, CEO of Women Win, which builds a collaboration between the corporate sector and women’s funds globally. The moderator of the meeting was Gergana Kutseva – Deputy Director of the Bulgarian Women’s Fund.

The discussion was focused on successful models and corporate policies that aimed at the full inclusion and leadership of both women and the various and often underestimated or neglected groups like LGBTI people, Roma, people with disabilities and others.

The lack of diversified people in the company leads to “missing things,” said Maria Bobenriet. Special attention was paid to the advantages of diversity in the business environment, including the successful examples of leadership in both corporate practices and politics and public administration, giving as an example the adequate and humane response to the pandemic of countries whose Leaders are women – Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark. It is not necessary to be feminist – “transparency and authenticity are the main features, which distinguish the successful leaders in the situation of COVID-19, especially women”, thinks Maria Bobenriet.

“It’s all about inclusion since the diversity already exist. The question is how much of this diverse population will be included and will be given a voice and an opportunity for leadership” said Anke den Ouden at the beginning of the conversation. She explained that in Microsoft 50% of the leadership positions are held by women and in recent years, the number of the so-called “IT gurus” has doubled. For the 24 markets in Central and Eastern Europe for which Ms. Ouden is in charge, gender representation is also evolving and almost 50% of employees are now women. She pointed out that Microsoft cares not only about gender equality, but also about the rights of LGBTI people and the access for people with different types of disabilities, etc. to well-paid positions.

Maria Bobenriet pointed out that since the beginning of the pandemic, many problems and inequalities which had always existed have been highlighted since and now they have been given more publicity. Such are the so-called unpaid jobs that women do in disproportionately more quantity than men – housework, childcare and care for the elderly and sick relatives. During the isolation lots of fathers were forced to share the childcare and witnessed the severity of these commitments, which in most couples are largely covered by women. The issue of domestic violence is now more difficult to be kept silent and swept under the rug, since it has also become more visible. Maria Bobenriet, who has held a top position in Nike for 10 years, said that corporations that accept and promote diversity are now more successful because they embrace their employees to bring their authentic selves and by so feel accepted and give 100% of their talent and energy, because they feel part of a community that actually they can belong to.  Sharing her personal story, speaking openly about being a lesbian and for her personal turning point in the company which like most sports businesses at the time, was male-dominated and “full of testosterone,” she was accepted from colleagues and from the management of the company in its authentic integrity. She shares that this has liberated her to reach her full potential and give her best. “You will be missing the story if you don’t speak to people who experience it – you can’t understand ‘micro-aggression’ if you don’t talk to the people who are subjected to it,” says Maria, recalling the Me Too movement. “My personal story matters.”. Thus by listening to more different voices – those of women, people of different ethnicity, physical condition, age; parents, incl. single parents, etc., companies make smarter and more informed decisions. And their employees, even if they are different, feel that they belong to this place and to this community and as a result they give their best as talent and time. Maria gave an example with the Nike’s CEO, who takes part every year participates with his whole family in the Pride Parade, which is a wholehearted sign that he supports his employees who have different sexual orientation. Nowadays young people and the best talents choose to work in companies that promote social justice and offer a diversity in their teams.

Moreover, understanding the personal stories of their teams, managers better understand the needs of entire communities and their companies are more adequate to these needs, incl. when they develop products and services they offer to their customers. Anke den Ouden spoke on this issue, giving concrete examples of how they have built their products, based on a better understanding of the diverse communities that use them. In addition, she described the internal practices of Microsoft, including regular meetings and conversations with various teams and groups of employees – Anke gave an example of meetings of a group of women working in offices in SE Europe, during which Anke asked only 3 question for the 1 hour of conversation. The rest of the time, the women shared details of their daily lives – work and life balance, and Anke listened – which allowed her to understand details about how things happen and what needs to be changed.

At a global level at Microsoft, the moment of change has come with the arrival of the new CEO, who is a native American and who has turned the company to diversity and inclusion. According to Anke den Ouden, the key to successful leadership is for the company to be interested in all aspects of its people’s lives and to believe that the company’s better business results in recent years are due to these policies. During the time of COVID-19 the particularly strong, empathetic, and obedient leadership emerged. After the pandemic began, Microsoft closes all its offices and employees continued to work from home in order to ensure their health. In addition, realizing that for some employees, work from home is much more complex to organize, company takes additional steps to help them – for example, keeping in mind how difficult it is to combine work with watching a little child at home, the company allows for an additional two-week leave for both mothers and fathers among its employees so that they can safely take care of their children during complete isolation. Additional support was given to single parents; efforts are made to maintain social contacts in the teams – the meetings are held with cameras on, etc.

Along with this, Anke gave some examples of the company’s work that is outward-looking to society. She gave an example with the integration in the labor market and the access to quality work for the Roma in Bulgaria. Her personal story as an adoptive mother of a Roma child from Bulgaria who was about to be sent to a Home for Children with Disabilities, gives her the opportunity to truly understand the problems of the Roma in our country. Her opinion is that Roma students and overall young Roma people do not have equal access to quality education and access to the labor market. She said that Microsoft is working with the Bulgarian government in this area to overcome inequalities and give access to equal opportunities and real integration for vulnerable groups. But surveys show that the society still has a lot of stereotypes and resistances and 43% of Bulgarians would not want to work with Roma. She added that in the Netherlands, where she was born, this problem existed when she was young, but the government has launched a compulsory education program for every Roma child and the integration is already a fact. Den Ouden gave the example of innovative solutions from other countries, such as Georgia, where Roma children from remote areas who do not have access to education and Internet are educated through special television programs.

Another example of Microsoft’s policies is the global initiative DigiGirlz, which the company implements, including in Bulgaria, to provide career guidance and development opportunities in the field of IT, for girls who are often at a more disadvantaged position due to their limited mobility, family commitment and more.

What should be the future according to Maria Bobenriet and Anke den Ouden?

“I hope it is a moment of great correction,” says Maria. According to her, the COVID crisis has shown that economies are supported and run by the ones who are paid the lowest – the so-called “front line” of employees in hospitals, transportation, food and medicine supply, utility maintenance, etc. or unpaid work related to care for the family, the sick and the weak. In the future, clients will want the corporate sector to take this fact into account, and civil society organizations will have to hold acciuntable companies for the effectiveness of their policies regarding the people.

“We need to look at people, in their wholeness, as human beings and not through the prism of stereotypes and prejudices” adds Anke.

You can watch the full video of the meeting.

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