Holding up her half of the sky
Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - October 3, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - “Dump the husband and be successful,” global business leader IrenE Natividad says in jest, sending a crowd of mostly female students roaring in laughter.

Natividad was leading a panel of some of the country’s most powerful and successful female chief executive officers (CEOs) in a recent forum at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) dubbed Legacies of Women.

Maan Hontiveros, chairman of Air Asia Philippines, was the first to talk about her career and moving on to talk about her personal life, Hontiveros says she was once married but that her marriage came to an end.

When asked about her personal life, the second speaker, Consuela Garcia, president and CEO of ING Bank Philippines, who is separated, says she dreaded to answer the question for fear that the audience might think that it’s a trend: that women who want to succeed in their careers cannot succeed in their marriage. 

Hearing this, Natividad then quipped in jest that the secret to a woman’s success is to dump the husband. The crowd had a good laugh.

But lest she be dismissed as just another anti-male alpha female, Natividad, a female global leader, is all for pushing women – married or not, single or divorced – to succeed in life, follow their passion and play an important role in the economy.

Natividad is the president of the Global Summit of Women, a 25-year-old annual gathering of women leaders in business and government who come together to share strategies for accelerating women’s economic progress globally.

She also serves as chair of Corporate Women Directors International (CWDI), which conducts research on women on boards globally and brings together women corporate directors from around the world on issues of corporate governance.

With CWDI, Natividad has opened 14 stock exchanges around the world since 2006, beginning with NASDAQ in New York – a business tradition that she wants opened up to women.  CWDI has held bell-ringing activities to open stock exchanges all over the world, including Sao Paolo, Brazil; Madrid, Spain and Sydney, Australia.

Her commitment to promoting women, nationally and internationally, stems from her decade-long involvement with the National Women’s Political Caucus, a bipartisan organization dedicated to electing and appointing women to public office to which she was elected in 1985 – the first Asian American to lead a political organization in the U.S.

She recently visited the Philippines to showcase the role of women in the economy and to push her advocacy of putting more women in key positions in both the private sector and government.

In an interview with STARweek, Natividad, a former educator, said it is her upbringing that made her believe in the power of women.

“I had parents who were demanding of their children – rather typical for Asian or Filipino parents who want their children to excel in whatever they decided to do. I lived in different countries as I was growing up so ‘global’ comes naturally to me.  I spent a great deal of my early adulthood in New York and was exposed to a multicultural setting where brashness was a necessary attitude to navigate a complex environment. It prepared me for my work later on in life,” she says.

Later in her career, she found inspiration in three women leaders in pushing for women’s rightful place in a nation’s economy.

“I was fortunate to have three political ‘mothers’ – former Congresswomen Bella Abzug of New York, Patsy Mink of Hawaii, and Shirley Chisholm, also of New York,” she notes. The three were leaders who made women’s rights at the core of their legislative career.

“They were eloquent, feisty, well-informed leaders who took risks and led fights for equity in US society. I was grateful that they invested time working with me and sharing what they knew about how to create change,” Natividad says. All three have passed but for her, they have no equivalents among current congressional members in the US.

She then decided to spread the advocacy of fighting for women’s rights not just in the United States but also to the rest of the world through her Global Summit of Women.

“There was no one moment of epiphany when I decided to advocate for women,” she says. Instead, she just noticed a trend in her activities that focused on women.

“All along, I was organizing women’s groups, whether business or political, on the side culminating in my giving up academia for a career as a women’s rights advocate both in the US and globally,” she says.

And in her home country, Natividad is spreading the word as well.

During her recent visit to Manila, she stressed the importance of women’s presence in companies’ boards, saying that this bodes well for good corporate governance.

In a talk before the Institute of Corporate Directors, Natividad says among Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies, only 9.8 percent of board seats is held by women.

“The Philippines does slightly better at 10 percent of women directors in the 100 listed companies,” she says.

But she stressed that there’s a lot of room for growth.

“Given the number of women leading major subsidiaries of global multinationals here in the Philippines, there’s clearly a talent base from which to draw corporate directors. Companies here need to understand that boards need to be refreshed through the inclusion of talents, experiences and perspectives that reflect their stakeholders – their customers, workers and communities in which they operate,” she says.

She noted, for instance, that there are technology-related advances that impact on all companies’ operations, and boards with ageing members whose expertise come from an older economy will need to be able to open up their board rooms to new directors that can provide those skills.

“There are lots of women leading tech companies in the Philippines who should be invited to corporate boards,” she says.

She cited studies by McKinsey and Credit Suisse that have shown a correlation between more women on boards and a company’s better financial performance.

“The bottom line is that women at the top of the corporate pyramid are good for business,” she says.

In Australia, she noted the Australian Stock Exchange’s efforts of making gender diversity on boards a listing requirement. This means that companies had to report on the percentage of women directors, senior executives and workers annually, plus their plans to improve those numbers.

“The result – female board directors increased from 8.6 percent in 2004 to 20.1 percent in 2015,” she says.

Natividad’s visit last month marked her first return to Manila in over a decade. During her visit, she gathered 40 women business leaders for the first-ever all-women bell-ringing ceremony at the Philippine Stock Exchange to salute the achievements of Filipina women leaders in business and to mark the Philippines’ hosting of the APEC Women and the Economy Forum.

In conclusion, Natividad says, it’s certainly no longer a man’s world and women have an important role in the world economy. But she stresses that there is still much room for growth to improve the presence of women in companies and in board rooms. 

“In the Philippines, we’ve had two women presidents. In the Philippines, there are more women CEOs, especially in subsidiaries of multinational companies, but there’s still room for growth, especially for the vast majority of women who face pay issues, work-life issues and discrimination in some places of work,” she says.

Indeed, there’s no stopping Natividad from pushing for women’s rightful place in the world. Women, after all, hold up half the sky, she says, quoting Mao Zedong.


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