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Women at the helm

/ 04:25 AM February 28, 2020

The UP Board of Regents (BOR) has a new member: Dr. Maria Arlissa Diaz Aguiluz. Her appointment is welcome news for several reasons. First, she is replacing controversial Frederick Mikhail “Spocky” Farolan, who in 2018 had a Facebook post suggesting that three Ateneo Blue Eagles (basketball team members) would be injured, after UP lost a game to Ateneo. The statement was seen as a threat of violence, and although Farolan later withdrew the statement, his fellow regents passed a resolution not recommending him for renewal in the BOR. His original appointment expired in 2019 but he was able to stay on, despite more controversies, until this month.

A second reason, and you might have guessed it from the title of my article, is that we now have two women in the 11-member BOR: Dr. Aguiluz and staff regent Mylah Pedrano.

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Dr. Aguiluz’s appointment reminded me about a topic I’d been planning to use for a column. In January, the American investment bank Goldman Sachs announced it would no longer underwrite IPO (initial public offerings) for companies that were all-white and/or all-male. It now requires companies wanting their IPOs handled to have at least one “diverse” director—either a woman, or someone of nonwhite ethnicity.

That made me think about our own situation in the Philippines. I sit on several boards of nonprofit organizations, which usually have several women, even in the majority. The contrast hit me when I was first asked to sit as an independent director (meaning a nonshareholder) in a large company. In my first years with that company board, there were only two women. Now it only has one.

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The growing concern in the United States about all-male boards comes out of the realization, from actual research, that more diverse boards and C-suites (chief executive officer, chief finance officer, and other “chiefs”) can mean better investment decisions, as well as a reduction in aggressive risk-taking.

Tell me about it, I laughed, when I read about “aggressive risk-taking.” Women are more careful and more conscious about the social consequences of decisions, besides being more sensitive to the needs of women, of minorities and other marginalized groups.

But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking women are there to “soften” policies. Note how some of our taipans (Chinese-Filipino tycoons)—John Gokongwei, Henry Sy, Alfonso Yuchengco—were succeeded by both sons and daughters rather than just the sons, a radical departure from traditional Chinese norms. These women taipans are proving their mettle in very competitive environments.

Countries all over the world have been grappling with the issue of equal representation in politics. There are now 59 countries with legislated candidate quotas for women, while another 24 have legislation reserving a number of seats in legislative bodies for women. (See idea.int for good databases.)

Ironically, the private business sector hasn’t kept up with that trend. In the United States, California made headlines in 2018 when it legislated a requirement that by the end of 2019, there should be at least one woman on all the boards of directors registered in that state.

But I’ve seen what a handicap that is, for a lone woman to be able to speak out and to be taken seriously. California is therefore requiring that by 2021, a board with more than six members should have at least three women. Goldman Sachs is upping the ante for companies wanting their IPO to be underwritten: Right now the bank requires at least one woman director, which will be increased to two by 2021.

More than legislation, though, society needs to be able to empower women for leadership, whether in politics, business, education or nonprofit organizations.

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Filipino men like to joke about how their wives are the bosses, even the commander, but it all comes out as delegated power, and is still confined to household affairs. We need to help our daughters, nieces, granddaughters and, for educators, our women students, to dare to imagine themselves as a board director, a member of an executive team. We also need to point out new models of governance and leadership, not in the mode of transactional politics, but in terms of wise and tempered risk-taking and innovation, a balance of heart and mind.

Who knows? Maybe even if they’re still a minority in the corridors of power, the women just might be able to tame the men and transform institutions and companies for the better.

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TAGS: Dr. Maria Arlissa Diaz Aguiluz, UP Board of Regents
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