Leading on a jet-plane? The diversity and leadership challenge in South Asia

Dianah Worman OBE, CIPD Diversity Adviser, @DianahWorman


Across the world there is an emerging and intensifying focus on the representation of women in senior positions in organisations.


While progress in some western countries is ahead of the game because of long standing activity to progress gender equality, nowhere has reached a uniform gender balance when it comes to inclusion in the workplace. This applies to the business of education as well as the corporate world.


With economic growth a major preoccupation in most economies, the under- utilisation of talent makes no sense. Skills development for all is pivotal to safeguard competitiveness.


Extensive research carried out for the British Council provides comprehensive evidence about skills development needs across the Region of South Asia, based on insights about  trends in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This research shows that despite the high achievements of female students and the progress they have made in careers in higher education they are not breaking through to the top positions in this field. These remain a male preserve.


This situation mirrors that in other economies. There is nothing unusual about it when compared to the progress of women in the western world where considerable energy has been spent on trying to understand why the glass ceiling is so tough to shatter.


The research evidence compiled for the British Council to inform the series of dialogues across the region of South Asia highlights the need for concerted effort to speed up the slow pace of change.


These researched facts were corroborated by the delegates who attended the last conference of the South Asia series of events held in Colombo Sri Lanka, which I was honoured to take part in.


Dangerous demographics: women, leadership and the looming crisis in higher education was the theme of the two day conference. Senior level participants included Deans, Professors, policy-makers, senior civil servants and experts from across South Asia. Countries as far spread as the UK and Australia, Oman and Libya joined them to exchange views, experiences and research to spotlight ways of responding to the challenge of speeding up the pace of change.


While some delegates at the conference argued that time holds the seeds of resolution to the skewed gender profile at the top in higher education in the region, others pointed out that the progress of change needs to be expedited to address the skills challenge that is looming on the horizon.


Discussions started from the premise that change would have to open up opportunities for women of calibre which would have the inevitable implication of reducing them for some men and possibly turn the tables to make women more dominant at the top in higher education. However this extreme feminist objective quickly transmogrified. It was quickly recognised that what is needed for the future is gender- balanced inclusive leadership fit for the 21st century.


It was agreed that the best starting point for change would be to provoke fresh thinking about the skill sets needed by future leaders. It was recognised that leadership itself had to change because it had evolved in different circumstances - yesterday’s circumstances. The way forward was not to replicate yesterday’s leadership style and competencies. That would be backward –looking.


What changed the consensus of views about progressing the leadership agenda emerged from the collaborative, solution-focused thinking that delegates were encouraged to develop.


The event was stimulating and participative and provided a great learning environment itself. It fostered great thought leadership about skills development in higher education across the diverse region of South Asia.


The outcomes and conclusions will be reported in a book that will mark the start of the journey for change; a journey that has been well evidenced and informed.  And one that should lead to the design of interventions that will make a real difference as a result.  


It was a pleasure to take part and I look forward to the outcome of the global event planned to take place in Miami later this year.

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