Breaking the Glass and Concrete Ceilings

Nuria Chinchilla hosts panel on empowering women leaders in Hong Kong

10/12/2015 Hong Kong

(L to R) Prof. Nuria Chinchilla, Mari Kuchinishi, Prof. Emily Nason, Inma Díaz and Cindy Cheng

(L to R) IESE Professor Nuria Chinchilla, Mari Kuchinishi, Professor Emily Nason, Inma Díaz and Cindy Cheng / Photo: IESE

“Gender balance, diversity, and inclusion are simply good for business.” So said Professor Nuria Chinchilla opening the panel session Breaking the Glass Ceiling - Empowering Women Leaders in Hong Kong recently.

Over 200 IESE alumni and friends gathered for the event organized in partnership with the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and Barcelona's City Council.

Family and professional reconciliation and the advancement of women in leadership positions have been gaining in terms of political and corporate focus – especially in Asia.

“We need women in the workplace,” said Chinchilla. “We differ greatly from men. And our traits are complementary. Companies cannot afford to neglect them. Diverse gender and cultural perspectives allow for greater innovation.”

The Glass and the Concrete Ceilings

“Women have two ceilings to break through – glass and cement,” says Chinchilla.

The glass ceiling is a barrier to advancement brought about by male-dominated structures. Albeit an unconscious bias, men tend to hire people like them,” she says. This can hamper a woman’s career. The “boy’s club mentality” spills over into not only the hiring, but the training, evaluation, promotion and remuneration process, says Chinchilla.

This is quite different from the “cement ceiling” – a denser and not so easily shattered barrier which women often impose on themselves. “Fear of failure, low self-esteem, perfectionism, poor networking and negotiation skills are but a few of the traits,” says Chinchilla.

Yet worldwide data shows that 60 percent of all university students across all disciplines are women. And that only 20 percent of the world’s women prefer not to work and stay at home; while 20 percent would choose a career over domestic life. A majority of 60 percent of all women want both.

IESE’s Corporate Family Responsibility model’s index helps promote women in the workplace,” says Chinchilla. “Companies are committing to flexible leadership, culture and conciliation policies, which allow for the integration of work, family, and personal life. This more humane model helps companies become more productive, competitive, responsible, inclusive and sustainable.”

Chinchilla was joined by four inspiring Asian-based women leaders for the panel who shared personal insights on how they overcame barriers, breaking through all the “ceilings,” while maintaining balanced personal lives as well.

Four Women to Watch

“I was a ten-year old immigrant with language problems,” said panelist Cindy Cheng. “I suffered from a self-imposed barrier which meant I focused on math instead. I went on to study IT and became a programmer. But I never felt good enough,” she says. The threat of being led by an incompetent manager was the push she needed to finally break through her cement ceiling of low self-esteem.

Cheng is now General Manager of SOS for Hong Kong and Macau and Vice-Chair of the Women Executives Club at the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

Yet Cheng wasn’t prepared to take the more senior roles abroad to help her up the corporate ladder – she chose to stay in Hong Kong with her husband. “That was a barrier to success, but my family values came first.”

Inma Díaz is Managing Director at Morgan Stanley and an IESE alumna.

“My mother was my biggest fan,” she said. “I had the fortune to be born into a family of assertive women.” Her husband also gave her the backing that she needed to succeed. “My husband provided me with the psychological support to get to where I am today,” she says.

Díaz broke through her English language barrier by applying for investment banking jobs on graduating.

After a lot of hard graft, she made it to the top. Another ceiling was the fact that she was a woman, a mother of four, and had to perform in a highly challenging environment. “I had to face people saying that I landed jobs just because I was a woman. That and accusing me of being a neglectful mother.” Fortunately for Díaz, she was in a company with the “right culture.”

“Someone told me luck is about looking for opportunities, persevering and trying harder each time,” said Mari Kuchinishi, Head of Oversight of Operational Risk and Permanent Control with BNP Paribas in Japan and APAC.

Kichinishi’s own personal barrier was raising her two toddlers (one with health issues) without the support of helpers or relatives while working full-time at JP Morgan. “I always have a plan B for any decision I make and I can justify why I made a choice,” she says.

Associate Dean at HKUST, Emily Nason, comes from a “traditional family, where studying a PhD was unheard of. And even more so for women.”

Like Díaz, Nason was also subject to outside criticism. “Going on to work in academia, in the same environment as my husband caused even more of a stir. People said that my success was down to my husband.”

A mother of three, she often thought of quitting. It was her mentors and husband who encouraged her to stay on. “I chose to be in education because teachers are mentors and they can touch your life and make a difference,” she says. “I had my share of both bad female and male bosses. But those challenges helped me think about what I was trying to achieve and why I should keep going. Carry on despite the bureaucracy and bad bosses because they eventually get moved.”

Empowering Women in Asia

Chinchilla also met with senior women executives in Hong Kong and Japan to discuss work-life balance and women’s empowerment in Asia.

While in Hong Kong, Chinchilla also met with a select group from the Women Executive Club of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. The conference, “Masters of our Destiny” – based on her book of the same name – focused on how to achieve professional and family conciliation.

“It requires a will to improve our reality. To strive towards a harmonious equilibrium between what we give and what we receive from society,” says Chinchilla.

“Diversity and Inclusion” was the topic of Chinchilla’s networking lunch and discussion with 60 senior executives from HSBC, one of the world’s largest banking and financial services institutions.

In Japan, Chinchilla met with the diversity and inclusion directors of two large companies in Tokyo, Lixil and Nissan.

Both have programs promoting diversity and inclusion. She also met with alumni to discuss corporate family responsibility as the way for more female leadership and sustainable growth.