With International Women's Day less than a week away, the team at Human Resources Online decided to put together some inspiration for women professionals out there. So, here's how two generations of successful business women have overcome persistent challenges to make amazing progress in busting gender myths.

Some 20 years ago, women professionals looking to climb the career ladder would have faced many challenges that held them back from achieving their full potential. However, even then, with the right supporting structures in place, it wasn't impossible to succeed in traditionally male-dominated fields.

One woman who managed to succeed is Balaka Niyazee, CEO of Procter and Gamble (P&G) Korea and Executive Sponsor, P&G Gender Equality, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa. Having found the right supporting structure at P&G, she excelled in sales, a traditionally male dominated field. Today she is a respected leader at the organisation, a role model, working mother and loving wife committed to busting gender myths not only inside P&G but also outside.

Niyazee is joined in her commitment by Shweta Sharma, Director, P&G Global Travel Retail. Recognised as Rising Talent at Women's Forum, Sharma is a young and promising talent who inspires her peers and younger generation to follow in her footsteps, while climbing up the career ladder in P&G.

On the back of Women's Forum Asia 2019, we spoke to the two inspiring women to find out how they are busting gender myths that hold women back.


Q I understand that at P&G, you found the right supporting structures to help you excel in sales, a traditionally male-dominated field. Please share more about what the supporting structures are and how they have helped.

Balaka Niyazee: Having spent over 20 years in a traditionally male dominated field in FMCG Sales, I found the right supporting structures that helped me thrive and excel. At P&G only results count.

Not only did P&G offer the right training programmes to help me build my leadership skills, I was also encouraged by my team and mentors to thrive and push my boundaries. I never felt that being a women was holding me back from achieving my goals

For example, I started my career at P&G in India, soon I was offered the opportunity to work and live in other countries in Western Europe & Asia Pacific. As a result, I was exposed to different cultures, working styles and business challenges. This has helped me to learn and grow tremendously.

Q What is one way you are inspiring your peers to follow in your footsteps?

Shweta Sharma: Ever since my first day at work, I was lucky to have mentors along the way who not only imparted their wisdom and knowledge in me but also guided me in challenging situations. I am still learning from these mentors and benefit from the many leadership development programmes that P&G has set up to help me develop the necessary leadership skills that I require to grow my career.

At the same time, I have reached a level where I myself have become a mentor for the young talents that make the first steps in their careers. I make it a point to mentor both my young male and female colleagues while teaching the value and importance of equality across our business units.

Q What is one gender myth you would like to bust?

Balaka Niyazee: One myth that I would like to highlight is the so called 'pipeline myth' which claims that there are not enough qualified women available.

The reality is that the pipeline is full of qualified women. That is true for sales, for STEM and other industries that are traditionally male dominated. All that needs to be done is to give women the opportunity to thrive and she will show you what she is capable of. As companies, we need to be conscious and creative in our hiring, retaining, and advancement of women in the work place. It boils down to how men or women drive commercial value for their company or customer and less about their individual style. That is what is valued by our customers. P&G realises this and puts special focus to drive the diversity agenda across functions.

Myths about women, however hold them back and gender inequality hurts everyone. Women make up half of the population and hold more advanced degrees than men in 100 countries, but remain massively underrepresented at the top levels of companies, governments and industries.

Shweta Sharma: There are so many myths about women at work that are persisting till this day and hold women back from achieving their full potential. Some of the gender myths that I am trying to bust together with like-minded women leaders are the leadership and the work-life myths respectively.

The 'leadership myth' is based on the assumption that women lack confidence, fear failure, and have less ambition. I believe that while women and men may have different ways to approach business challenges and manage people, these different approaches are equally good. In fact, I believe that they complement each other and allow businesses to achieve the best outcomes.

According to the 'work-life myth', parenting and housework is a woman’s job. At P&G, we believe that men and women need to share the load at work and at home. “Men need to be Allies” both at Home and at Work. This enables women to take opportunities that come their way without guilt or hesitation. My husband and I are exactly following this. We are sharing the work at home and taking care of our two children.

I also often hear the myth that qualified women are not mobile, but reality is much different. Companies, universities and organisations simply must be conscious and creative in how they hire, retain and advance, especially female talent. In my current role, I travel a lot and yet I manage to be a supporting mother and wife to my family.

Q How are you busting that myth within P&G?

Shweta Sharma: There are two key myths I would like to bust - the leadership myth and the work-life myth.

Leadership myth: Over the years, I have developed a leadership style that fits my personality. The way I lead my team, interact with my colleagues and mentor my juniors feels natural to me. This gives me confidence in my actions and I can focus on my ambition to drive my team’s performance and achieve my career goals at the same time.

“Be yourself” is also the advice that I give to my juniors. I don’t want them to try to fit into a certain role as this not only impacts their own performance but also the one of their team.

Work-life myth: Having a partner who supports in personal and professional life is the key to success. Companies, bosses and teams need to support this through gender-equal policies, culture and coaching. My husband is my ally. We are sharing the load at home while taking care of our two children.

Balaka Niyazee: Thanks to the right support structure and mentors who believed in me, I became a successful business leader. Not only that, I am also a working mother and wife and I don’t have to compromise between the three roles that I have.

I consider myself fortunate to have such a strong support system and am committed to help busting gender myths within P&G. At P&G, I aim to be a role model and a mentor to young talents who one day will become senior business leaders. It is up to us to shape them and instil the values of equality in them right from the beginning.

I also believe that we need to stop making assumptions about other people. I had an eye-opening experience sometime back that made me aware of my own unconscious bias. I had a colleague in my team, who was doing a fantastic job. Her husband, was working in another city. I assumed that she would want to be co-located with her husband. So when a suitable opportunity came up, I offered it to her. She however, said that the best place to do her job was where she was. That experience taught me, that I should not make assumptions at work about my female and male colleagues and treat everyone equally.

To narrow down the gender gaps and bust myths, I am also a strong supporter of our internal programmes and policies that are designed to create equal opportunities. Some of the initiatives that we have set up are:

  • Driving equality-based policies and practices – including pay and wealth equality, sufficient paid maternity and paternity leave, and an uncompromising commitment to eradicating sexual harassment. We have for example set up gender-equal policies across APAC. Our maternity leave is standardised across the APAC region to 14 weeks and have improved child care support in most needed markets in the region. As an example, at our manufacturing plant in Jakarta, we are offering on-site childcare center allowing working Moms & Dads to continue their careers without compromising on their family responsibilities. As a result, 50% of our technician leaders and 35% on the operations floor in the Jakarta manufacturing plant are now women.
  • Mentorship Programmes: We also have set up coaching and mentoring programmes for our top 100 women (accelerator programme). Each and every member of the Leadership Board is involved in this programme.
  • Gender equality however is not a women’s prerogative. It is critical for men to become allies to help fix the system, narrow the persisting gender gap and support women to climb up the corporate ladder. This is why, we work closely with our male employees across the organization and offer training for them to understand the issue of gender equality and become advocates for change. We have a partnership with MARC – Men Advocating for Real Change. A men’s role is not to be our saviours, but become our allies.
Thanks to these efforts, we have already successfully achieved 50-50 representation at the manager level, and we are making strong progress towards our goal to achieve 50-50 representation at the Leadership level as well. I am proud to contribute to this success through my efforts and initiatives.

In order to drive change, I believe we need to tackle the myths both at our workplaces and in the societies we operate in. At P&G, we are focusing on areas, where we believe we can make the best difference. The areas where we think we can have the biggest impact are advertising and education.

  • Advertising: Big brands and big advertisers like P&G have a critical role to play in advancing inclusion and equality. Advertising influences how we see the world and has the power to change mindsets. Some of the ads that tackle gender bias in our portfolio are Always Like A Girl, Ariel Share the Load, Olay Face Anything, SK-II Change Destiny, and a film from our Secret brand called “I’d Rather Get Paid,” which takes on the issue of equal pay.At P&G, we use our brands and our influential voice to promote gender equality in forums such as the #WeSeeEqual Summit, and in brand advertising like Ariel, Whisper, Always, Pantene, Joy & Gillette and multi-stakeholder efforts to spark conversation, motivate change and eliminate bias.
  • Education: At P&G, we are helping remove barriers to education for girls and economic opportunities for women through our company and brand-led social impact programmes and advocacy efforts. Our Always Puberty and Confidence Education Programme, for example helps girls, teachers and parents for more than 30 years by providing free educational resources and samples that help girls understand the changes they will go through during puberty and how to cope with them. P&G will educate more than 23 million adolescent girls on puberty and hygiene across Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa over the 3 years.
We are also partnering with WEConnect International and UN Women in 14 countries to provide training to women entrepreneurs that helps them grow their businesses. Over the next 3 years, P&G aims to spend USD$150 million on deliberately working with Women-Owned Businesses in Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa.

What are you doing outside of work to bust that myth?

Balaka Niyazee: Aside from mentoring the next generation, I also try to be involved and share my experience at global and regional platforms such as Women’s Forum Asia and the P&G WeSeeEqual Summit, that are designed to pave the way for a gender equal world and offer like-minded industry leaders new ways to debunk gender myths both at the workplace and in the societies we operate.

Shweta Sharma: Gender equality cannot be achieved overnight. It is a long process that requires the attention and effort from all of us and I encourage everyone to help narrowing down the gender gap wherever they feel they can make the biggest impact. For myself, I believe one of the best ways to help busting those myths is by joining forces with other female leaders on global platforms such as Women’s Forum Asia or P&G WeSeeEqual and exchange ideas to promote a world free from gender bias and help create a new narrative that will accelerate the progress towards a more gender equal world.

I want to be a role model to my children and other young women out there, instil the right values in each of them and guide them on the path of equal opportunities. The work-life balance that we yearn for is an inside-out approach. If parenting is gender-equal so is housework. Studies have shown that children do better when parents share equal household chores and equal responsibility of childcare. Companies have to first implement gender-equal policies that benefit both women and men. Citing an example, our P&G policies are reviewed from time to time to ensure our employees utilise the flexibilities equally, inside and outside of the company.


Lead image / Provided From L-R: Balaka Niyazee, CEO of P&G Korea and Executive Sponsor, P&G Gender Equality, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa; and Shweta Sharma, Director, P&G Global Travel Retail