In a world where business is still dominated by men, a new coalition in Jamaica is working to open up boardrooms to women and work together to find their leadership potential.
Of the 53 companies listed on the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE), women make up just 17.36 per cent of board directors, with ten of the companies having no women on their boards at all. Addressing this lack of equity at its very root, a coalition of women in Jamaica has chosen to act.
“Given the ability of many females – and given the educational statistics, – it begs the question: why is there not more female representation on the boards?” says Marlene Street Forest, General Manager, Jamaica Stock Exchange. “The idea is to highlight the women and their capability, and also the fact that they are willing to serve.”
51 % Coalition, a dynamic advocacy group, is calling for more women to buy shares in private sector companies, and offering training on corporate and public sector governance to help them better realize their economic potential.
The group includes women business owners, private sector organizations, non-profit organizations such as the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean. The coalition aims to use the legitimacy of shareholding to lobby for greater gender balance and inclusion in board rooms and annual general meetings across Jamaica.
The trainings also address the importance of a gender focus. The classes look at how national development can affect women differently; how women rank in terms of wealth creation and global research findings on the positive impact of women on boards.
The work of the coalition stems from its programme on women’s transformational leadership in Jamaica. Supported by UN Women and running since 2011, it advocates for the use of quotas to increase women’s participation in governance and decision-making, politically, economically or socially. The coalition, led by the WROC members promotes quotas as the fastest track to gender equity, but centre members are also keen to show women the empowerment and change that they can drive as shareholders.
“To even begin to change the mindset of private sector, which is even more conservative, we needed to be a part of the corporate sector ourselves, explained Judith Wedderburn, coalition member, and director of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean .
“A core of women decided to buy a number of shares to allow us to go to meetings and put the gender issues on the table. We know it will not be easy because we are not major shareholders, but we will have at least a foot in the door.”
At the stock exchange, Forest notes that this subtle approach has taken root. Meetings have taken place between 51 % Coalition members and listed company representatives, with the group invited to make presentations to the Chief Executive Officers of these companies.
She notes that the Jamaican Stock Exchange has invited articles by coalition members on its website, one of the most visited sites in the country. “We do not believe a woman or man should be on a board solely because they are male or female but rather that they can contribute based on the requirements of the board and contribute to the effective functioning of the board,” says Forest.
Though no deadline has been set for achieving a gender balance on boards, some results are already evident. At the stock exchange’s Best Practices Awards for good governance in the industry next year, it will introduce a score-card for companies that are moving towards gender diversity.