Women and reforms in governance

Benito L. Teehankee

The View from Taft. BusinessWorld | September 06, 2012 |

IMPROVING GOVERNANCE in the public and private sectors is among the most critical tasks facing our country today. It's interesting that we have been seeing more women being appointed to key governance reform positions in government recently. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and, most recently, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno quickly come to mind, but there are others. Do women have something positively unique to offer, other than the competence expected, in support of governance reform?

In 2002, TIME magazine named three women whistle-blowers as Persons of the Year. Sherron Watkins was the Enron vice-president who wrote the company's chairman about the impropriety of its accounting practices. Enron collapsed in bankruptcy in 2001. Coleen Rowley was the FBI attorney who wrote the agency's director about how her office's requests for the investigation of a suspect were being ignored by the bureau. The suspect was eventually convicted as a co-conspirator in the September 11 World Trade Center bombing. Cynthia Cooper was the vice-president for internal audit who helped expose the $3.8 billion in losses being hidden at WorldCom. The company later went bankrupt, too. In the local scene, who could forget Clarissa Ocampo, the banker from Equitable-PCI Bank who testified during the 2001 impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada that the latter was using the controversial alias "Jose Velarde?"

Could the fact that they were women have anything to do with these women's willingness to point out wrongdoing, when many top leaders in the know, mostly men, were not as forthcoming? Do women react differently to ethical breaches, especially those that harm others, than men do? Researchers are still debating these issues, but there seems to be enough evidence that women, while being generally as intelligent as men, think differently than men do, at least at the brain level. Diana Bocco, a writer for Discovery Channel, reported what brain researchers have learned: Women's brains process language and negative emotions differently than men's brains do. Women process language in both the right and left sides of the brain unlike men who use only the left. As a result, women tend to excel in language-associated thinking and to have better language skills.

Research has also shown that women process negative emotions in the part of the brain that regulates the heartbeat while men do so in the part that regulates physical actions. Researchers think this may explain why women can have more empathy toward others even during times of stress while men tend to be more aggressive.

Such brain research suggests tantalizing possibilities relevant to governance reforms. When a group of leaders is confronted by an ethically charged issue, is it possible that women are more equipped to feel for those who might be negatively affected by the issue? Also, is it possible that women can better express these concerns to their colleagues in a way that can lead to more prudent action?

More research clearly needs to be done, but some countries have already pushed for more women involvement in corporate governance if only to correct long-standing imbalances in board composition. Norway mandated the targeting of 40% females in corporate boards in 2004 and achieved the target by 2009. France, Italy, and Belgium have also legislated female quotas in boards. Just this week, The Financial Times reported that the European Commission is drafting a policy that will require listed companies to have at least 40% women in their boards by 2020 or face fines and other sanctions.

The Asian Institute of Management's RVR-C. V. Starr Center for Corporate Governance reported that less than 15% of board members of the top 100 publicly listed Philippine firms are women. Would having more competent women in these corporate boards lead to a more compassionate governance of companies and more inclusive corporate growth in this country? The brain research seems to suggest this.

In the end, the number of women in governing positions is less important than whether leaders in government and corporations can become more sensitive to the ramifications of the decisions they make for various stakeholders and whether they can pool their wisdom to do right by these stakeholders. This is their duty, after all, whether they are women or men.