The right mindset and mechanisms are needed to promote gender balance in organizations. Interview with Katarzyna Zawodna-Bijoch, President & CEO at Skanska commercial development unit in Central & Eastern Europe

The right mindset and mechanisms are needed to promote gender balance in organizations. Interview with Katarzyna Zawodna-Bijoch, President & CEO at Skanska commercial development unit in Central & Eastern Europe

What causes the lack of promotion of women to top positions?

There are many reasons for the gender imbalance in top positions, and a large part of them are rooted in historical or current cultural, environmental and family conditions, i.e. the systems in which we operate on a daily basis. This is what the often-forgotten letter “E” stands for in DE&I (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion). “Equity”, i.e. resources, is the entire “baggage” of these systems with which we are born. Girls are brought up to fulfill the roles traditionally assigned to women in our part of the world, i.e. the role of wives/partners, mothers, carers of the family, housewives. Less attention is paid to encouraging them to seek things they enjoy doing or develop their own skills. Social expectations, according to which a woman is perceived through the prism of her family situation, and to a lesser extent through the prism of professional achievements, do not help either. Thus, young women are limited in their choice of life path, because some of them are not even aware that they have this choice. The way boys are brought up is also important. Many of them still receive the message that childcare and household chores are “unmanly”.

As a result, many women function in relationships in which full responsibility for childcare and running a household rests on their shoulders, simultaneously with their professional work. It ends up with a woman working two “full-time jobs” at the same time – at work and at home. Without partner relations, the day is too short to take care of the family and home, to be a valued employee and to pursue ambitions that will allow you to climb the career ladder. From my own experience and conversations with other women working in manage positions, it appears that a partner relationship at home is one of the key factors supporting women’s professional success. Another reason for the limited number of women in top management is the lack of an appropriate mindset and mechanisms promoting gender balance in organizations. The basic thing is to ensure equal treatment of women and men at the stage of employment, remuneration, access to training and other development opportunities, and as part of the performance management and promotion system. This is determined by the appropriate processes and procedures created with respect for the law and based on the company’s values, but also by the attitude and behavior of the management staff and associates that create the corporate culture. Not without significance is also the still present lack of understanding of the value created by diversity in organizations, at every level. As a result, we still hear stories about favoring (more or less consciously) male candidates due to their greater feistiness or simply numerical superiority in a given team or industry, about passing over pregnant women and mothers for promotions or hindering their professional development, or ostracism faced by men who want to take parental leave. All this does not create favorable conditions for increasing the share of women in top positions and is contrary to the principles of sustainable development, which is becoming a leading trend in business.

What is your opinion of parities? Do they help women or are they just not needed?

According to data available on the European Parliament’s website, in 2022 women held the position of CEO in less than 10% of the largest listed companies in EU countries. The EU directive promoting gender balance guarantees women 40% of seats in supervisory boards or at least 33% of seats in the governing bodies of listed companies. I am not a supporter of force solutions. I prefer those that are created in an unforced, bottom-up way, that result from the evolution of needs and attitudes and growing awareness. However, I feel that in this particular case, hoping that the change will occur naturally and spontaneously is a pipe dream. Years pass, the discussion on the need to increase the representation of women in leadership positions continues, and the situation is improving slightly. I believe that the introduction of parity will help accelerate the changes, among other things, because it will leave no choice to decision-makers who for some reason are unfavorable to these changes, while encouraging women to reach for the highest positions in organizations. Regulations on the principles of sustainable development and reporting in this area may also be beneficial, although with less firepower so far. They introduce criteria that an organization must meet in order to be considered one that is following sustainable development principles, among them are criteria on diversity and inclusion, including gender balance. Why is it important? Ultimately, companies that will not develop in a sustainable manner will have difficult access to financing. When making decisions about financing, investors and financial institutions will analyze indicators concerning, among others, gender balance in the organization.

Will a man, if it is up to him to decide on a promotion, go with a male candidate because he thinks it will be easier for him to get along with another man than with a woman?

Interactions with people different from us may be uncomfortable, as they require more mindfulness, openness and flexibility than in the case of contact with people very similar to us. We differ in perspectives, way of thinking, pace of decision-making, which makes it necessary to devote time and energy to learning good cooperation, especially at the beginning. Working in a homogeneous environment can be faster and easier, but it is diversity that is the source of new ideas, creative concepts and innovations, because it brings different points of view and allows you to identify opportunities or risks that people who think in the same way might simply not notice. Awareness or lack of awareness of the benefits of diversity is gender-agnostic. These benefits should be part of the promotion-related decision-making process for leaders, regardless of their gender. There are also female-dominated teams or environments where a masculine or non-binary element could bring valuable new energy.

Are women too shy to compete for top positions? Maybe they don’t realize their professionalism?

Shyness can be a trait that hinders competitiveness, especially if you are competing for a position with confident people. Nevertheless, what I observe in many women, and what I believe is an obstacle on their way to leadership positions, is the belief that in order to take on a task, one must be perfectly prepared for it. And it is precisely this perfectionism that is one of the obstacles to improving the gender balance in the highest positions. To change this, we need a change in the approach to raising girls. Instead of instilling in them excessive caution, let’s encourage them to experiment, try new things and convince them to learn by doing. The same should apply to creating career paths for young female professionals who are entering or already in the labor market and are looking for their place. Just as tutors and teachers play a huge role in shaping the characters of girls, their managers and specialists responsible for talent management in companies have a very important role in “bringing up” future female leaders.

The manager’s role is to recognize the potential of the people he works with, to select tasks that enable the use and development of this potential, and to strengthen professional self-esteem by appreciating achievements and having a wise approach to failures. The role of HR departments is to cooperate with managers and employees in order to create development plans that support employees in discovering their strengths and weaknesses and developing these strengths. An important role in the process of creating a “leadership mindset” can also be played by coaches and mentors who will help discover untapped potential and share their own knowledge and experience. It is worth choosing a mentor who has successfully built their career path, while not being perfectly prepared to take on subsequent roles. Such experiences can inspire women to pursue their leadership aspirations, even if approaching them with timidity.

Working with my mentees, I try to show them that if I wanted to be 100% ready to take on new roles, I probably wouldn’t be leading Skanska’s commercial development unit in the CEE region today and I wouldn’t be responsible for its growth strategy. When I started working at Skanska almost 18 years ago, sustainable development or ESG was a completely unexplored ground in our industry. It was similar with product solutions (e.g. entering the world of flex offices) or technological solutions (e.g. the use of intelligent building management systems or low-emission building materials). Despite being aware that I have a lot to learn, I decided to take a risk and deal with these fields, which helped accelerate my professional development. At the same time, I am aware that working in a Scandinavian company, where we truly live our values and where equality is an integral part of organization’s DNA, I function in a much more favorable and supportive environment than a statistical Polish woman.

Have you met a business mentor in your life, someone who helped you stand out?

Learning from others is an important part of education and development. The knowledge and experience of other people helped me develop personally and professionally and climb the career ladder. I took part in formalized and structured mentoring, but I also learned from my managers and colleagues. Using the wisdom of my mentors, I was able to better take advantage of the opportunities and manage the risks. I owe them a debt of gratitude that I would like to repay by engaging in mentoring programs. I work with young girls as a mentor, but I also learn a lot from them.

AI is good at analytics and finance, but it lacks emotional intelligence. Does the future of leadership then belong to women?

The future of leadership belongs to empathetic people, regardless of gender. We won’t perform complex analyzes better than a computer, but we’re still better at reading emotions and addressing them. And I believe it will stay that way. People want to interact with people, machines are just tools. However, the world is moving towards more and more robotization, which means that in some time an exclusive offer will be the opportunity to talk and spend time with a human, not with a bot, no matter how well the bot works.

Katarzyna Zawodna-Bijoch, President and CEO at Skanska’s commercial development unit in Central & Eastern Europe

Katarzyna Zawodna-Bijoch is CEO at Skanska’s commercial development business unit in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). She is responsible for the company’s strategy and operations in the area of office investments in ten cities of this region: Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Wrocław, Poznań, Łódź, Katowice, Gdańsk, Kraków.

Since her appointment as President and CEO, the company has invested in co-working sector (Business Link’s acquisition) as well as sustainable and innovative solutions, focused on human well-being and reducing carbon emissions. Katarzyna has been one of the pioneers of LEED certification system in Poland and CEE region, certifying Skanska office buildings in line with this system. She was also responsible for the decision to develop Skanska office buildings in line with WELL Building Standard™. She also holds the title of LEED Accredited Professional. She is a RICS Fellow in recognition for her professional achievements and leadership. 

Katarzyna is actively involved in improving ethical standards in the region. She is a member of program councils at UN Global Compact as well as the Civic Congress – a cross-environmental civil project promoting sustainable development in Poland. 

Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Anastazja Lach