Long way to the top

Multinationals come up short in gender diversity.

It is a fact that half of Asia’s college graduates are female. It’s also a fact that regardless of their home country’s wealth or level of development, female participation in the workforce is generally low, and relative to their male counterparts, there are very few in the upper echelons of the corporate sector.

In some respects, the attitudes of multinationals to greater gender diversity are to blame.

Of the large companies surveyed in Asia, 70 per cent did not see gender diversity as a strategic priority.

Of the large companies surveyed in Asia, 70 per cent did not see

gender diversity as a strategic priority.

When McKinsey & Co. studied 744 large companies and quizzed 1500 executives in 10 Asian countries, 70 per cent of those interviewed said they did not see gender diversity as a strategic imperative. Even so, what few board development programs there are will far more likely be found in foreign corporations than locally-based firms.

Despite the glacial progress of women into senior ranks, at least some progress is being made. Last year the Hong Kong Stock Exchange introduced a rule requiring listed companies to report on their board diversity. It stopped short, however, of mandating more women on boards.

“And so it should have,” says Robert McManus, an expatriate Australian who has been teaching business studies in Seoul, South Korea for the last 10 years.

“Hong Kong and China have always chosen the best person for the job, and I would challenge anyone to question the success of their businesses, or economies in general.”

The flip-side is that in Hong Kong – a key global business hub – just two per cent of CEOs are women (a relatively high proportion, however, command lesser management roles).

It mirrors a similar situation across Asia, where women occupy a mere 1.1 per cent of CEO, CFO, country head and related positions, according to a 2012 study by the advocacy group Catalyst.

Still, McManus’s claim that Hong Kong and China’s policy of “always choosing the best person for the job” has paid off is not diminished by Forbes magazine’s recent list of Asia’s 50 most powerful businesswomen. Hong Kong and China dominate the list, with 16 out of 50 from 13 Asian markets.

These are women who have made it to the top despite what most believe to be a notoriously stacked deck. In parts of the region, women still face outright sexism and an entrenched old boys’ club, and the idea of flexible working hours – a benefit increasingly available to women elsewhere – is virtually unknown.

Forbes also nominated 12 “women to watch” from a new generation of females leading business through major changes. Their positions, and the incredibly young ages at which they have attained them, at first glance seems to suggest that as tough as the cultural barriers to career advancement may be, they’re surmountable.

Among those nominated are: Tipa Nawawattanasub, 33, chief executive of YLG Bullion & Futures, Thailand; Winnie Chiu, 33, president and executive director, Dorsett Hospitality International, Hong Kong; Chu Kut Yung, 26, deputy chairman and executive vice president, Hopson Development  Holdings, China; Kei Perenna Hoi Ting, 25, non-executive director, Logan Property Holdings, China; Angelica Widjaja, 32, general manager, Warung Tinggi Coffee, Indonesia; and Linda Suryasari Wijaya Limantara (32), managing director, Asia Pulp & Paper, Indonesia.

The only thing is: Every one of the women above, and another three on the list just like them, work in their family’s company. Just three on the list do not.
"There is just no good reason why women should not be represented on boards in Asia at the same level as men." – Gan Suttikul
“That’s the way it’s always been in Asia,” says Gan Suttikul, a lecturer in business administration at one of Chiang Mai’s five universities in northern Thailand.
“But that’s not to demean women’s achievements. Their success should demonstrate to other companies the need to take gender diversity more seriously.”

“Some of the [women] here don’t come from privileged backgrounds, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less smart than the ones that do. Unfortunately, they often encounter very different challenges.  Many have to leave the workforce midway through their career, usually after having children, because they don’t have a support network. The end result is fewer qualified women in company ranks.”

Despite what small progress he’s seen, Suttikul says most corporations are short-changing themselves by ignoring the studies of corporate directors that show, on average, women score higher on “sophisticated moral reasoning” skills, indicating they make better decisions on complicated matters.

“A more balanced management team could help drive greater success,” he maintains.
“There is just no good reason why women should not be represented on boards in Asia at the same level as men.”

“Personally, I think a lot of Asia-based executives are reluctant to hire women because they’re intimidated by the progressive decision-making style they bring to the table, which runs counter to tradition,” Suttikul says.

Some organisations have turned this to their advantage, recruiting some of the highly talented women generally ignored by their compatriots. The American technology company Cisco has long tapped the best in the pool, as has Japanese cosmetics firm Shiseido, whose customers are mainly female.

Interestingly, some of Suttikul’s students don’t seem as concerned about the situation as he is. That said, Thailand doesn’t have a system that discourages women from entering career-stream positions – unlike Japan and South Korea, for example – and in fact 29 per cent of managers in the general workforce there are female, which is only just below the OECD average.

Nonetheless, Suttikul says many Thai women self-select into non-career track positions, opting to set up their own small businesses rather than chance it at the big end of town.
“They still want a qualification that should allow them to compete equally with men, but they know they’re eventually going to have to deal with a double burden of work and domestic responsibilities,” Suttikul notes.

“Also, because of their cultural background, most will never really have the confidence to effectively compete in male-dominated businesses. More female role models would definitely help, but it’s a Catch-22. Besides, unless you can somehow afford it, right across Asia there’s a dearth of public services like childcare to support families.”

Bow is nearing completion of her commerce degree in Chiang Mai. Originally from neighbouring Cambodia, she says all her job windows are open – bar one she’s voluntarily closed.

“Here [Thailand] I can do anything I want, except I don’t want to work for a big company,” she insists. “The power structures are too strong and I’m not sure that’s ever going to change. Better to work for a smaller business – maybe in travel – learn everything I can, then start out on my own.”

So what’s wrong with that? After all, SMEs power economies around the globe. Nothing, except that as long as top management roles at major corporations across Asia remain the almost exclusive domain of males, things are probably going to be done in the same way they’ve always been done for 50-plus years.

Women in top positions in Asia
Hong Kong 9%
China 8%
Taiwan 8%
Singapore 7%
Malaysia 6%
Indonesia 6%
Japan 2%
South Korea 1%

Source: McKinsey & Company’s Women Matter: An Asian Perspective

October 2021
October 2021

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