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Rocky Road to Gender Diversity in Asia

By Deborah Hayden and Cornelia Kunze

There is a serious gender gap in most parts of the Asia–Pacific region. This means that women are underrepresented in the labor force, in political decision-making, and in access to healthcare and education.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2013, which ranks 136 countries, India (101), Japan (105), and South Korea (111) rank among the lowest in the region.

The Philippines (9), however, is one bright spot, not only leading the way in the Asia–Pacific region, but also leaving behind Britain and the United States.

In the Philippines, gender parity in education and labor preceded the outstanding economic development of the country, making the Philippines a poster case for evidence of a correlation between the Global Gender Gap Index and the Global Competitiveness Index.

Further evidence is revealed in McKinsey’s “Women Matter” study. While women matter according to a survey of top executives in Asia, the reality shows few females in leading positions—apart from some encouraging developments in China, Vietnam, and the Philippines—with the proportion of women in the workforce decreasing at each level of the hierarchy.

According to the report, Japanese women make up 49 percent of university graduates and 45 percent of entry-level jobs—but less than 1 percent of CEO positions.

The situation is similar in South Korea and India. Almost half the female employees tend to leave their jobs voluntarily mid-career or at senior levels, due to family commitments. In South Korea, a very small proportion of women move into middle management, while in India only about 30 percent of educated women work in junior-level positions.

The Singapore Board Diversity Report 2013 states that less than 5 percent of chairman and CEO positions are held by women. Some 7.9 percent of board members are women, while 58 percent of listed companies have all-male boards.

The general trend is not much different in Europe, but the situation is more acute in Asia. With generally lower proportions of women in the labor force, it becomes more difficult to feed the pipeline of leaders in Asia.


Glass—or cement—ceilings
The broadly discussed glass-ceiling effect is often a result of family pressure or a deliberate choice to move into a slower lane with one’s career. The old boys’ network is alive and kicking, hand in hand with a solid bureaucracy.

The Economist has created its own glass-ceiling index, according to which the places “not to be” for a woman are South Korea and Japan.

Despite having a female president, South Korean women are struggling to find a work–life balance in their male-centric society. When it comes to moving up the career ladder, traditional gender roles are not in sync with South Koreans’ image of career women—as defined by everybody except the women themselves.

The fact that eight major banks in India are led by women and that 47 percent of Indian voters are women should not be mistaken as a general change in the world’s biggest democracy.

In science and other traditionally male strongholds, women are still the exception. Female scientists describe a chain of obstacles to getting hold of fellowships or high-level jobs.

Wage gaps also contribute to the current reality. In China and India, it has been discovered that about 59 percent of men make more money than their female colleagues in the same roles.

In Japan, women are paid about 71 percent of what men receive, according to 2012 statistics published by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Even in countries such as Singapore, women are still paid less money than men in similar positions.

The way forward
The consensus, underpinned by various studies, is that gender diversity has a positive effect on company performance as well as on the quality of corporate governance. Change will be a combination of regulatory measures, societal change, and corporate best practice.

It starts with equal education and higher labor force participation, especially in aging societies such as those of Japan, China, Thailand, and Taiwan. The Japanese government knows that fertility rates go down if women have to make a choice between career and family.

Given the context of only a 40 percent female labor participation rate, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Abenomics program recognizes that this is a family issue, an economic issue, and a national issue.

Other countries are trying to include women and encourage them to embrace their ambitions without reservations regarding their role in society. Very few use a quota.

An increasing number of women are making their career a priority, but they prefer modern work environments to those found at “old-school, male-dominated” corporations. From an employer branding perspective, this requires not only PR and marketing activities, but also an ethos and a measurable objective translated into concrete programs.

More flexible HR policies, maternity and paternity leave, the ability to work from home, flexible working hours, and childcare facilities have proven successful and are on the rise. Role models, mentoring, and a clear career path for women are also essential.

Companies cannot afford to rank last on the employer-of-choice ranking, as talent is the key factor for competitiveness in the Asia–Pacific region. Companies lose productivity and momentum when they face career dropouts at any level, particularly if they have already invested heavily in retention and development.

The immediate job for chief executives and corporate HR departments is not to ensure that “every woman should be able to have it all, at the same time.”

It is not first and foremost about putting gender choices above other criteria when developing and promoting employees. Instead, reverse thinking needs to be applied.

Companies that recruit the best from the market become employers of choice for female talent.

They ensure that those highly qualified individuals do not drop out by showing them respect, providing equal treatment, and creating a work environment where women can succeed.

Such companies know they will not change society’s view on women’s roles from one day to the next, but they are active catalysts in facilitating change, together with governments and women themselves.

A truly inclusive meritocracy is the model of the future in the Asia–Pacific region.

This article is an abridged version of a longer article that ran in Insight Asia-Pacific in June 2014, from the German Asia-Pacific Business Association.


Deborah Hayden is co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee and regional director of Edelman Japan.Divider


DividerCornelia Kunze is a vice chairman at Edelman with over 20 years’ experience in public relations, brand marketing and strategic communications.Divider