Women on the rise ... slowly
Limited change in the ratio of female leaders in the business world suggests more must be done to crack the glass ceiling.
Society never seems to run out of words of praise for women. "God created women to tame men," declared the French philosopher Voltaire. "Women hold up half the sky," said Mao Zedong.
Those words are truly music to the ears. But the harsh reality is that clouds of discrimination still hover in the sky that women are supposed to be supporting.
The fact is, women hold only a quarter of senior management positions in the corporate world, according to "Women in Business: New Perspectives on Risk and Reward", a recent report by the international consultancy Grant Thornton.
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Released in March, the survey -- conducted for 13 consecutive years to study gender parity in corporate culture -- surveyed 5,000 businesses in 36 economies. It reveals that the proportion of women in executive positions in the business world is increasing at a very slow pace. At 25%, the ratio is up one percentage point from 2016 and only six points from 2004.
Gender parity in the workplace is improving in some regions, mostly emerging markets. For example, more female executives in Asean countries have taken higher positions on the corporate ladder, so the proportion this year has risen to 36%, up two percentage points from a year earlier, and well ahead of the 13% average for developed Asia-Pacific economies including Japan and South Korea.
The figures from Thailand offer some hope. The senior management roles with the highest percentage of females in Thailand are CEO (40%) and CFO (34%). Thai women hold 37% of senior roles in 2017 -- one of the top three countries in Asia Pacific following Indonesia (46%) and the Philippines (40%).
While the glass ceiling still exists, gender equality in the workplace has been improving in Thailand, according to Rungarun Jongrungchokchai, recruitment manager of PRTR, a major recruiting agency in Asean.
"Corporations, especially international ones, are not specifying that they need males or females in required positions. At the same time, we usually screen candidates based on their merit, talent and experience, not their gender," she said.
"After all, it depends on what candidates can do, not their gender."
Perceptions that women might be considered less preferable than men still exist in some jobs in which physical capability is taken into consideration, said Ms Rungarun. These positions typically require physical endurance and mobility in extreme and risky environments such as violence-prone areas, deep jungle or offshore oil rigs.
However, women clearly dominate in some professions, notably accountancy, banking and finance, where up to 90% of the workers and even senior managers in some organisations are women. This partly reflects that fact that the job descriptions fit women's perceived qualities as being "detail-oriented", "meticulous", "hard-working" and "systematic".
Human resources management is another female-predominant industry. "Partly because women are believed to be more understanding, more caring, more accessible and better than men in dealing with human interaction. It is easier for workers to talk to women," said Ms Rungarun.
The Grant Thornton survey does indicate some worrying signs for gender parity overall, however. The percentage of businesses with no women in senior management has actually risen this year to 34% from 33% a year ago. In Asia Pacific, the figure rose to 35% to 31%, and in Thailand it is 25%, up from 21% last year.
"While Thailand continues to be in the top three countries in the region with women in senior positions, the trend is decreasing and that indicates that we could end up facing the same problems as developed Asia Pacific countries which have only 13% women in leadership positions," Noel Ashpole, assurance and audit partner at Grant Thornton in Thailand, was quoted as saying at the release of the report.
The trend reflects an increasing concentration of female professions only in certain businesses. "Many of today's companies are still run by male-only teams and they are in danger of myopia when it comes to risk," Francesca Lagerberg, global leader for tax services and sponsor of women in leadership at Grant Thornton, wrote in this year's report.
BREAKING THE GLASS CEILING
Given how slowly the percentage of women executives is moving up, the question now is when the world will see gender parity. According to the Global Gender Gap report released in 2014 by the World Economic Forum, it would take 81 years to close the gap completely.
Maytinee Bhongsvej, secretary-general of the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, told Asia Focus that the world cannot afford to wait while the business-as-usual scenario continues.
"We cannot sit and wait for cultural stereotypes that assign women to inferior roles to be put to an end or for the proportion of gender parity to rise by itself," she said.
"We need political will and policy support, and the only enabling factor that can cause a drastic change is to introduce quotas requiring companies and governments to allocate quotas for female representatives in boardrooms and legislative bodies."
A quota system proves an effective solution to increase the amount of female representation in top management levels in the view of Mrs Maytinee, who has been campaigning for equal status for women for almost three decades.
For example, the Norwegian government introduced a law in 2008 requiring that 40% of public limited company board members be women. Norway as a result has achieved impressive gender parity.
Countries in Africa including Rwanda and Nigeria now have quotas to bring more female representatives into legislatures. Many companies around the world have put in place corporate policies such as quotas for women in senior management, as well as supporting facilities such as daycare schemes or flexible work hours for staff with children or other household responsibilities.
The Dutch bank ABN Amro, for example, offers a New Life Balance programme that provides flexible work schedules for female workers who need to take care of family chores. The bank has also introduced the so-called M/F programme to increase the number of women in higher-level positions.
Since 2008, Coca-Cola has had a global corporate policy to increase the presence of women in senior management, a policy that is helping many female workers to climb the corporate ladder and push boundaries.
Among the beneficiaries was Wilaiwan Petchsiri, former manager of logistics and supply chain at Coca-Cola (Thailand). "The senior management positions in the manufacturing factory had been given to males," she told Asia Focus. "But things changed when Coca-Cola launched the Women's Talent Campaign. The campaign provides opportunities for women. Now I have seen more women in senior positions in that corporation."
Ms Wilaiwan recently parted amicably with Coca-Cola Thailand is now working as director of operations at Nutridor, another multinational food and beverage conglomerate.
In her business travels to markets in China and countries in Southeast Asia, Ms Wilaiwan says she is now seeing more and more women in workplaces, and in higher management roles.
"I believe there is no actual glass ceiling as society welcomes women to work and get promoted to senior management roles," she said. "In the end, I believe you will be finally chosen because of the body of your work, not because of your gender."