Women in Business: Thailand Experience

Women in Business: Thailand Experience

In March 2018, we published an analysis of the recent Grant Thornton report on "Women in Business", detailing the worldwide representation of women in the business community. Following on from this, we now recount the observations of three leading business women regarding the importance of women in the Thailand business community. These business leaders are Ms. Noel Ashpole, Partner at Grant Thornton, Ms. Heather Suksem, Deputy Chairperson of OCS ROH Ltd, and Ms. Tiziana Sucharitkul, Co-Managing Partner, Tilleke & Gibbins. The discussion was held at a Dataconsult Thailand Regional Forum dinner meeting, a regular series on significant business topics, on 27 March 2018.

Women certainly play a very significant role in Thailand's business community, representing 42% of senior management in 2017, as compared with 24% worldwide and 23% in the Asia-Pacific Region. However Thailand is not the world leader in that respect, since the Philippines is recorded as having 47% of women among senior management, with Indonesia as a follower with 43%, just ahead of Thailand. Russia is a close follower with 41% women among senior management.

Thailand has generally improved its women representation in senior management, in recent years, although in 2011, the Grant Thornton survey identified 45% of senior management being women. In that year, Thailand attained comfortably the highest proportion of women in management in the world.

It is notable that some of the most developed countries in the world have women poorly represented in senior management. Australia has only 15%, Canada 25%, the Netherlands 19%, Sweden 29%, the UK 22%, and the USA 21%. Worldwide, the trend has not shown much improvement, with the total of 24% remaining stable for the past decade. Predictably the proportion of women in senior management in Japan is horrendously low, at only 5%, and apparently even in decline over the past decade, despite the efforts of government to change this situation.

Why are women better represented in senior management in Thailand than elsewhere? 

Noel Ashpole expressed the view that families in Thailand are dominated by women, who take the main responsibility, and this role is extended into family businesses. However, it seemed uncertain whether the proportion of women would increase or stabilise at present levels in the future.

According to Ms. Tiziana Sucharitkul, women are well represented in business. Moreover, whereas in many countries women represent half of professional entrants, the proportions fall off as family responsibilities increase. However, that does not happen in Thailand. The advantage is that older family members and domestic helpers look after children, enabling women to retain their business positions even with family responsibilities.

Heather Suksem noted that whereas in the UK there had been a feeling that women's place was in the home, in Thailand it was considered normal for women to work, and to move up in their organisations.

There are often few women candidates for top positions. But for suitable candidates there is every encouragement. However, family and work are separate, and while the family should be well looked after, family responsibilities should not interfere with work.

How does one look after staff when they have families?

Tiziana Sucharitkul explained that one must make sure that the work culture and environment are very flexible and understanding. One needs to go beyond policy into real support. This includes paternity leave as well as maternity leave, flexible working hours, part time working, remote working, and release to handle family affairs. Tilleke has 20 women who have been working with the firm for over 20 years, demonstrating that flexibility is compensated for by long-term benefits for both employer and employees. Half of Tilleke's country office directors and three-quarters of service department heads are women.

Heather Suksem noted that she became a CEO due to the support that she received from the topmost management. It was such support that counted, rather than just the numbers of women in senior management, she said.

Are men and women fundamentally different, making some professions more suitable for one or the other?

Noel Ashpole commented that in Grant Thornton, men and women have the same responsibilities, salary levels and other benefits. However, in general, there are personality differences: women are more polite and punctual, whereas men are more competitive.

Are there issues of harassment of women in Thailand?

Noel Ashpole said she believes that although she has not encountered complaints in client organisations, there might be experiences that have not been expressed.

Tiziana Sucharitkul said she considers such harassment as a serious issue, needing a very clear policy reaction, and it is not to be tolerated by any organisation.

Heather Suksem explained that any such harassment is considered as a serious issue and is not tolerated in her organisation. If such a situation arose at supervisory level, it would be difficult for the supervisor to retain respect and leadership. But such problems have not been experienced at senior management levels.

Should husbands and wives work together in the same organisation?

Noel Ashpole explained that both she and her husband work at Grant Thornton but not in the same divisions. It is a policy of the firm that one should not be in a reporting position to the other. Quite often there are relationships between staff members. Indeed, it is inevitable when people are working together. The important thing is that such situations should not be allowed to cause problems with client relationships.

Tiziana Sucharitkul noted that there are some couples who both work with Tilleke & Gibbins. The firm had considered this situation and decided that, while there should be no direct reporting relationships between couples, there is no harm in accepting couples in the firm, and problems have not arisen as a result.

What about the LGBT situation in Thailand?

Tiziana Sucharitkul explained that her firm has a number of LGBT individuals, including two transgender persons. The firm has a policy of inclusiveness. Recruitment is based on qualifications, experience and suitability for the job. However, firms needed to be more affirmative in expressing their policies, because LGBT people often lack confidence even to apply for jobs, feeling that they would not be accepted.

Heather Suksem said she felt that LGBT is not an issue in her company. Whether one is dealing with LGBT or any general gender issues, employers need to be more affirmative and positive in encouraging promotions in the organisation, she said.

Tiziana Sucharitkul confirmed that women tend to undersell their capabilities, whereas men often oversold themselves, especially in recruitment situations. In particular, the "token woman on the board" does not work as a policy, because the board would not hear much from that sole woman, whereas the men would do all the talking.

Why do women form the majority of tertiary education participants, perform better than men, yet are less represented in senior management?

Heather Suksem said she believes that the diversity balance should be dealt with more affirmatively, but we cannot expect the proportions to be 50% in all professions and sectors.

Tiziana Sucharitkul noted that in the past, it was difficult for women to go beyond a certain point because of work culture. However, over time the trend is changing, and business is becoming more supportive of women in leadership. Gender parity would move alongside work and life balance, she said, adding that this is already happening, and the trend should continue.

Series editor: Christopher F. Bruton is Executive Director of Dataconsult Ltd, chris@dataconsult.co.th. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to guide business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.

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