Closing the gap

Closing the gap

Women are well positioned to play a bigger leadership role in the build-back-better world.

Events of the past 12 months have permanently changed both the nature of the workplace and women's opportunities within it. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to more flexible working practices, new leadership traits are coming to the fore, and the need for a diverse workforce and inclusive culture has never been more apparent.

Leadership styles have come under scrutiny due to the demands of the pandemic, and that has created a window of opportunity to include more women in senior management, experts say.

Engagement with staff, a greater understanding of people's personal needs and circumstances, and support for mental and emotional health are now seen as more vital than ever. Empathy has emerged as a core leadership trait.

"[The pandemic] has shone a light on the skill set traditionally perceived as more 'female' than 'male'," said Francesca Lagerberg, global leader for network capabilities at the London-based advisory firm Grant Thornton International.

"The need to have more empathy in the current environment has been huge. Empathy is vital in the approach to people working within the organisation -- if you've got people on furlough, if you've got people struggling with their circumstances -- and the mental health issues that Covid has driven."

Meanwhile, the rise of the digital working landscape has removed some of the traditional obstacles to women's careers. Flexible working -- including the ability to set their own hours, reduced pressure to commute, and the technology to participate fully from a remote location -- has long been seen as necessary to promote female career progression.

While changes in working practices have varied globally, and by sector, the mass movement to home working has shown new working practices to be both practical and, in some cases, preferable.

As well, these changes might be changing the way leaders make decisions, by removing unconscious biases and leading to a more positive evaluation of female talents, said Kim Schmidt, Grant Thornton International's global leader for leadership, people and culture.

"There will be an expectation that leaders post-Covid change the way they lead if they want to bring in talent and keep people engaged. That creates an avenue for women into senior roles," she said.

"Covid-19 didn't create this shift. It accelerated existing trends and attitudes toward flexible working, the importance of diversity to innovation and business success, and the need for more empathetic, more transparent leadership."

According to Grant Thornton's Women in Business 2021 report, Asia and the Pacific is the poorest performer in terms of leadership roles held by women, at 28% of total positions, just short of the 30% "tipping point" needed to catalyse real change. The region's improvement since 2017 was only three percentage points.

Southeast Asia, however, ranks second only behind Africa -- the best performer in the 2021 survey -- with 38% of senior roles filled by women.

Overall, the proportion of senior female managers globally has reached 31%, up from 29% in 2020, to finally pass the 30% tipping point. Nine out of 10 businesses worldwide now have at least one woman in their leadership teams.

There are more female managing directors and CEOs than ever before, with 26% of these roles held by women, according to Ms Schmidt.

"In business today, we are seeing significant gains in gender parity in the global workplace. While there is still a lot of progress to be made, women are in a strong position to seize management opportunities and rise to the top," said Suphajee Suthumpun, CEO of the Bangkok-based hospitality group Dusit Thani Public Co Ltd.

In Thailand, women currently hold around 32% of senior leadership positions, versus the global average of 27%, she said, citing figures from UN Women.

Citing statistics from a 2017 study of companies in Asia by McKinsey & Company, Ms Suphajee argued that gender parity is starting to improve across Asia, and women in leadership positions are generating solid results.

"In fact, organisations with higher women's representation on the executive committees outperformed others by 44% on return on equity, and 117% on earnings before interest and tax margins," she told Asia Focus.

"In this environment, I think the biggest obstacle preventing any woman from progressing is self-doubt. If you approach challenges with the right attitude, respect all staff members, and share your vision and objectives clearly and concisely, you have as good a chance as anyone of leading a corporation -- men and women alike. Confidence, passion and determination are the keys to success."

Ms Suphajee, a certified executive coach with certification from the renowned Berkeley Coaching Institute, joined Dusit after a successful tenure as CEO at Thaicom Plc, having notably led the satellite operator to profit within her first quarter on board after multiple years of losses.

Prior to joining Thaicom, she worked at IBM for over 20 years, overseeing many facets of the business from hardware to services. She was the first woman appointed as general manager for IBM in Thailand.

"At Dusit International, I am delighted to see that we are far ahead of the global average in terms of female leadership," she said. "In fact, around 53% of our leadership/management positions are held by women,"

At corporate headquarters, four out of six C-Suite executives (66%) are female. At the assistant vice-president level, 23 out of 46 (50%) are female; and at the senior management level, 55 out of 100 (55%) are female. The 12-person board of directors includes five women.

"In this environment, I think the biggest obstacle preventing any woman from progressing is self-doubt," says Suphajee Suthumpun, CEO of Dusit Thani Plc. SUPPLIED

GLASS CEILING

According to Grant Thornton, Thailand outperforms the regional and global averages in terms of female CEOs, with 29%. But it also notes that just 64% of businesses in Thailand have taken action to promote gender diversity, compared with 84% in Asia Pacific and 82% globally.

One area where women in Thailand are very poorly represented is politics. As of January 2021, there were only 77 women out of 489 members of the House of Representatives, or 15.8%. That compares to 25.6% globally and 28% in Asia Pacific. Only 25 of the country's 250 senators are female, and only one out of 75 provincial governors.

The country ranks 134th out of 156 countries in the Gender Gap index for political representation, as measured by the World Economic Forum.

In Asia overall, it is still difficult for women to break the glass ceiling in their careers to reach the management level, observes Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap).

"This is shown by the relatively low representation of women in management and senior management positions in corporations, in parliaments, and in political positions, including ministers, directors-general and secretaries-general," she told Asia Focus.

In 2019, 13 countries in the region had 10% or fewer women in national parliaments. "Despite this, we see some improvement for parliaments, and some countries are doing better than others. In four countries in the region, women's political representation has surpassed 30%," she said.

"We are also seeing better educational leave for women and prospects in the labour market in some regions. But they are still affected by cultural barriers."

Ms Alisjahbana says two of the most important factors that can help women in terms of their career are education and upbringing -- the community you are surrounded with.

"If you are in a classroom with 30 students, how do you get the attention of the teacher without just being smart? You ask questions," she said. "You raise your hand. Because women, on average are not yet on par, they often need to work a little more to get this attention.

"Whether you are a man or a woman, you need to be active in the community, in your organisation and extracurricular activities," says Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, executive secretary of UN Escap. Escap/Suwat Chancharoensuk

"Whether you are a man or a woman, you need to be active in the community, in your organisation and extracurricular activities. This helps to build your ability and your networks."

In Southeast Asia, women are making some strides in politics, but progress has been slow. The 2020 Asean Gender Outlook report showed that women overall hold 20% of all seats in national parliaments, up from 19% in 2010.

Women's representation in politics in the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam is just above the world average of 25%, said the report prepared by the Asean Secretariat, the Asean Committee on Women (ACW) and UN Women.

"Although still far from the 50% parity benchmark, these figures are encouraging," it said, adding that in local governments, Laos and the Philippines also have the highest female representation rates in the region, at 32% and 29%, respectively.

And while more women are moving into managerial roles, the report pointed out that "a glass ceiling is still in place".

"In many countries, the rates of women's participation in politics and managerial roles appear correlated," it said. "For instance, women in Laos and the Philippines have the highest chances in the region to hold a managerial job (50% and 52% respectively), but no other Asean country has reached parity in this regard, with many registering rates between 30% and 35%."

One advanced economy that notably drags down the rankings for all of Asia is Japan, which placed 147th out of 156 countries in terms of women's political empowerment. It's an embarrassing performance that has led lawmakers across party lines to call for numerical targets to boost female representation.

Overall, women made up just 9.9% of lawmakers in Japan's parliament as of January, placing it 166th in the world and far below the global average of 25.5%, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

"Half our voters are women, but there are few women in parliament," former defence minister Tomomi Inada told Nikkei Asia. "We're not representing our people, and that's a problem for democracy."

ACCESS TO DECENT WORK

Despite the region's strong economic growth, female labour force participation is low and declining in Asia and the Pacific, according to The Long Road to Equality, an Escap report launched on International Women's Day on March 8.

Women's labour force participation ranges from a high of 72% in Southeast Asia to 29% in central and southern Asia, while male labour force participation is as much as 95%. "In the coming years, this gap is projected to either remain static or even increase."

Male labour force participation rates last year were estimated to have exceeded female rates globally by 33.5 percentage points, up 1.2 points since 2000. But the gender gap grew by 2.8 points in East Asia and the Pacific, and 5.2 points in South Asia, between 2000 and 2020.

Female labour force participation and access to decent work, the report says, are shaped by a variety of conflicting factors, including a disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work, girls staying in school for more years, inadequate access to transport and other infrastructure, and vulnerable working conditions.

"When they do find work, women in the region remain overrepresented in vulnerable and informal employment, with limited labour and social protections," it pointed out.

Women-owned enterprises are overwhelmingly informal, and clustered in sectors that are labour-intensive and low in productivity. Formal firm ownership and access to productive resources remain dominated by men.

Social norms, especially those entrenching women's unpaid care and domestic work responsibilities, continue to drive high gender pay gaps, occupational segregation and limited career progression prospects in formal employment, the report said.

It suggested that promoting rights to and at work must be balanced with efforts to address social norms related to gender pay gaps, occupational segregation and vulnerable employment.

"Member states have expressed commitment to supporting women's entrepreneurship, but further action is needed to grow women's productive assets, expand access to online and offline markets, and enact gender-responsive labour and social protections in order to ensure entrepreneurship offers opportunities for decent work as well."

Dusit's Ms Suphajee advised any woman applying for a job today to ensure the companies they are applying to have a proven track record for promoting equality and diversity. That is usually evident through policies on family-friendly work, such as childcare solutions and flexible working arrangements, which benefit men and women alike.

"Apply yourself, work diligently, and seize every opportunity to develop your knowledge and skill sets, and you will go far," she said.

For women in leadership roles, she recommends them to have a dynamic leadership style. "You can never be trapped by past success. You just have to be confident enough to develop your skills to an executive level. And never be afraid of making mistakes; there are no mistakes, only valuable lessons.

"You should constantly evaluate what you have done, or what you are doing. … Keep innovating and developing. Inspire your team and they will follow," said Ms Suphajee. "As Coco Chanel once said, 'Keep your heels, head and standards high.'"

Grant Thornton's Ms Schmidt says success in 2021 and beyond, including growing diversity and inclusion, will require leaders to demonstrate specific traits, including adaptability, resilience, the ability to collaborate and, in particular, empathy.

"As leaders, we should think about how we shape the workforce, how we continue to accelerate diversity in our senior roles, how we support women coming through," she said.

Ms Lagerberg added that intentional, deliberate action is still the most important strategy for increasing the proportion of women in senior leadership.

"Covid-19 has changed the way we work, but not what will work for women," she pointed out. "Transformational change always takes a long time. You can't just flick a switch."

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