Leading cultural change in gender diversity to leverage the Asian Economic shift

Womens article

By Claudine Ogilvie

The Chinese were right when they said “women hold up half the sky”, but the sky has a glass limit for many women and businesses are missing out. As more businesses turn to Asia for growth, they might also look at the gender gap which continues to hold back their full potential.

Throughout history and across different cultures, women’s complimentary and unique ability to lead, transform and influence are understood in different ways. A Moroccan proverb considers that when you “Instruct a man, you instruct an individual. Instruct a woman, you instruct a nation.” There is a strong commercial case for gender diversity in business, but change is hard and cultural change is even harder.

With every year, we note some important improvements in the Women in Leadership space. This is particularly evident in Western cultures and is noted to some extent within Asia, such as in Singapore where women now represent 15 percent of executive ranks. The percentage of Women directorships on ASX 200 boards has increased from 8.3% in 2009 to 21.3% in 2015 [1]. This trajectory can only be described a positive step in the right direction. However there is still so much further to go, particularly in senior executive ranks. There are only 17 percent of women on boards and 10 percent of women on executive committees in Europe, and 15 and 14 percent respectively in the US. Furthermore, only 4.4% of women hold CEO positions on S&P 500 companies [2]. There are some significant differences across various Asian countries, however on average participation rates are lower again, with 6 percent of women on boards and 8 percent on executive committees [3].

The notable shift in global economic power to the East brings an important imperative to Asian companies and other companies operating in Asia to ‘up the ante’ to enact meaningful change. The burning platform will be the performance losses. Companies with the highest proportion of women in leadership demonstrated on average 47% better return on equity and 56% improved earnings margin [4]. McKinsey Australia’s managing partner John Lydon​ explains,

The push for more women leaders has not merely created a future challenge for business but also an opportunity to excel.

Despite these compelling statistics, women become less and less visible at each layer of management. This is a starker challenge in many Asian countries. India has one of the lowest female workforce participation rates in the world at 35%, Taiwan and Malaysia is less than 50%. Even in countries where the participation rate is high, such as China at 74%, participation at a board and executive committee level remains at 8 and 9 percent.

Educating, graduating females and simply releasing them into the commercial world is not enough. Unconscious biases (in men and women) and established cultural norms are tenacious and won’t be easily wiped away. While this will be a challenging task, it is far from impossible. The time for urgent and meaningful action is now.

Deep organisational and cultural change is a lynchpin for moving these figures forward and upwards. In many Asian cultures women are expected to continue to take on full responsibility of the family household and all the associated duties. There is also insufficient infrastructure particularly in Asian (and Western) countries, such as childcare options, which will help accommodate a shift away from this reality. Women need to have the capacity, and need to be empowered to step up and take the lead.

Female role models are vitally important to these changes, and at least initially, much of the pro-active change will need to come from men at the top. After all, given the current statistics, the chances are that men will be doing much of the hiring and promoting. There are some great initiatives currently in place, such as the Australian ‘Male Champions of Change’, set up by a small group of powerful men and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. The group pro-actively aims to change the status quo from the top. This kind of support is an important catalyst, as culture change starts from the top. Similar wide reaching initiatives in Asia would carry significant influence, as a guiding light for all and provide added confidence to women trying to climb the corporate ladder. Confidence is key and typically does not come easily to many women.

We need men and women to break through unconscious bias, change sexist cultural norms and help buoy other women – only then will businesses begin to see the positive impact and competitive advantages of diverse gender contribution. Sheryl Sandberg wants ”…every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills”. This will be no small feat to achieve in both Western and particularly in Asian cultures, however in the words of Tina Fey “Know what? Bitches get stuff done.”

Research sources:
[1] Australian Institute of Company Directors research. Company rankings data provided by S&P/ASX 200
[2] Catalyst. Women CEOs of the S&P 500. New York: Catalyst, October 9, 2015
[3] McKinsey proprietary database, 2011; annual reports
[4] Company websites; DataStream; McKinsey Analysis

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