Asia has undergone an extraordinary degree of economic and social change in recent decades, yet women are still much less likely than men to take the top jobs.
Although women account for 47.5 percent of the total workforce in the region, according to data from Community Business, they only occupy 24.3 percent of the senior positions.
Even China, Asia’s best performing country in this regard, falls far short of parity, with just 35.6 percent participating at the senior level.
The underrepresentation of women in management positions has serious ramifications. It means that we lose the perspective and contributions they can bring to significant business decisions.
It means that many women are unable to fully realize their potential. It also leaves women less secure about their financial future.
HSBC’s most recent Future of Retirement survey found that in Asia Pacific women feel that their retirement pots are more vulnerable to certain life events than men do.
Falling seriously ill and having to look after elderly parents were particular points of concern.
In Hong Kong, 42 percent of women are concerned about the impact of poor health on healthcare expenses in retirement (against 35 percent of men).
We will only be able to close the gender gap in Asia when enough of the region’s employers start to see status of women as a serious issue.
For some companies, ensuring that women are well represented at every level of the ladder is simply the right thing to do.
Some firms see the benefits of a diverse workforce and the range of skills, viewpoints and capabilities that it brings.
But for many businesses, there needs to be an economic argument to motivate its management to action.
Fortunately, there is a powerful quantitative case to be made for greater gender equality in the workplace.
Recent research by McKinsey & Company found that by advancing women’s equality could add US$12 trillion in GDP to the global economy by 2025.
Getting there will require a multi-faceted approach.
It will require removing the obstacles preventing women from entering the workplace, making sure that they are able to aspire to work in any industry, and putting in place structures that allow women to enjoy a full career – something that is especially important for people with caring responsibilities but an issue for all.
In doing this we must recognize that we need to also address flexibility for the spouse or partner so that caring and other responsibilities can be more equitably shared.
This demands a holistic approach to the problem addressing all aspects of workplace flexibility.
Governments will play an important role, by introducing laws that prevent gender discrimination in the workplace.
Businesses, however, should not only follow the law, but also simply do the right thing.
Every company needs to look at its own individual circumstances to ensure that its female employees are given the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability with the certainty of meritocratic success.
A company might be legally required to offer its women maternity leave after giving birth, but it can go one step further by offering additional leave or more flexible hours for returning mothers and allowing the partner or spouse leave.
Flexible working policies that allow for remote working, part-time work, job share and sabbaticals can provide further support.
Professional development programs such as international experience can be a stepping stone to a management position.
It might be hard for a working mother to uproot her family and live abroad for several years, so to ensure all employees get same access to opportunities, the company might offer its staff the chance to take several shorter work trips overseas rather than a multi-year stint.
Employers should also work towards building a culture in the workplace that is open to, and celebrates, differences – removing bias and stereotypes to foster an inclusive environment.
We require continued cultural changes – both in companies, as well as in broader society to achieve equality.
These goals will only be realized if we think big about the role of women in the workplace, and each and every day should be seen as an opportunity to put these ambitions into action.
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