Asia has changed considerably over the past 20 years when it comes to women in business but there’s still a long way to go.
Through improved access to education and a more relaxed view on women in the workforce, more women have become financially independent, confident and have greater control over their lives than ever before.
Not only has this improved their way of life, it has also been a major driver of economic growth, and has increased women’s positive contributions to society, politics and culture in general.
While this significant development shouldn’t be overlooked, the number of women in Asia in executive roles and sitting on boards is still considerably low.
McKinsey’s Women Matter report found that in China, on average women account for only 8 percent of seats on corporate boards and 9 percent of those on executive committees.
The figures are even lower in India, Japan and South Korea, with executive committee participation rates for women at less than 5 percent.
Encouragingly, close to 70 percent of industry leaders believe that there will be gender parity on their respective boards within the next 25 years.
However, only 13 percent see a sizable increase in the number of women in leadership roles within the next five years.
These figures are alarming for a number of reasons.
Firstly, because it suggests that there is still a lot of work to be done to secure a remotely comparable level of equality for women in business.
Also, given that half of Asian graduates are female, it highlights a major gap between the number of skilled and qualified females entering the workforce and the roles and opportunities available to them.
We know from many leading studies that businesses that have women in leadership positions perform better than those that don’t.
Among Fortune 500 companies, those with the highest representation of women on their boards on average outperform those with the lowest.
There are many reasons this is the case. For one, women often bring a balanced leadership style to their company, according to the Women Matter report.
They can also help build and maintain strong relationships with female clients and employees and can give unique insight into the buying patterns of consumers.
Many organisations recognise this and have introduced targets for women in organisations and leadership roles to help encourage gender diversity.
However, others believe this may actually hinder the process of hiring the right person for the right role, regardless of their gender.
At Telstra, we believe attracting, retaining and celebrating the best and brightest women enhances and strengthens an organisation.
This is why we are introducing the Telstra Business Women’s Awards to Asia this year to recognise business women in the region.
One of the key challenges is the still growing changes in attitudes toward women in business roles more traditionally filled by men.
Then there is the challenge of having to juggle the demands of a job and a family that many women are faced with.
This is again amplified in many Asian cultures where women are traditionally expected to look after their family and household.
Thirdly, across Asian business communities, there is a shortage of inspiring female role models, network specialised groups and tools that would help females to succeed in business.
Without these, younger females often struggle with vision, aspirations and lack the networks that they may need to successful move ahead.
So, what can we do to encourage parity in the workplace? Some ideas organisations could consider:
• Eliminate unconscious bias and remove gender out of the equation. By taking a gender-neutral stance within the workplace — be it on career progression and promotions or salary increases and negotiations — it helps foster a more level playing field where individuals are reviewed based on skills and performance. Employees can then focus more on the quality of work, instead of worrying about how they will be perceived should they decide to get married or have children.
• Show the roadmap to the top. It is important for today’s leadership to educate the younger employees on the opportunities ahead of them based on their skills and ambition. Instituting a formal mentorship program will offer a more supportive environment for the next generation of employees to better navigate their career paths.
• Review corporate policies to promote flexibility. By establishing flexible working schedules, organisations can minimise the number of people who are “dropping back” or slowing down on their career progression to accommodate responsibilities at home — this applies to both men and women.
• Encourage other female leaders to step into the spotlight. Women on the board should step forward and actively become role models within their organisations — be it through internal, formalised initiatives or external awards programs like the Telstra Business Women Awards. By doing so, they’re encouraging the younger generation of employees that they too can eventually earn a spot on the leadership table.
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