Spotlight on Asia: The Future of Professional Women in Corporate Asia

Leading a dynamic teamWelcome to The Glass Hammer’s Spotlight on Asia Week. We’ll be featuring profiles of successful business women working in Asia all week long!

By Michelle Hendelman, Editor-in-Chief

This week on The Glass Hammer, we are featuring profiles of senior level women living and working (not to mention succeeding) in Asian markets. Collectively, their stories are inspiring and offer a representation of professional women in Asia that is motivating to future generations. Individually, each of their journeys is truly remarkable. Here, we take a closer look at some of the key issues surrounding women’s career advancement in Asia and what the future holds for the talented and bright young women emerging from this region.

Women’s career advancement has become a focal point in different industries across the globe, and some countries and regions have progressed at a faster rate than others. When you take a look at the landscape of gender diversity in the corporate culture in Asia, you will notice a gap that is starting to gain a lot of attention from business leaders who are beginning to recognize the value of women leaders in the workplace.

Tapping into the Female Workforce in Asia

McKinsey recently released their report, Women Matter: An Asian Perspective [PDF], which offers an in depth look at the state of gender diversity in Asia. This research is based on their assessment of 745 companies and a survey of 1,500 senior managers to assess the interest in increased gender diversity, the challenges involved in getting more women in leadership positions, and the barriers preventing female talent from gaining access to the talent pipeline.

The report states:

“Asian cultures of course vary widely, so the picture is a varied one. Nevertheless, the survey results are an important benchmark against which to assess both the current situation and judge future progress. Not surprisingly perhaps, the results show women hold very few of the top jobs in Asia. On average, they hold 6 percent of the seats on corporate boards and 8 percent of those on executive committees. Moreover, although elements of a gender diversity program are in place in some Asian companies, the issue is not yet high on the strategic agenda of most.”

The data may look bleak, but it can only mean one thing –there is only room to grow from here. The global economy is growing, but Asia boasts some of the fastest growing economies in the world right now. In order to keep up with the growth on the consumer side, businesses must create growth driven strategies to stay competitive. What does this all boil down to? All of this economic growth is a driving force behind the need for more labor force participation, and if this does not include women, the well of the workforce will dry up pretty fast.

Aside from the sheer supply and demand economic benefits associated with getting more female participation in the workforce in Asia, there are strategic advantages as well. Champions of gender equality have been making the business case [PDF] for gender diversity in the workplace for years, but as more women fill the top spots, companies are starting to see a profound effect on their bottom line. Yet, according to the McKinsey report, 70 percent of the executives they surveyed stated that gender diversity is not a priority on their strategic business agenda.

Overcoming the Hurdles

The McKinsey report indicates that nearly half of all graduates in Asia are female. This means there is a growing percentage of qualified talent ready, willing, and able to enter the workforce. For Asian corporations, there is no shortage of female talent. There is only the challenge of recruiting them, engaging them, and retaining them.

In the Asian corporate culture, there are high expectations that accompany senior level roles. While this is not unlike other corporate cultures around the world, the difference is in the existence of corporate policies that accommodate an even work/life balance, or at the very least, more flexible work arrangements. This is why the biggest obstacle in women’s career advancement in the ten Asian markets featured in the McKinsey report is the role women are expected to fulfill at home as the sole caretakers of the family. For women in Asia, this often means caring for their elderly parents and family members in addition to their immediate family.

According to the McKinsey report, “The double burden impacts women in Europe too. But it is arguably particularly heavy for Asian women not only because of different cultural norms, but because of a lack of government support measures such as child care facilities. The absence of such infrastructure support was seen as the third biggest obstacle to increasing gender diversity within the top management of corporations in our survey.”

A Bright Future Ahead

Despite cultural challenges business women in Asia face, the professional achievements of women — like the women featured on this week — point to the fact that a positive cycle of women’s advancement is underway in Asia.

The McKinsey report identifies two key areas where progress must be made in order to continue to promote women’s career advancement in Asia: public policy and current business leadership. While government involvement is helpful, the real impact will come from senior level executives committed to changing the current system.

Regarding the role of senior level executives in the gender diversity agenda, the report explains, “Their task will be to preach the business case for having more women in senior positions; to lead by example by hiring more women into those positions and personally sponsoring high-potential women; to set targets for the proportion of women in senior roles to ensure the organization starts developing more high-potential women; and to personally track progress towards those targets to make sure obstacles are removed.”

We hope you enjoy the incredible stories and invaluable advice shared by the women leaders in Asia featured on this week.