Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:23 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:23 | SYDNEY

Women locked out of Asia boardrooms

10 July 2012 12:04

John Larkin reported from Asia for more than a decade for the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine, and is now based in Australia.

Western economies can learn from Asia's resilience against financial crisis. But Asia's male-dominated corporate sectors could take a cue from more egalitarian counterparts in Europe, the US and Australia.

A new report by consultants McKinsey & Co has confirmed what many Asian women, and probably many men, already knew: Asian women face unique and outsized barriers to career advancement, particularly if they covet a seat on a company board.

Anyone familiar with Asia won't be surprised by McKinsey's assertion that much of the region adheres to traditional gender roles and values. McKinsey also notes that Asian cultures are many and varied, which makes it hard to generalise.

Still, the trend is unmistakable. McKinsey's survey of 744 companies from the stock exchanges of 10 Asian markets found that women are under-represented on every rung of the corporate ladder. This imbalance persisted even in countries with high female labour participation rates like China and in markets such as Malaysia, where more than half of university graduates are women.

The discrepancies are particularly obvious at board level. Women hold an average 6% of board seats across the 10 markets studied compared to 15% in the US and 17% in Europe, says the report entitled Women Matter: An Asian Perspective. Australia's 13% was the region's highest rate of female board participation.

The worst offenders were South Korea with a paltry 1%, Japan with 2% and India with 5%. Interestingly, countries influenced by Chinese cultures showed relatively high levels of female board participation. Hong Kong, for example, fills 9% of its board positions with women, followed by mainland China at 8%.

By far the main barrier to advancement was what McKinsey calls 'the double burden' of working while caring for families. It detects a cultural influence here, especially in countries like India, South Korea and Japan, where women are often solely responsible for household duties. The report also identified the reluctance of women to promote themselves and an absence of female role models.

The resulting disparity represents 'a huge waste of talent' that could otherwise be tapped to fill the senior management void across the region. The report draws a positive correlation between financial performance and the presence of senior women, attributing this to supposedly female behaviours such as people development and collaboration.

On the Asian street, some economies are feeling the pinch of their failure to promote women.

In South Korean cities, 61% of jobs are held by men, according to a report in the Chosun Ilbo citing data from Statistics Korea. The report said the number of employed women in their 20s fell 26,000 in May from the previous year. In rapidly-ageing Korea, continued failure to replenish a shrinking labour pool with female workers could spell serious economic difficulties ahead.

Can Asian companies lift their gender game? 'Girl power' is gaining ground elsewhere in the region — witness the recent protests by women in burka-like robes decrying sexual harassment on Shanghai's subway trains and the metro's entreaties that they dress modestly.

McKinsey believes it will be an uphill struggle, given cultural norms against gender equality. It suggests a three-pronged approach: management commitment to diversity and targets for senior women, development programs to equip women with skills and networks, and enablers like childcare to ease the double burden.

Asia shook off the global financial crisis with relative ease. Tackling a problem so rooted in its own cultural biases will take longer.

Photo by Flickr user diloz.