Asia’s Women Leaders on the Challenge of Equality at Work | Asset owners


As businesswomen around the world celebrated International Women’s Day with examples of closing the gender gap, Asian investor asked business leaders in Asia whether they felt organizations were doing enough to bring women’s representation to a higher level.

Boards that score in the top quartile of gender diversity are 28% more likely to outperform their peers, according to a McKinsey research paper.

“It’s clear that diverse teams drive better business results and greater innovation,” said Renée McGowan, president, Asia, Middle East and Africa at Mercer. Asian investor.

“Yet, despite efforts, progress in female representation in leadership positions in Asia remains slow,” she added.

McKinsey analysis, based on 2019 data, showed that in 15 major countries around the world – including Australia, India, Japan and Singapore – women make up just 15% of leadership teams, and more a third of companies have no women at all. in their management teams.

A more recent survey, ASEAN Gender Outlook 2021, showed that women made up only 24% of middle and senior management positions in the private sector. And when it comes to female CEOs and female board seats, Asia continues to lag behind the global average.

Renee McGowan, Mercer

The challenges women face are many and complex, according to McGowan.

“Some barriers, like entrenched prejudices, are invisible and hard to identify; others are structural and require serious responses from decision makers.

Mercer’s approach to diversity in the workplace revolves around establishing clear measures for the recruitment, retention, advancement and representation of women, as well as equal pay.

“Identifying existing gaps is just the beginning. What is essential is to translate these measures into action with targeted programs and ambitious goals, and to relentlessly measure what matters to ensure that progress is made,” said McGowan.

Julie Koo, managing director of Citi Private Bank in Hong Kong, said Asian investor it was important to keep gender diversity at the forefront of corporate agendas, pushing for more transparency and opportunities for women.

She agreed with McGowan that “we can only make progress by creating awareness and making commitments. Workplaces should strive to create a corporate culture that truly believes in the benefits of gender diversity, regardless of regulations. »

Beyond that, Koo said companies need to make clear and measurable commitments to fostering this culture “so that it is ingrained in the DNA of each of its employees, customers and partners. This means that leaders of these companies must “follow the word”.

For its part, Citi discloses pay equity data and “embeds equality as part of our shared values,” Koo said.


Arguably, the biggest obstacle to advancing women’s rights in the workplace is that men often don’t see the problem. These ingrained prejudices are difficult to change.

“It’s an ongoing concern for me that men young and old still don’t recognize or accept that women don’t have the same opportunities and aren’t treated the same,” said Melanie Nutbeam, Hong Kong-based financial advisor.

“They often think it is enough to cite the example of one or a few women who seem to be included in a sector or an industry. Strangely, they also think these women are exceptional in some way. For example, [they’ll say] “Oh, well, she’s very smart” – without acknowledging that her counterparts have a right to be very average men.

Nutbeam’s main agenda item for equality at work would be: “Educating men about statistical inequalities and the benefits of engagement for business and society, with the perspectives of a broad range of contributors.”

Deborah Yang, formerly managing director of MSCI and now CEO of sustainable investing app, cited Eva Halverson, CEO of Swedish pension fund AP2, as a role model.

Deborah Yang,

“When she was in the Swedish Ministry of Finance, she started to assess the lack of women on company boards every year. What gets measured, gets done and over time Sweden has improved these measures every year. Eventually, they reached 50% women on boards and, incredibly, they even reached 50% women in the chair of the board. »

Of course, it is not just at the boardroom level that women are discriminated against. In addition to setting targets for companies to equitably hire women into the upper echelons of the workforce, government action is needed to protect those who perform essential child-rearing and child-care duties. elderly, according to local experts.

Janet Li, head of wealth management business for Asia at Mercer in Hong Kong, said Asian investor its main issue for working women is economic empowerment, at all levels.

“Women lag behind men in economic success due to an inequitable distribution of income, resources and opportunities. Women are disproportionately involved in low-paid or unpaid domestic work, which limits their access to pensions and most forms of retirement benefits.

“A life of unpaid care work shouldn’t mean insecurity in old age.”


The issue of motherhood is never far from the question of whether women can hold their own at the highest levels of corporate life. In Asia, as elsewhere, female managers are confronted with the often unspoken idea that they cannot perform both roles, even though domestic help is commonplace in much of Asia.

Perhaps society is changing to the point where women may soon no longer feel inferior at work. “I think the main agenda is still in our hands, as women,” said Alicia Garcia Herrero, Hong Kong-based chief economist at Natixis. Asian investor.

“I myself decided several times not to go further in my career for family considerations.

“Women are educated to have a more holistic view of what matters: family, friends, the world. This may have hurt women’s careers in a world that looked too closely at profits and shareholder value.

“But as we [embrace] a world where sustainability becomes the cornerstone of public and private efforts, women are much better equipped to run businesses, [not to mention] high positions in the public service.

“In other words, women no longer need to change what they are looking for to excel. The world comes to meet their values ​​and their beliefs.


Julie Koo believes that everyone – inside or outside the boardroom – can find ways to have a positive impact. This can take many forms, she said: “Being more inclusive leaders, upholding diversity within our teams and communities, and most importantly making time to mentor and support others.

“Given the immense positive impact my mentors have had on my life and career, I just think it’s a reward. I always make time to have conversations with young talent, especially women , either to share my experiences or to connect them with others who may have great advice to offer.

“If we take more time to understand the individual circumstances of the people around us, we can find ways to help them be more successful and achieve their goals, which will hopefully drive more of them into the boardroom. .”


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