Despite awareness of the lack of gender equality in the Asian workforce and in leadership positions, the inequalities persist. It is difficult to change a country's culture, especially if the government is not a full partner in the effort.
— By Anna Gonsalves
The lack of gender equality in Asia is not a new subject, but it was hoped that giving more attention to the topic would have led to more progress by now. Unfortunately, that is not the case, proving that overcoming hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of cultural norms is not easy. Businesses that go global in Asia can be important contributors to progress, but first they have to recognize and then address the complex barriers that keep women out of the workforce and out of leadership positions when they are hired.
Women in Asia face cultural barriers they cannot overcome alone. Many societies are patriarchal, and women are central to family home life. Women are also excluded based on factors like age, ethnicity, marital status and race. Put all these factors together, and there are more reasons to not hire and promote women than there are to hire them.
The scale of change needed may seem overwhelming, but with government and business working together, change is possible.
Bias in Any Other Region is Still Bias
In the U.S., the government has played a leading role in making progress toward achieving gender equality by making discrimination in the talent process illegal. It does not mean that bias does not exist. In fact, women continue to struggle to get paid the same as men, reach senior–level positions, get hired in some industries like technology, overcome the ideas that women belong mostly in low-level service positions, that being married means they will quit after job training, and that accommodation for things like pregnancy and caregiving means special treatment that places a burden on other people in the organization.
If business leaders take these biases with them into Asian operations, gender equality will remain impossible to achieve within the organization. Unlike the U.S., in a number of Asian countries, the government does not offer women legal rights to protest discrimination.
The metrics tell the story. In the 2018 Hays Diversity & Inclusion – Asia report, 63 percent of survey respondents (men and women) indicated they believed their leaders are favorably biased toward people who think, look, and act as the leaders do. The report also found that 61 percent of respondents believed workplace cultural norms have a negative impact on career development opportunities, a value much higher than found in non-Asian regions where the company operates.
Numbers Speak the Truth
Gender inequality does not begin in the workplace, and that is the crux of the challenge in Asia. Asian governments must strive to change the general culture along with businesses implementing policies that promote gender equality from the board to the staff position. Business leaders are unable to hire women if the women are not given equal status in their cultures.
The South China Morning Post used the McKinsey Global Institute assigned gender parity scores (GPS) and the Global Gender Gap Report 2017 set by the Economic Forum to develop a snapshot of where gender equality stands. There is a shift toward more open societies that promote and support women's rights, with Singapore leading the way for Asia. China is improving female participation, but this is not improving the promotion of women into leadership positions. In the Asia-Pacific region, women are on the average 80 percent less likely than men to assume high-ranking positions of influence in business and politics.
The numbers speak the truth. The higher the position, the fewer the women, and it is true even in the developed Asia-Pacific countries. Using India as an example, women make up 43 percent of tertiary education graduates, 25 percent of entry-level positions, 16 percent of middle management, 4 percent of senior management, and 11 percent of board members. In Japan, women are 46 percent of tertiary education graduates, 49 percent of entry-level positions, 9 percent of middle management, 1 percent of senior management, and 3 percent of board members.
Though the percentage of board members is higher in these countries, it is an example of the importance of understanding statistics. The total number of board members is much less than the number of other positions.
Business leaders are unable to hire women if the women are not given equal status in their cultures.
No One Journey to Progress
The main barriers to women assuming leadership positions were a work model requiring "anytime, everywhere" availability and geographical mobility; work-balance issues; few female role models; lack of pro-family public policies; company tendency to evaluate employees on time commitment; lack of specific measures to recruit, retain, promote, and develop women; and tendency of women to have less aspiration for career advancement compared to men. The last barrier reflects human nature – it is difficult to aspire to higher levels if discouraged by the culture and business policies and systems.
The McKinsey Global Institute report "The power of parity: Advancing women's equality in Asia Pacific" estimated that advancing women's equality could increase the collective annual GDP in 2025 by an additional $4.5 trillion. However, the report also points out that there is "no one Asia Pacific journey toward gender equality" and "policy makers, companies, and nongovernmental organizations can consider prioritizing in five key areas."
The key areas outlined in the report included addressing unpaid care work, and government and business taking steps to improve progress. Governments influence the talent pipeline through education and training, legislation, and funding, to name a few. Businesses need to embed gender diversity in their operations from the top level to the lowest staff level. Managers must be committed to the effort.
Other recommendations included using digital technology to offer work flexibility to women for work-life balance; developing and utilizing male champions to change societal attitudes toward women; and developing pan-Asia Pacific policies that increase the following for change.
No Easy Solution
One thing is very clear. There is no easy solution to increasing women's labor force participation or their representation at management levels in businesses. It is a complex and stubborn problem because it requires changing the very culture of a country.
However, businesses can be powerful leaders for change in Asia, as they were in the U.S. with nudging by the government. The laws in Asia do not prohibit the hiring and promotion of women, so that is exactly what businesses should do.