Tougher to discuss gender issues in Asia, but businesses should still try

Despite a higher level of awareness about gender equity, women today still are battling challenges to stay in the workforce and let down by boardroom inertia -- a reality that may be particularly stark in Asia, where underlying cultural and societal expectations remain.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

There arguably has not been a higher level of awareness about gender issues than there has been in recent years, but women particularly those in the technology sector continue to battle challenges to stay in the workforce. In Asia, underlying cultural and societal expectations may prove to be tougher barriers to overcome, however, there still is plenty of room for businesses to step in and help put things on the right path. 

I grew up in an environment where I saw daughters valued less than sons and told simply it was how things were generations before them. That women are perceived as such is not uncommon in Asia where sex-selective abortions in countries such as India and China have led to an imbalance in their gender ratio, leaning towards male. 

Taught that it is how things are, and little is done to enact change, I've seen how easy it is to lose your self-worth and second-guess every decision you make. 

It motivated me to dedicate time, when I began my career as a journalist some 20 years ago, covering women executives and highlighting challenges they faced, and how they resolved these as they pushed their career forward. 

At some point, the women I interviewed would often highlight their desire to not have the spotlight on their career as a female executive, but simply as a professional who climbed the ranks regardless of their gender

So I pulled back my focus, other than the occasional coverage here and there. In 2006, I wrote about how women--whether they wanted to admit it or not--were still treated differently from their male counterparts. I cited how former Hewlett-Packard Chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina, who was ousted in 2005, wrote in her book that "business is not yet gender-blind". 

Fiorina said women were "talked about differently than men" and that it was fact that "we shouldn't run away from [because] it's simply true".

It is then terribly disappointing that, 15 years on, it appears little has changed. 

LinkedIn's latest Opportunity Index revealed that one third of women in Asia-Pacific believed their gender had been a barrier to opportunities due to a lack of guidance, skills, and time they faced as women. Some 41% felt they received fewer opportunities to further their career compared to their male counterparts. This figure was higher in some markets including Singapore at 49%, Malaysia at 45%, and China at 44%. 

And while last year saw the highest number of female CEOs amongst Fortune 500 companies at 37, they accounted for just 7.4% of the 500 top seats. 

Furthermore, an IBM study released early this month found that gender equity still was not a priority for 70% of businesses worldwide, with fewer female respondents holding senior positions than they did in 2019. These included senior vice president, director, and manager roles. The survey polled 2,600 executives across nine regions including Asia, and followed a similar study conducted in 2019.

It also revealed that 62% of women and 60% of men expected their organisation to significantly improve gender equity over the next five years, dipping from 71% and 67%, respectively, in 2019. 

I recently spoke with Lula Mohanty, IBM's Asia-Pacific general manager for global business services, about gender equity and the challenges female professionals in the region and worldwide continued to face. Describing it as having equal opportunities and representation in the workplace, she said gender equity was about ensuring both men and women felt comfortable bringing their complete personalities to work, without feeling any pressure to align or conform. It also was about equal pay, equal privileges, and equal access to any role. 

This, however, still wasn't a business priority for most organisations, noted Mohanty. And this was despite a higher level of awareness and conversations around gender equality. "So while we're saying all the right things, it's not something we're actually doing and measuring. There's no accountability to ensure it is a top priority [within an organisation]," she said. 

She pointed to stereotypes that continued to persist around the kind of roles women should be given. For instance, 40% said they preferred to work for male managers. This could result in women being overlooked for certain roles, she said, noting that representation of women in senior positions remained low, particularly in the technology sector where it was lower than what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. 

She added that policies on diversity often still had not been drafted to ensure equal representation in the workplace. "If you look at inclusion, which is more about culture and mindset, these things aren't often talked about, such as protocols in meetings, how a hybrid workforce [should be managed], and how to treat challenges or situations involving women," she said. 

Women often struggled to maintain networks because they had little time outside of work and taking care of their families, Mohanty noted. This was important because networks not only provided career opportunities, but also enabled professionals to keep updated on what was happening in the industry. 

She added that time also was a factor in a sector such as technology, which was constantly changing and required commitment and hours of reading to stay abreast of the latest developments. 

She urged organisations to look at addressing such challenges as well as female mentors, who were few and far between in the technology sector, to step up and be role models and help guide their younger peers. Without mentorship and coaching, she noted that female professionals -- failing to see success or growth in their career -- might decide they were better off staying home. 

She also underscored the need to strike a balance, so men would not feel discriminated against. "We need allies and not people who feel threatened. That's why it's important to have equal representation and equal opportunities," she said. "Meritocracy will prevail. If someone is clearly not qualified for a job, no one should say otherwise. But, today, that is no visibility even of who else is qualified [for a role]."

Moving forward, Mohanty said she hoped to see leadership teams in Asian companies take definitive action and establish business metrics on which the organisation as well as its leaders were evaluated. She also called on organisations to create more awareness and encourage more women to have a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), for instance, by supporting sponsorships and mentorship programmes.

Ignoring gender problem won't make it go away

Boardroom inertia over gender equity in the workplace needs to be firmly addressed. Simply put, the inaction must end and it must end now. 

As Mohanty points out correctly, it just isn't enough to say all the right things when organisations aren't doing anything to fix the problem. There needs to be accountability and concrete steps must be put in place to ensure policies to address gender equity issues are properly measured, and refined where needed. 

In Asia, cultural and societal expectations may mean challenges are more complex to resolve, but it doesn't mean businesses shouldn't attempt to address them. The first steps are often the same and involve communications, driving conversations around diversity at the workplace. 

Feon Ang, LinkedIn's Asia-Pacific vice president of talent and learning solutions, also pitched the need to increase the number of women in leadership roles as well as establish family-friendly policies and flexibility programmes to better support women. She noted that women in the workplace still struggled to balance career and family, with 45% in Asia-Pacific feeling that familial responsibilities often came in the way of their career development.

Businesses must act now and take concrete steps to really drive change that will, hopefully, finally bring about gender equity in the workplace. They've talked the talk; now it's time to walk the walk.


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