Taking advantage of recent economic growth and rising incomes, women in Asia have made enormous strides in labour participation rates. However, in the formal economy, women remain significantly underrepresented at the senior-most level, finds a recent joint report by leading global advisory, broking and solutions company Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) and the Economist Corporate Network.

The report, Women in Leadership in Asia Pacific, found that lingering gender stereotypes and social pressures in many Asian countries may be some of the factors responsible for the lack of representation of women at the C-suite. At focus groups conducted across the region — including in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Malaysia — many participants said that young women still face familial pressure to marry rather than focus on their careers; later on, many mothers shift their focus away from the workforce toward coaching and supporting their older children through exam preparations (the so-called “maternal wall”, as opposed to the “glass ceiling”).

“The absence of women from senior leadership positions can have long-ranging implications in today’s dynamic work environment, including high female attrition rates and diminished female leadership pipelines,” said Naomi Denning, who is responsible for the Willis Towers Watson Investment business in Asia Pacific, and also co-chairs the Inclusion & Diversity council for Asia. “There is growing evidence that a more diverse and inclusive workforce can foster innovative thinking and better leadership skills.

“Our findings clearly highlight the need for organisations to instil equality and diversity into their company culture at the highest levels — a key foundation for building strong and diverse female leadership pipelines in Asian firms,” said Denning.

A blurry glass ceiling?

When asked about perceptions of a glass ceiling, responses were split: almost half

(49%) said yes. The breakdown by gender was interesting: 36% of men surveyed felt

there was a glass ceiling in their organisation, while 51% of women felt this was the case. A breakdown by geography was also notable: in Hong Kong, only 36% of

respondents believed in the existence of a glass ceiling, while in China and Kuala Lumpur this number was approximately 45%. Singapore had the highest number of respondents affirming the existence of a glass ceiling, at 63%.

Magnifier effects

Senior female role models can be instrumental in fostering mid- and junior-level female engagement and development. Across the region, more than half (55%) of the respondents identified availability of sponsors or mentors for women in the leadership pipeline as a key driver of successful advancement. The absence — or perceived absence — on the other hand can cause a magnifier effect and further amplify the perception of a lack of women in leadership positions at lower levels.

The report also found that a lack of confidence (56%) and exclusion from power circles (44%) were key factors inhibiting women from achieving leadership positions. By increasing the availability of female role models, organisations could address this lack of confidence by providing women with support systems. The leading barrier — cited by 58% of respondents — was family responsibilities, highlighting existing perceptions of traditional gender roles for many women and families in Asia.

What can employers do?

Interestingly, when discussing key drivers for the successful advancement of women in the workplace, many focus group participants emphasised psychological rather than practical drivers. For instance, psychological enablers such as sponsors and role models were graded as more important than flexible work arrangements.

This could be because many find it problematic to take advantage of arrangements such as flexible or part-time work due to the stigma attached to these practices. For instance in Singapore, 80% of companies offer “flexi-hour” work arrangements, but very few employees actually take advantage of this (according to participants, not more than 20%) owing to the work culture deeming this to be a reduced commitment to the job.

“Winning the ‘psychological’ war could pave the way to these practical measures being utilised better and leaders in the workplace have a critical role in setting the right culture to embrace flexibility,” said Denning.

“Diversity is often lower on the agenda for Asian companies and multinational affiliates, compared to their Western counterparts. Nonetheless, employers in the region are

being influenced by global campaigns to promote women leaders, so some filtering- down of social change is in progress,” said Mary Boyd, Director, Shanghai, The Economist Corporate Network.

“Not only does inclusion and diversity help with employee attitudes and engagement, but there is also a strong business case behind it. Research shows that better business decisions are made when they come from a diverse group of people with different experiences and perspectives. By shifting mind-sets towards encouraging and supporting women in leadership positions as a part of business strategy, companies can improve results — including overall performance and operating profit”, said Boyd.

Denning added: “There are a number of things that employers can do to help accelerate this change, including encouraging CEO activism, tracking gender diversity metrics and implementing quotas. One discussant in our focus groups noted that, without the impetus of quotas, a “business as usual” timeline would take her organisation 90 years to get to a 30% female representation at the board level!”

Other beneficial management practices cited by discussants included:

  •   Constant monitoring of female attrition rates
  •   Pro-active coaching for female leadership candidates
  •   Encouraging a more family-friendly environment in the workplace, e.g.

    provision of space for nursing mothers, gradual “return-to-work” programs