Gender Diversity in Asia: Driving Towards Better Staff, Lower Risk

Speaking at the launch of the ‘Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2014’ in Singapore last month, Steiner noted that one part of the business case for diversity is the dynamics of the workforce. Female students account for 57% of college graduates and there is a shrinking labour pool. “We want to attract the best people and bring them up to senior levels,” said Steiner. “We believe better decisions are made by diverse groups who understand clients better.”

In Steiner’s area of risk, for example, decisions need to be taken by a wide range of decision-makers that fully understand the issue. Decisions dominated by one social group may not be as informed as those with a mix of backgrounds. Moreover, companies that create an environment people want to work in will address turnover.

Katharine Nisbet, director of diversity and inclusion at Community Business, agreed, noting that companies looking for the cream of crop increasingly need to go fishing in the broadest talent pools. Moreover, analysis shows that diversity results in better productivity, organisational excellence, discussion, decisions and problem solving. Additionally, organisations that create an environment that women aspire to return to following maternity leave do not have to spend as much money on training and recruiting.

A Minority at the Top

Despite the importance of women in business, the Benchmark showed that there are still fewer women in senior roles. Sophie Guerin, senior diversity and inclusion manager at Community Business, said that while women represent 56% of staff at the junior level, numbers then drop to 39% for roles at the middle level and 24% at senior level roles. Overall, women represent 47% of the total workforce, with percentages ranging from a high of 58% in Malaysia to 26% in India. After Malaysia, China was second, followed by Hong Kong, Singapore and then Japan, with India at the bottom. While the survey may not be representative of the entire market, since it focused on 32 multinational companies in Asia-Pacific, Guerin said the firms employ 2.4 million people and it is a benchmark for leading multinationals.

Steiner added that there is a significant difference between Asia and the US. While the percentage of women at BofA in the US is about constant from age 25 to 55, Asia sees a reduction in female participation between the ages of 30 to 35. “That reduction is material,” he said. “A lot of these women don’t come back.”

The key to gender diversity and getting women to come back, Guerin said, is the enabling environment of policies and programmes. Most companies have maternity and paternity leave, for example, while about 90% have flexible working arrangements. Almost three-quarters (73%) have professional development for women, such as leadership and mentorship programmes, about 60% have women’s networks, while half offer career coaching. Guerin said programmes alone do not correlate to performance, however, and that the operating environment and the prevailing culture are the most important factors.  

Keys to Recruiting and Retaining Women

Successful practices for recruiting and retaining women start on college campuses and go all the way to the board level.

While strong stereotypes about male and female roles persist, organisations need to address from the very beginning of the recruitment process. “Corporations have a powerful role to play in how they engage on campus,” said Nesbit. “They can influence that by talking about why this is a great place to work as a woman. That is paying dividends.”

Once it gets to the hiring process, Steiner said the bank looks for a balance in the number of CVs. Managers interview to get the best person and are required during the final approval process to tell which female candidate was the alternative and why she was not chosen. The bank also encourages managers to look at the impact on the team during the hiring process, not just at the individual, as applicants that may not be the top candidate on paper can add value to the team dynamic.

Steiner said gender diversity varies in different functional areas and in different countries. While human resources (HR) is female-dominated and the bank looks for male HR champions there, it is harder to find senior female champions in other areas, such as the trading floor and investment banking. “We look for a balance in graduate recruitment, a better mix,” he said.

The next phase is to foster careers of women in male-dominated areas. Steiner said that he sees real progress in corporate banking and in branch management, where four of 11 Asia Pacific branch managers are female.

Another critical success factor, Guerin said, is what senior male executive champions do to drive positive change. Nisbet added that the Benchmark specifically included discussions with senior executive male champions because 70% of managers are men, and that simply hoping women are suddenly going to change the conversation when they are in the minority is unrealistic. The majority groups need to see why this is relevant, she said.

“It is important that we set the tone at the top,” said Steiner. “Four female board members out of 12 are women and four of 10 members of the management committee are women. We then really work very hard to ensure the message is around diversity inclusion throughout the organisation. Diversity is a business issue, not a gender issue.”


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