June 5, 2014 12:00 am JST

It may be a bit higher, but the glass ceiling is still there

TAMAKI KYOZUKA, Nikkei staff writer

BANGKOK -- The proportion of women in senior management in six major Southeast Asian countries is 35%, much higher than the global average of 24%, according to an annual survey conducted by Grant Thornton, the global accountancy network. The survey was done between November 2013 and February 2014. Within Southeast Asia, Indonesia has the highest proportion, at 41%, followed closely by the Philippines (40%) and then Thailand (38%). Japan has just 9% of senior roles taken by women and ranks at the bottom of the 45-economy survey, though the government is keen to tap the unrealized potential of women to help boost economic growth.

Liberating child care

There may be three factors contributing to growth trends around women in executive roles in Southeast Asian countries. First, both men and women in the region are less reluctant to use child care services than families in Japan. Because of the fairly high income inequality in Southeast Asia, baby-sitting services are available at affordable prices. In Thailand, for instance, baby-sitting rates are set at $490 per month.

     It is also customary for Thai families to buy breakfast and lunch at local stalls and stores, helping women to reduce their daily burden. It is not unusual for female workers to return to work soon after giving birth. Under the labor law in Thailand, new mothers are entitled to maternity leave of less than 90 days. But because they receive no pay during that period, most women go back to work about two months after birth, according to industry sources.

     Meanwhile, in Japan, where the proportion of women executives remains the lowest among the surveyed countries, baby-sitting and child care are expensive and entry into public day care facilities is very competitive. Another obstacle for Japanese women is persisting gender-based stereotypes in Japanese society. Although active household fathers are a new trend, mothers are expected to bear full responsibility for child rearing.

     The second factor is the region's traditional work culture. Most Southeast Asian nations have historically been engaged in agriculture, and women have done the bulk of this work. But as the structure of their economies gradually shifted away from agriculture toward manufacturing, a trend that began in the 1980s, women who were formerly engaged in agriculture have increasingly entered industrial sectors, such as sewing and electrical machinery. Moreover, in this region kinship has been traditionally traced through maternal lineage, and it is not uncommon for women to work or sell their property for cash in order to feed their families.

     Another factor is that daughters often inherit management positions from parents in family-owned companies. Women from wealthy families also have greater access to higher education, often achieving masters or doctoral degrees. This boosts their chances of rising to senior executive positions.

Executive obstacles

However, there is also a problem hidden behind the high ratio of female executives in Southeast Asia. Motoki Nakashima, a human capital consultant at Marsh & McLennan, pointed out that it is not necessarily true that women's participation in the workforce has gained momentum in Southeast Asia, an assertion based solely on data. While the region boasts a relatively high proportion of women in leadership roles, historical trends show that the ratio of female executives has changed little, he added. In other words, the so-called glass ceiling, or the unseen, unbreachable barrier that keeps women from scaling the corporate ladder, still exists in Southeast Asia, and is maintaining the proportion of women holding top jobs at around 35%.

     The reason for this is that most Southeast Asian female executives are assigned to back-office administrative jobs. "If Southeast Asian enterprises seek to give women more opportunities to prove their abilities and skills in the workplace, they need to assign the most appropriate work that is chosen from various divisions like sales, marketing, production and research and development," said Nakashima.