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Women in management: Southeast Asia improves but Singapore slips

Philippines' ratio of female execs tops region as Japan lags behind at 12%

The Philippines' ratio of women in senior management positions stood at 43%, versus just 12% in Japan.

SINGAPORE -- Working women in Singapore are finding it harder to break the glass ceiling compared with counterparts elsewhere in Southeast Asia, a report from business consultancy Grant Thornton suggests.

The study found the city-state's ratio of women in senior management slipped to 31% in the last quarter of 2019, from 33% a year earlier. This was below Southeast Asia's aggregate of 35%, up from 28%.

Overall, the region fared better than Latin America at 33% and Southern Europe at 30%.

The report is based on 4,900 interviews and surveys of senior business leaders from 32 countries. Singapore recorded the lowest ratio of women in leadership roles among Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand -- though Grant Thornton stressed that the comparisons do not give a full picture, as study sample sizes differed across countries.

There were some bright spots in Singapore.

"It is interesting to note that while Singapore saw a slight decline in the overall female representation in senior management, the number of women in C-suite positions actually went up," said Sze Min Yu, director at Grant Thornton Singapore.

She said the research showed the city-state had 2% more female CEOs, 4% more chief operating officers and 9% more chief financial officers than a year before. Sze also noted that Singapore looked at gender in the 2019 revision of its corporate governance code, requiring listed companies to disclose policies regarding board diversity in annual reports.

But according to research from services company Accenture, most Singapore business leaders felt that diversity was not a top priority. It found that around three-quarters of leaders ranked brand recognition, quality and financial performance as the most important issues, while only 35% felt diversity was the most important.

"Our findings show a large perception gap between the way leaders and employees in Singapore view progress toward equality in their organizations," said Lay Lim Teo, senior managing director for Southeast Asia at Accenture.

"Closing this gap is critical to create an environment that unleashes innovation, allows employees to perform at their best, and underpins a culture in which everyone feels they have an equal opportunity," Teo added.

Certain companies, like auditing firm KPMG, said they have committed to maintaining gender diversity and equality. Ong Pang Thye, managing partner at the firm, said diversified teams can help companies successfully navigate through disruptive and challenging times.

"We have more females on our leadership team compared to a year ago," Ong said. "We also remain committed to pay parity -- benchmarked only by responsibility and capability -- to build a diverse and vibrant work culture."

Workplaces in the Philippines appear to be the most diverse in Southeast Asia, with Grant Thornton finding that women accounted for 43% of senior management roles -- the highest ratio in the region and an increase from 37% a year earlier.

The Philippines outpaced other East Asian countries in this respect, topping mainland China at 31% and South Korea at 17%. Meanwhile, Japan recorded the smallest proportion of women in business leadership at only 12%.

With the exception of Vietnam, which slipped from 37% to 33%, other Southeast Asian countries also saw gains, with Indonesia hitting 37%, Thailand 34% and Malaysia 33%.

Between men and women, however, there seems to be a disconnect as to how each group perceives diversity and equality, according to the Center for Creative Leadership, which provides educational services for executives.

While many men believe there is gender diversity in their workplaces, far fewer women feel that way.   © Reuters

In a survey of more than 300 respondents in the Asia-Pacific region, the center found that 59% of men believed there was gender equality at their place of work. In contrast, only 37% of women felt the same. In addition, 44% of men agreed there was a pay gap compared with 72% of women.

Of those who took part in the survey, 62% were women, and more than half the participants were mid- to senior-level managers. The study noted that top-down support for diversity was an important factor to encourage equality in the workplace, with companies able to signal support by appointing a chief diversity officer, among other measures.

Sophia Zhao, senior research faculty for the Asia-Pacific region at the Center for Creative Leadership, said the gaps identified in the study contributed to a lack of support for women and a sense of powerlessness, with deliberate efforts needed to raise awareness and promote development.

"Despite all the organizational benefits of boosting the presence and power of women, and the increased discussions surrounding the inequalities women face in the workplace," Zhao said, "women still encounter roadblocks in getting to executive leadership positions."

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