Women in Hong Kong

Credit: Marcelo Druck/mardruck on Flickr, under Creative Commons

HONG KONG (WOMENSENEWS)–The Asia Pacific region‘s failure to keep up with Western women’s business opportunities is glaring when you look at corporate boards.

And in that area, things could get worse.

The European Parliament, after all, large, listed companies to ensure that women hold 40 percent of non-executive board seats by 2020. If the Council of Ministers endorses the directive, member states will then be expected to adapt their laws to meet these goals. And that could easily lure away female leaders in Asia-Pacific and cause a costly talent drain in the region.

Women represent around worldwide even though they make up over of the global work force. Asia has a lot to do with holding that figure back. In the United States the figure is about 17 percent, in Europe it’s around 15 percent, in Asia it’s about 7 percent, according to , the New York global women’s business research group.

In the Asia Pacific region, Australia is the front-runner in gender diversity, with approximately 12 percent of all board seats filled by women. China follows with 8 percent and in Thailand and Malaysia the figures are similar. In Japan and Korea, it’s less than 2 percent.

Efforts are underway to increase female participation on boards and in senior management positions. Nevertheless, change is slow and women still face multiple barriers to their career progression.

Money Lost

That means the gender imbalance remains and continues to cost money. Companies that fail to attract, retain and promote women to top leadership positions lose out. When you create more balanced teams you achieve better, more robust decisions, improved performance and reduced risk. When this is viewed as a business issue rather than a gender issue why would you neglect or fail to engage with almost half of the work force, clients and other stakeholders?

from 2012 found that companies with the highest female representation in top management positions achieved return on equity that was 41 percent higher than companies with the lowest representation.

There are also benefits to the overall economies and societies. Japan‘s labor force is predicted to shrink by 15 percent between 2010 and 2030, threatening economic growth and placing a high burden on those in the paid work force to provide benefits for a growing number of retirees. Women could be a key solution to this problem as they are currently underrepresented in the work force and often overlooked for senior positions.

Japan is now committed to changing this situation with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently reviving a government target set a decade ago, of raising the proportion of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020. Listed companies are also required to appoint at least one woman to their board of directors.

This diversity agenda needs to be led from the top; change that comes with buy-in from senior management and sponsorship is a central factor in any executive’s success. Engaging more male champions is critical, as they currently hold the influence to make this change.

With so few women on boards in Asia, the big focus needs to be managing the pipeline; ensuring female leaders are ready to progress and work their way up the ladder to take on these senior roles in the future.

Shifting Social Dynamics

Social dynamics are shifting, men are no longer the sole breadwinners and women make up to globally. It makes sense for women to achieve the same success as men across the globe. The business community just needs to readjust and realize the value women bring to the boardroom.

Many factors go into the existing gender imbalance, including societal expectations, family pressures, workplace culture and environmental barriers.

In Asia the double burden of balancing work and family pressures–amid a general lack of government support for child care and other family-led initiatives–wears many women down.

That’s especially true in places such as India, Japan and Korea.

A recent report finds that 92 percent of those questioned identified barriers to making boards more diverse, with 33 percent pointing to the inability to identify diverse board candidates.

Research consistently demonstrates female leaders are more hidden and less inclined to put themselves forward due to a lack of confidence. Statistics show women will only put themselves forward for a role if they feel they fulfill at least 80 percent of the stated criteria, while for men that figure is between 50 percent and 60 percent.

That confidence gap can be closed. Harvey Nash, where I am the director of the technology and professional services practice, is a global recruitment and leadership services firm and over the past five years we have developed , our global network for senior businesswomen. We know the talent is out there and the old arguments are redundant.

The key to success for female executives is training and confidence. Through our extensive work with female executives in the Asia Pacific region and after launching the with the University of Hong Kong, Harvey Nash has identified four keys to success for a woman’s career: coaching, mentoring, sponsorship and networking.

These elements should be included in career plans and companies need to invest in their female talent on an on-going basis to ensure women opt to stay engaged in the work force.

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