With the lack of gender diversity in the workplace seen as a financial risk, some asset owners in Asia Pacific have made great strides in the push for gender parity. However, others have regressed, and Hong Kong is one of them.

Asset owners across the region have made an effort to improve gender representation for varying reasons, including to attract talent, to satisfy customers or simply because they believe it is the right thing to do.

“It’s important [that] as an organisation we live the change we want to see,” said Mary Delahunty, Australian superannuation fund Hesta’s head of impact.

Mary Delahunty, Hesta

The super fund has identified seven of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as their social policy focus, one of which concerns gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls.

More than half (54%) of Hesta’s employees are women. At the board level, Hesta has delivered parity in gender representation, including an independent chair. Half of its senior executives are women.

“We're committed to improving gender diversity and look to amplify the positive impact we can have for members, 80% of whom are women, through setting an example as an employer,” Delahunty told AsianInvestor.

FINANCIAL RISK

Super funds like Hesta see a lack of gender diversity in leadership as a financial risk for their investments. Companies that fail to attract and retain the best people will see their performance suffer eventually.

“Our inclusive culture that embraces differences and celebrates diversity is a key part of how we attract and retain talent,” Hesta’s Delahunty said. “We were the first superannuation fund to have a ‘reconciliation action plan’. Our job advertisements highlight our inclusive and respectful culture, encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to apply.”

“We believe the best business and investment decisions are made by teams that can bring together diverse views,” added Liz McPherson, chief culture officer at Australia's Future Fund. “We focus on diversity and inclusion because it’s the right thing to do."

The initiatives the sovereign wealth fund has put in place include encouraging recruitment agencies to provide balanced shortlists in terms of gender representation, as well as a greater mix of cultural backgrounds. It then gives interview training that considers unconscious bias to hiring managers to raise awareness, which can lead to changes in behaviour.

MIXED BAG IN ASIA PACIFIC

The efforts made by Australian firms seem to have paid off. According to a November 2020 progress report by index provider MSCI – “Women on Boards” – the share of director seats held by women has steadily increased from 26% in 2016 to 34% in 2020.

However, other territories in Asia Pacific have seen slower growth. The percentage of women on executive boards in China rose slightly from 9.6% in 2017 to 13% in 2020, while South Korean firms have continued to struggle to appoint women directors as board members. Last year, 65% of South Korean companies still had all-male boards, one of the highest proportions among constituents in the MSCI index, although the number did drop from 84% in 2018.

In Hong Kong, more companies had no women on their boards in 2020 (37%) than the year before (32%).

Some positive developments in Asia Pacific highlighted by the report were the Philippines, with only 14% of all-male boards in 2020  and Japan, which saw a reduction of companies with all-male boards from 33% in 2019 to 22% in 2020.

“The advancement of women in the workplace is a crucial part of diversity promotion,” a spokesperson from Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) told AsianInvestor.

The fund has developed a structured policy on gender and diversity in its code of conduct that feeds through its investment process. In January 2020, it established a diversity and inclusion promotion group designed to bolster the fund’s internal values as part of its efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals.

Progress is measured according to five metrics that companies must disclose under Japan’s Act on Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace. 

GPIF's published data on gender (ESG 2019 report)

In December 2020, GPIF started using a new gender diversity index by Morningstar. The index weighs constituents based on 19 gender equality criteria provided by Equileap.

Diana Van Maasdijk, CEO of Equileap, said: “The fact that the largest pension fund in the world is investing with a gender-lens is a clear message for companies to step up their game.”

In Singapore, sovereign investor Temasek has had an almost equal balance of gender amongst its staff for the past 10 years, as the accompanying chart shows. The staff numbers have doubled in the last 10 years, although the actual percentage of females has decreased slightly, from 54% in 2011 to 46% in 2020.

Temasek's gender split

 

Last year, a CFA Institute survey found that 74% of investment professionals in Asia Pacific believe that workplace diversity improves business outcomes. Funds that focused on Environment, Social and Governance have also attracted significant investments despite the pandemic. However, the overall progress in achieving gender parity remained slow. According to the MSCI report, if the trend over the past four years continues, it may take until 2029 for women to comprise 30% of corporate boards, and until 2045 to reach 50%.

Read a related article about how asset owners can better foster ethnic diversity.