Asia's women leaders on the challenge of workplace equality

Women executives continue to suffer from entrenched biases of a male-dominated business world. What needs to be done to change this?
Asia's women leaders on the challenge of workplace equality

As businesswomen around the world were marking International Women's Day with examples of how the gender gap is narrowing, AsianInvestor asked business leaders in Asia whether they felt organisations are doing enough to bring female representation at a senior level up to par.

Boards that are in the top quartile of gender diversity are 28% more likely to outperform their peers, according to a research paper from McKinsey.

“It’s clear that diverse teams drive better business outcomes and greater innovation,” Renée McGowan, president, Asia, Middle East & Africa at Mercer, told AsianInvestor.

“Yet despite efforts, the progress for female representation in leadership across Asia remains slow,” she added.

The McKinsey analysis, based on 2019 data, showed that across 15 major nations around the world — including Australia, India, Japan and Singapore — women make up just 15% of executive teams, and more than a third of companies have no women at all on their executive teams.

A more recent survey, the ASEAN Gender Outlook 2021, showed women making up only 24% of middle and senior management roles in the private sector. And when it comes to female CEOs and board seats held by women, Asia continues to lag the global average.

Renée McGowan, Mercer

The challenges women face are copious and complex, according to McGowan.

“Some barriers like entrenched biases are invisible and hard to pinpoint; others are structural and demand serious responses from policymakers.”

Mercer’s approach to diversity in the workplace revolves around establishing clear metrics on the recruitment, retention, advancement and representation of women, as well as equal pay.

“Identifying the existing gaps is just the beginning. What’s key is translating these metrics into action with targeted programs and ambitious goals, and to relentlessly measure what matters to ensure progress is made,” said McGowan.

Julie Koo, managing director at Citi Private Bank in Hong Kong, told AsianInvestor it was important to keep gender diversity at the forefront of corporate agendas, by pushing for more transparency and opportunity for women.

She agreed with McGowan, that “We are only able to achieve progress by creating awareness and making commitments. Workplaces need to strive to create a corporate culture that truly believes in the benefits of gender diversity, regardless of regulations.”

Beyond this, Koo said corporates need to make clear, measurable commitments to drive that culture "so it gets ingrained in the DNA of every one of its employees, customers and partners. This means the leaders of these corporates need to ‘walk the talk’."

For its part, Citi discloses pay equity data and “embeds equality as an integral part of our shared values,” said Koo.


It could be argued that the biggest obstacle to the advancement of women’s rights in the workplace is that men often don’t see the problem. These entrenched biases are hard to shift.

“It's an ongoing concern for me, that both young and old men still do not recognise, or accept, that women are not given equal opportunity and are not treated equally,” said Hong Kong-based financial advisor Melanie Nutbeam. 

“They often think citing an example of one, or a few women, who appear to be included in a sector or industry, is enough. Weirdly, they also think that these women are exceptional in some way. For example, [they’ll say] ‘Oh, well, she's very smart’ — without recognising that her counterparts are entitled to be very average men.”

Nutbeam’s top agenda item for workplace equality would be: “Educating men about statistical inequities, and the benefits to business and society of engagement, with points of view from a diverse range of contributors.”

Deborah Yang, formerly managing director with MSCI and now CEO of the sustainable investment app, cited Eva Halverson, the CEO of Swedish pension fund AP2, as a role model.

Deborah Yang,

“While she was at the Swedish ministry of finance, she started to benchmark the lack of women on boards every year. What gets measured, gets done and over time, Sweden improved those metrics every year. Eventually they achieved 50% of women on boards and incredibly, even achieved 50% of women in the chairperson of the board role.”

Of course, it’s not just at boardroom level that women are discriminated against. In addition to setting goals for companies to hire women equitably into the higher echelons of the workforce, government action is required to protect those who perform the essential jobs of child-rearing and caring for elders, say local experts.

Janet Li, Mercer’s Hong Kong-based wealth business leader for Asia, told AsianInvestor her top issue for women in the workplace is economic empowerment, across the board.  

“Women lag men in economic attainment because of inequitable distribution of income, resources and opportunity. Women are disproportionately involved in providing low- or unpaid domestic work, limiting their access to pensions and most forms of retirement benefit.

“A life of unpaid care work should not mean insecurity in old age.”


The issue of motherhood is never far from the discussion of whether women can hold their own at the highest levels of corporate life. In Asia, as elsewhere, women executives face the often-unstated view that they cannot hold down both roles, even though domestic help is commonplace in much of Asia. 

Perhaps society is evolving to the extent that women may soon no longer be made to feel they are inferior in the workplace. “My view is that the top agenda still lies in our hands, as women,” Alicia Garcia Herrero, Hong Kong-based chief economist with Natixis, told AsianInvestor.

“I myself have decided many times not to move further in my career for family considerations.

“Women are educated to have a more comprehensive view of what matters: family, friends, the world. This may have been hurting women’s career in a world that was looking too narrowly at profits and shareholder value.

“But as we [embrace] a world where sustainability becomes the cornerstone of public and private efforts, women are much better equipped to manage corporations, [not to mention] top public service posts.

“In other words, women do not have to change what they strive for any more to excel. The world is coming to meet their values and beliefs.”


Julie Koo believes everyone - in or out of the boardroom - can find ways to make a positive impact. It can come in many forms, she said: “Being more inclusive leaders, enforcing diversity within our teams and our communities, and importantly taking time to mentor and support others.

"Given the immense positive impact my mentors had on my life and career, I simply think of it as paying it forward. I always make time to have conversations with younger talent, particularly women, whether to share my experiences, or to connect them with others who may have good advice to offer.

“If we make more time to understand the individual circumstances of the people around us, we can find ways to help them be more successful and achieve their goals, which will hopefully lead more of them into the boardroom.”

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