Winning 'psychological battle' key to gender balance in Asia: new report

A new survey from Willis Towers Watson and The Economist Corporate Network concludes overcoming entrenched stereotypes is key to improving female representation at senior level.

Picture of two women in conversation
The global business advisory’s study Women in Leadership in Asia Pacific, found psychological enablers, such as sponsors and role models, are held by respondents to be more important than flexible work arrangements in breaking the glass ceiling.Exploring the attitudes of 143 senior executives across China (32%), China (32%), India (15%), Singapore (15%), Hong Kong (11%), Australia (11%), Malaysia (10%) and Japan (5%), the survey found more than half (55%) of the respondents said availability of sponsors or mentors for women in the leadership pipeline is a key driver of successful advancement.A lack of confidence (56%) and exclusion from power circles (44%) were also found by the study to be key factors inhibiting women from achieving leadership positions.Together the findings suggests that by increasing the presence and availability of female role models, organisations can offer an environment to help overcome the stereotypes.

Female progression and families

The leading barrier to female progression – cited by 58 per cent of respondents – is family responsibilities. At focus groups carried out for the research many participants said young women still face pressure to marry rather than focus on their careers.Moreover, many mothers shift their focus away from the workforce towards coaching and supporting their older children through exam preparations — the so-called “maternal wall” as opposed to the “glass ceiling”.Equally, the absence — or perceived absence — of female leaders in senior roles can cause a magnifier effect, amplifying at lower levels the perception of a lack of women in leadership positions.

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“The absence of women from senior leadership positions can have long-ranging implications in today’s dynamic work environment, including high female attrition rates and diminished female leadership pipelines,” said Naomi Denning, who is responsible for the Willis Towers Watson Investment business in Asia Pacific and is co-chair of the company's Asia Pacific inclusion & diversity council.“There is growing evidence that a more diverse and inclusive workforce can foster innovative thinking and better leadership skills.“Our findings clearly highlight the need for organisations to instill equality and diversity into their company culture at the highest levels — a key foundation for building strong and diverse female leadership pipelines in Asian firms.“Winning the ‘psychological’ war could pave the way to these practical measures being utilised better and leaders in the workplace have a critical role in setting the right culture to embrace flexibility.”

Growing awareness at regional level

Mary Boyd, director, Shanghai, The Economist Corporate Network, which compiled the Willis Towers Watson-sponsored report, added: “Diversity is often lower on the agenda for Asian companies and multinational affiliates, compared to their Western counterparts. Nonetheless, employers in the region are being influenced by global campaigns to promote women leaders, so some filtering-down of social change is in progress.“Not only does inclusion and diversity help with employee attitudes and engagement, but there is also a strong business case behind it. Research shows that better business decisions are made when they come from a diverse group of people with different experiences and perspectives.“By shifting mind-sets towards encouraging and supporting women in leadership positions as a part of business strategy, companies can improve results — including overall performance and operating profit,” said Boyd.

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