Asia Needs More Male Champions for Gender Equality

Special Focus : When Women Thrive the World Prospers
Access and Inclusion March 08, 2015

When Warren Buffett issued a rallying call a couple of years ago for men to champion the advancement of women, the world took note. Exhorting fellow men to get on board, he said the prospect of unleashing the talent of 100 per cent of America’s human capacity made him an unbridled optimist about the nation’s future.  

From Prime Minister Abe’s womenomics agenda in Japan to Richard Branson blogging about why he supports women in the workplace to the 30% Club in the UK, US and Hong Kong which counts mostly male chairmen and business leaders among its rapidly expanding membership of decision-makers committed to bringing more women into the boardroom, prominent male public and private sector leaders around the world have been de-crying the under-representation of women in senior executive and non-executive roles around the world.

The benefits of gender diversity in the workplace at all levels of the organisation are well documented. Several years ago, McKinsey released a report demonstrating that Asian companies with the highest proportion of women on executive committees posted an average return on equity of 22% compared with 15% for those with no women on their executive committee. According to a report from CEIBS released last year, boards with greater gender diversity also reduce the likelihood and severity of fraud. However, with a few exceptions, Asia still lags behind the rest of the world in terms of female participation levels on executive committees.

Asia is of course a heterogeneous grouping of mature and emerging markets and women fare better in some countries than in others. For instance, India needs to work on increasing its female labour force participation rate – currently around the 27% mark – while China, with 64% of women in the workforce, would gain from raising the percentage of women at the Csuite and board level

The upshot is that there is plenty of opportunity for male leaders, male managers and male colleagues to be changemakers.   

But what exactly does a male champion need to do to drive organisational change?

Here are some suggestions based on research by The Women’s Foundation:

First, don’t assume everyone gets it. McKinsey’s survey revealed that one third of male respondents aren’t aware that women face challenges particular to their gender. Male champions need to be able tosellthe cause of gender equality. There are a lot of progressive and sympathetic men who are quiet supporters of increased gender equality but don’t want to speak up. They must. It helps to have relevant data at their fingertipsfor example, the extent to which women are under-represented in a particular sector. This will helpsellthe idea to naysayers.

Secondly, companies need to shift their focus to changing the men, not fixing the women. The real obstacle to the advancement of women in most companies is not the womenit’s the existing leadership mindset, culture and styles. Male managers need to realise that the environment they think of as a meritocracy may not be quite so equitable, and should be encouraged to seek feedback from their teams about their management style and whether this is inadvertently preventing or discouraging female colleagues and subordinates from speaking up or advancing in their careers.

Third, a lot of attention is being focused on unconscious bias but while this undoubtedly exists, emphasising this aspect seems unduly negative. Much better to be like Buffet and position gender balance as one of the centurys most obvious business opportunitiesit’s not just the women, but everyone wins because greater gender balance has been proven to improve the organisational culture, performance and the bottom line.

Fourth, companies need to spend time and money building skills among their leaders and managersmale and femaleto ensure they are adept at managing and celebrating the differences women and men bring to the table.

Last but not least: Sheryl Sandberg is famous for exhorting women to make their partner a real partner and women need to get better at motivating and encouraging their partners to do their share of the childcare and housework. If nothing else, there is a substantial body of research indicating that active fathering makes for happier and brighter children. In academic results-oriented Asia, that fact alone should persuade men to shoulder their fair shareor at least a greater shareof the childcare responsibilities.

In closing, Asia has a number of challenges to tackle in the coming years. Developed economies like Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong are sandwiched between belowreplacement fertility levels and a rapidly ageing population that will soon create large talent gaps in the workforce. Elsewhere, fast-growing but fragile economies like India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Mongolia need reactive, flexible and innovative private sector enterprises to thrive in a competitive global market. Simply put, Asia cannot afford to squander half its talent pool. If more men are willing to advocate for women to have equal access to education and opportunitiesif more men are willing to look beyond their old boys’ networks to give women a chance – if more men are willing to mentor and coach women to accomplish their ambitions, Asia’s future will burn that much more brightly and equitably