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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations across Asia are employing new strategies to support equal representation – and, by extension, drive inclusion, growth and sustainable development.

In the discussion around gender diversity, 30 is a significant number: it's the percentage threshold of women executives at a company that, in terms of performance, separates it from its peers.

This figure is key, "because it's where the case for gender diversity in business takes shape," says Sarah Knibbs, Officer-in-Charge for the UN Women Asia and the Pacific.

Businesses that have reached this threshold are seeing improvements in performance metrics, including sustainability and representation, explains Knibbs, citing studies from organizations such as the World Bank's International Finance Corporation  and McKinsey , which found positive correlations between female representation and the likelihood of financial outperformance.

“In our own region, in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), it shows the companies that have more than 30 percent women on the board are performing better  financially than those that don't have that advantage," she adds. “Not only that, they actually perform much better than companies that have all-male boards."

Why gender diversity matters

Knibbs and Georgette Tan, chair of BoardAgender – an initiative by the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations dedicated to advancing more women into senior leadership and boardrooms in the Asian business hub – point to three reasons why gender diversity in businesses improves bottom lines.

1. Stronger sustainability focus

Women executives tend to be more aware about environmental and business sustainability, looking into aspects such as carbon footprint, fair trade and respect for communities.

Tan says having more representation in the decision making stage would allow other considerations to be brought into view. "It's not just about fastest and best way of making money. The view is tempered by what's the right way to make money? How do we keep in mind the environment, the respect for the communities in which we operate and work in, especially for global organizations. And also, how do we build this pipeline of sustainability?"

2. More perspectives

Greater diversity of perspectives and skill sets benefits customer and stakeholder representation, leading to new ideas and better decision-making. Whatever your business is, says Knibbs, “if you only represent half of that group, I think it's clear that you are limiting your opportunities."

3. Better reputation

A positive reputation as an equal-opportunity employer builds a loyal, happy and productive workforce – which, in turn, attracts top talent as well as forward-thinking customers and investors focused diversity and inclusion performance.

Bigger strides in Asia

Both Knibbs and Tan acknowledge that gender diversity is advancing at a slower pace in Asia than in the West, due to cultural expectations around women's roles.

For instance, women represented an average of 19.7 percent of the boards of the 100 largest companies listed on the Singapore Exchange in Jan. 2022 (up from 17.6 percent in Dec. 2020 ).

And recent years have seen companies make larger strides in the pursuit of gender-balanced workplaces. For example, the Singapore Exchange issued a mandate in 2021 that requires listed companies to make and disclose board diversity policies, plans and timelines in annual reports, starting in 2022.

And while the representation of women is weaker in some markets and organizations, there have been sector-wide reforms across certain industries, such as financial services, Tan adds.

Multinationals are also channeling more funding to internal women's networks for training, education and networking opportunities – not for positive press, but “because it actually is making a difference internally," she adds.

Tan says it's about getting women to explore and take on new roles that can help put them on a pathway to success.

New strategies for gender parity

Beyond the early steps of simply hiring more women, several new strategies to improve gender diversity have emerged, as more firms recognize its relation to their bottom lines.

1. Greater voluntary commitment

Knibbs has observed more companies across Asia voluntarily owning accountability for gender diversity.

She notes that despite the financial tumult amid COVID-19, there has been an exponential jump in sign-ups from firms across Asia – in particular, China – to the Women's Empowerment Principles , which calls for companies to establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality and to measure and publicly report gender equality progress, among other goals.

She explains that increasing investor focus on diversity indices was a motivating factor. There are now 1,600 signatories in Asia – out of a total of about 6,000 worldwide – with sign-ups from multinational corporations, local firms, entrepreneurs of large and small businesses, and public sector firms, such as utility companies.

With this, firms are adopting more formal ways of selecting board members, and increasing efforts to monitor and report data on the ranks and promotions of women in their talent pipeline, in order to identify the skills and opportunities potential female board members need to gain greater visibility and advance to the next level.

2. Increased caregiving support

More firms are making conscious efforts to support women's caregiving responsibilities, Knibbs says. Beyond maternity leave, companies are offering general parental leave, more flexible working arrangements, and either childcare credits or childcare facilities at the office.

3. Training to undo gender stereotypes

Leadership in companies across the region are dedicating resources to awareness training to reduce unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, say Knibbs and Tan.

This includes leadership and skills training for women to explore and take on new roles. Tan adds that women's representation in the workplace is a demand-supply equation, whether at the board level or lower levels.

“When a board is looking at who to bring in as a director, they create the demand," she explains. “But on the supply side, are women supported to serve on boards?" Board participation requires amongst other things, conflict resolution, an understanding of board dynamics and finding one's voice , and Tan acknowledges that “for that first woman on a board, it could be challenging.

And on the other end, training can help men shed stereotypes and become allies who are part of the solution. Citing the examples of the beliefs that women aren't pursuing promotions or want overseas postings, Tan says companies need to “have a major rethink".

She admits, however, that undoing stereotypes doesn't happen overnight, and efforts can easily get sidelined. Yet this is one strategy astute firms should persevere at, since it can result in a healthier bottom line.

Business case for a diverse and inclusive workforce

Diversity in the workplace is an asset for both organizations and their employees. A diverse and inclusive workforce sees improved decision-making, innovation and creativity as well as reduced turnover, which, in turn, help improve a company's overall performance.


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