Hot Topic in ASIA Too
Asia is probably the region of the world that is both furthest ahead and farthest behind on the gender issue. This past week, I was in both Singapore and Tokyo (a good illustration of the extremes of the spectrum on this topic), speaking and working with a variety of venues and companies on the issue of gender balance in business.
Singapore is a country where there are many women in management and a vast mix of cultures and nationalities as well. Japan is a country with less than 10% women in management, and almost no cultural diversity either. Yet in both locations, the issue of gender is emerging as a key business lever, perhaps even more pressingly in Japan, caught as it is in demographic decline.
Singapore Swings Towards Women
In Singapore, I delivered a keynote speech at INSEAD where there were over 400 people signed up to join in the debate in a packed amphitheatre. The speech was followed by a fascinating debate, moderated by Christina Pantin, editor for South East Asia and Pacific, Reuters Asia, with a panel of Asian business leaders, including:
- Piyush Gupta, CEO of South East Asia Pacific, Citibank;
- Rhodora Palomar-Fresnedi, Global Head for Diversity, Unilever;
- Gary Tiernan, Global Head of Investment Advisory & Fiduciary Managing Director, Standard Chartered Bank Private Bank;
- Claudia Zeisberger, Professor of Decision Sciences and Program Director, Center for Decision Making and Risk Analysis (CDMRA), INSEAD.
Gender – a story of two wells
Piyush Gupta used a delightful metaphor to explain his thinking around gender. The major issue on his mind, like many CEOs around the world, is about talent. And he sees gender as a story of two wells. One well has been pumped pretty well dry, while the other well, which requires a slightly different extraction technique, remains relatively untapped.
Women, he recognizes, are the majority of his bank’s customer base in Asia. “We’ve found that women respond better to women bankers… Women bring something different to business, and you need to leverage both genders. It’s a substantive business issue. It is not about being kind to women. It is about ensuring the success of our business in the future.”
The need for commitment from the top
For Rhodora Palomar-Fresnedi, the key lever in rebalancing the gender mix is to get commitment and drive from the top. “Engage the seven people at the top,” she says, “and you reach the 170,000 others.” Gary Tiernan said that his Asian-focused bank is 47% staffed with women, and that 20% of their senior managers are now women. In India and Pakistan, Standard Chartered has bank branches entirely staffed only with women. Standard Chartered’s commitment to gender is plain, and they see that their predominantly Asian focus gives them a competitive edge as there are so many skilled and experienced women in the region and that they may be able to avoid some of the mistakes that were made in the West in approaching the issue (Click here for our article on Gender Diversity at Standard Chartered Bank).
Go East, young woman…
Several other events in Singapore gave me an intense and in-depth view of the opportunities and roles that women play in Singapore today. They included events at the American Chamber of Commerce, at IPAC, at Google, with Alicia Yi, senior partner at Heidrick and Struggles, who hosted a dinner of some of the city’s top female talent and over lunch with my friend Andrea Muller’s network of powerful women business leaders.
Despite the crisis, there is still a lot of optimism and buzz in the air, a far cry from recent visits to the US. The leaders you meet are young, dynamic and optimistic. They feel the world is shifting their way. Go east, young woman, may be the mantra for our children… The government is very supportive on the issue of gender balance, and the availability of household help and daycare options give parents in Singapore significantly more scope in terms of balancing work and family flexibility. The ease of a small, well-run city and tightly knit business community also facilitates networking and connections. We’ll be interviewing and profiling many of these leaders over the coming months.
The Other Way
It is a bit of a shock to go from Singapore to Japan. All of a sudden, there are almost no women in management and not that many in the workforce either. The expectations remain strong that women quit companies when they marry (which is probably why a massive 25% of under-35 year olds now remain unmarried). Companies that want to promote women are struggling with the challenge of recruiting and even more with the challenge of promoting them.
Japanese women are too modest to accept promotion first time
I had dinner with the CEO of a Japanese operation of a client company and some of the members of his team. I asked one young woman if she would turn down a promotion if it was offered. She said “yes, of course, because that shows modesty. Our teachers and families teach us to be modest. Then they come back and offer us the same thing again.” The CEO’s jaw dropped. I had spent an afternoon explaining to his Management Committee that even in the supposedly progressive West managers struggle with the tendency of many women to turn down a promotion. In such cases, I advise the managers not take no for an answer, that their role is actually to proactively pull women into management if they believe that gender balance is good for their company’s performance. This is also true in Japan, only far more so. There is much work to be done.
And just note that in Japanese, the word “woman” means “stay at home” and the word “husband” literally means master… Yet I spent a full day with a team of Japanese men who were very intrigued and involved in the gender balance ideas we suggested. And there are OECD reports that show that it is only in the countries where many women work that enjoy high birth rates – a critical need in Japan which is projected to have a falling population and a declining labour pool. They started the day deeply convinced that women did not want to work, but preferred their roles as mothers. By the end of the day, they seemed genuinely convinced that there were ways to enhance gender balance. There may even be hope for all of them that their punishing schedules, working from 9am to midnight every day, might even evolve if they succeed.
A liberating experience for the women
Many of the women I met in Japan said they were almost in tears at hearing these ideas. They found it liberating and inspiring. Many have never heard anything like it. We organized, with the help of Julia Goldin, Marketing Director at Coca Cola (which kindly offered a copy of our book to participants) in Tokyo, an evening event hosted by UBS. Again, as in Singapore, it was largely over-subscribed, and 100 people (about 60% Japanese) crowded into the conference room to hear another keynote and then a wonderful panel’s responses.
The event was co-sponsored by a number of companies and local women’s associations, both foreign and Japanese. UBS, Coca-Cola, American Express, FEW, Association for Women in Finance, GEWEL, and the Women’s Group at TAC put together a panel which included Sakie Fukushima, Regional Managing Director, Japan, Korn Ferry International, Terrie Lloyd, serial media entrepreneur, and Yoshimi Nakajima, VP Consumer Card Marketing from American Express, all facilitated by Debbie Howard, from the American Chamber of Commerce.
Terrie Lloyd started off by saying that he was “delighted that Japanese companies weren’t more interested in women, because it left a lot of opportunity for foreign firms to get some of the country’s best talent.” He says that he hires Japanese women and lets them earn their roles, which builds both their skills and confidence and overcomes an educational system that teaches them not to achieve.
American Express is very committed to the issues of gender, and 70% of its sales force in Japan is female, Yoshimi Nakajima said. “The traditional housewife controls everything here, and all the money. Men get an allowance and must ask their wife for larger items. We used to target our cards only to men, and the ads spoke to successful men. We have a new concept that targets women, that has proved very successful.” In fact, Japan has become a global innovator for the firm in terms of marketing to women.
Sakie Fukushima, from Korn Ferry, said that since the mid-1990s, foreign companies started asking search firms to find them more women. Since then, the Japanese companies have also gotten more interested. Panasonic used female design teams to conceive home appliances while Tokyo Electric, the electricity supplier, discovered that women were the key decision-makers in how and when to use electricity, so they recently added two women to their Board.
The World is Adapting to 21st Century
Upon leaving Asia, I have a sense that in whatever country, and at whatever speed of evolution, the world is waking up to the potential and power of women – as consumers, as leaders and as a huge and growing majority of the talent pool. Men of every nationality are realizing that this is a business issue that they need to integrate into their leadership competencies and into their business models. Women are blossoming into a whole new variety of leaders and change agents. And the countries that don’t get it are losing competitive advantage fast.
Asia may leapfrog other regions on the gender issue. They have two big advantages. They have a number of countries, particularly China, where women have long held significant roles in the economy. And they have not made some of the errors of political correctness (such as treating women as the same as men and thereby failing to encourage their important and complementary differences) and men vs. women approaches that have characterized some Western efforts (such as creating “fix the women” programmes that fail to address the real problem, the culture of the whole company).
Piyush Gupta of Citibank, countered my model of 21st century discontinuities (web, women and weather) with a model of 20th century history: “men, myopia and mayhem.” And Ms. Miyako Suda, a member of the Japanese Central Bank’s Policy Board was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that the, “Japanese economy has tumbled off a cliff into a deep valley and is now wandering around in the mud in dense fog.”
The 21st century belongs to women, and we better make that truth as appealing to men as we can. Recognising, supporting and promoting women at work will help companies and countries become more profitable, more prosperous and sustainable. Asia is, in parts, getting serious about sex.
- Gender agenda
- Why Words Matter: Dump "Diversity," Paint a Mosaic
- On International Women’s Day: Time to Worry about Our Sons?
- OK, Quotas Are a Trend
- Gender as a Measure of … Everything
- Happy ‘Can-Do’ New Year to All
- Indian Women Mean Business
- From 'Fixing Women' to 21st Century Companies
- The Fall of Sex
- Beyond Boards: Getting Real about Gender Balance