There is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing gender diversity and workforce equality in Asia. While the region shares an upward economic trajectory, the pace of development varies significantly between countries. And so, too, does the advancement of women’s participation in the workforce. In developing countries, most of the workforce remains heavily dependent on agriculture. In South Asia, 35 per cent of the agricultural workforce is female. This rises to almost 50 per cent in East and Southeast Asia; where their labour burden exceeds that of men and includes a high proportion of unpaid activities.
MGI’s Gender Parity Score (GPS) reveals gender inequality is high overall in Asia, with significant variations among countries. For gender equality in work, the score considers key indicators such as labour-force participation; professional and technical jobs; perceived wage gap; leadership positions; and unpaid work, to measure the distance each country has travelled towards parity, which is set at 1.00. Overall, Asia Pacific has a GPS of 0.51. At the lower end, India and China scored 0.3 and 0.51 respectively; while Singapore and the Philippines scored 0.68 and 0.73.
It is hard to overstate the dramatic change in developments over the last few decades. McKinsey and Company predict that Asia will top 50 per cent of global GDP by 2040. Asia will drive 40 per cent of the world’s consumption. Women are key to driving economic growth and development. Globally, countries lose $160 trillion in wealth because of differences in lifetime earnings between women and men. Gender equality in the workforce benefits all by increasing economic diversification and boosting productivity.
While the rest of the world waits to see how Asia will lead, its emerging markets have the opportunity to bring women in as equal partners from the offset. As we have seen in more developed countries, despite social advances in gender equality, the workplace remains entrenched with a mainly male workforce at the top of all sectors. It takes decades to change leadership orientations and cultural behaviours. Women remain heavily underrepresented in leadership positions—this is not a situation unique to the Asia Pacific. Worldwide, slightly less than four women hold leaderships for every ten men in business and politics. In the Asia Pacific, this is one in four. In parts of East Asia, there are only 12 to 20 for every 100 men.
Advancing women’s participation in global supply chains
Asia has become the world’s manufacturing hub thanks to relaxed regulations, a competitive business environment, and cheap labour. The region plays a significant role in the world’s production and employment through global supply chains. While women have a significant share of the labour force, their participation largely remains as production workers, rather than in engineering positions or executive roles.
In South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, forced labour remains prevalent; with many women and girls still being trafficked into the garment sector. Meanwhile, China’s increasingly central role in the global supply chain cannot keep up with labour supply. It is leading to excessive overtime and the use of underpaid, non-standard forms of employment contracts. In contrast, more developed economies like Singapore have transitioned to research and development. They have also transitioned to high-tech production activities in the electronics industry. This has promoted wage growth and better working conditions. All this is to say that there can be no one set approach to improving gender diversity throughout the supply chain when considering hiring strategies in Asia.
In DSJ Global’s recently published report, only four per cent of respondents said that a lack of women at entry-level was a top challenge to increasing gender diversity in the supply chain. However, in many South Asian countries, barriers to education prevent a gender-balanced population to enter the supply chain workforce. For more developed economies such as Singapore and Hong Kong, there is no shortage of women that could enter the workforce; 52% and 53% of graduates from tertiary education are female.
“Asia Pacific is a highly complex region and the business landscape is constantly evolving,” comments Deepa Shahani, Principal Consultant at DSJ Global, APAC. “Gender diversity won’t be implemented overnight; it definitely takes some time and planning. However, there are some companies putting gender diversity as one of their key pillars. We are seeing some Fortune 500 companies prioritising gender diversity, particularly with Hong Kong manufacturers.”
Indeed, for more established organisations, gender diversity is a business priority. Peter Sim, Head of Procurement in China for HSBC, says that driving women’s equal participation is necessary to lead to “innovative ideas and insights in business value creation.” Sustainability is another key factor, “Women make up half of China’s workforce, so tapping into female employees’ full potential and allowing them to grow their career helps HSBC attract and retain talent and build a sustainable business.”
In Asia’s emerging markets, Deepa Shahani has noticed mixed hiring trends. Some clients are seeking female candidates to leverage the skills of a more diverse team. “Which helps them make procurement processes that are better equipped to respond to global consumer demand.”
However, as companies move their manufacturing to more cost-effective countries due to the China-US Trade War; Deepa Shahani has found that companies are seeking male talent to lead the transition, as they equate this with experience. “They tend to prefer male candidates who have had their boots-on-the-ground in developed countries. This needs to change,” Deepa Shahani argues, “why can’t women do the same job and be given the same opportunity?”
The journey towards gender equality in the supply chain
Deepa Shahani agrees that a key obstacle to increasing gender diversity in the supply chain is convincing clients that it should be a business priority, “We are all human, so sometimes we make assumptions that are counterproductive. It’s all about education and that starts from the top-down. The time is now, where we must recognise women business leaders so we can narrow the gap in gender diversity.”
Despite the varied approach needed to build a diverse hiring strategy, both Deepa Shahani and Peter Sim agree that all organisations will have to create a workplace that fosters the female talent they work so hard to attract.
“Across the supply chain, I do not see that many women in leadership roles. It was because few companies have a female-friendly benefits programme. For the most part, women are still the primary caregivers for children and elderly relatives. Hence, companies need to offer a competitive benefits package, including a fair maternity leave policy, flexible or remote working, or on-site childcare facilities,” argues Deepa Shahani. “I strongly believe that if a company offers a benefits programme that fully supports women, it would be much easier to engage female applicants with the recruitment process.”
Creating a company culture that encourages and support fathers to have an equal role in childcare will also increase women’s participation in the supply chain. “One of the ways we can do this is to offer better support for working parents by including nursing rooms and more flexible working hours,” says Peter Sim.
As global supply chains continue to grow mind-boggling complex, women will need to play an equal role in the future of their workforce. This will only be possible if companies across the supply chain invest in building an inclusive workplace and attracting more women.
Understanding why women exit from the recruitment process is the first step. Download DSJ Global’s latest report to discover the full picture.