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Female drivers of change for the Asian century
Q & A:
The ASEAN Women’s Business conference draws to a close this weekend in the Philippines. During the week, the inaugural ‘Investing in Women’ forum on ‘Women's Economic Empowerment: The Next Driver of ASEAN's Success’ demonstrated resoundingly that women are driving change in the region.
As Australian organisations increasingly turn to Asia to grow their business opportunities, a new report by the Institute for Managers and Leaders, Australia and New Zealand, together with PWC and AsiaLink Business, shines a light on how these companies are approaching Asian markets. The report, Match Fit: Shaping Asia capable leaders, surveyed over 1,300 individuals from both the Australian Stock Exchange's top 200 companies and the top 30 private companies to assess their Asia capabilities. It found that female board directors and senior executives are four times more likely to be Asia capable than their male counterparts.
The leadership of ASX 200 businesses has gained media attention in recent weeks for their alarming lack of female leaders and senior executives. BroadAgenda spoke to David Pich, CEO of the Institute of Managers and Leaders, about the report's findings - and their implications for the corporate structures of these organisations as Australia moves further into the Asian century.
Q: When we talk about an organisation’s Asia capabilities, what exactly are we talking about?
A: We looked at a series of six competencies for benchmarks, which formed the basis of the study that the Institute did with AsiaLink Business and PwC. The benchmarks included experience in working in Asia, the history of the organisation involved in Asia, language proficiency, etc.
We looked at 1,300 individuals - board directors and senior managers across all ASX 200 companies, and the top 30 private companies - and we measured those against the benchmark criteria. It was probably the most comprehensive study that’s looked at Asia capability for many years.
Q. For us here at BroadAgenda, one of the most interesting findings was the fact that women are four times more likely to be Asia capable. Let’s unpack this. Why the difference?
A: The study doesn’t look at why that might be the case, it simply looked at what the data says, but I’m happy to speculate a little bit about that. However, it’s probably worth saying that when you look at the top ASX200 companies, the number of women who sit on those boards, and lead those organisations, is sadly relatively small – that says something about the case itself.
The data shows that female executives and female board directors are four times more likely to be Asia ready than male directors and male executives, but that is the second part of the story. If we’re saying that in order for Australia to be Asia ready for the future, then organisational change needs to happen. One of the changes that could happen relatively quickly is the recruitment of more female executives and female board members.
The data shows that female executives and female board directors are four times more likely to be Asia ready than male directors and male executives.
But if the question is why is it the case that women are more likely to be Asia capable, then perhaps I could speculate and say that in general, female executives and female board directors are more open-minded, and they come with a breadth of experience that might be more open to doing business in what is traditionally a different way. In this case it would absolutely be a different way because we haven’t been Asia ready for a long time.
I could add another point on the gender aspect of the study. One of the recommendations we make is that organisations should look at unique or creative ways of becoming Asia ready. And one of those ways is to create a board subcommittee that could be responsible for investigations into business in Asia. Organisations could start to look at bringing in senior executives and board directors, and female executives into those subcommittees and key decision areas of the board.
Essentially, what I’m saying is that boards need to start to branch out and look at business differently. And that could have very significant gender implications. Let’s also get more diversity in the people involved in the decision making, rather than just the board of directors and the senior executive team.
Q: Would you say there are gender differences in leadership styles? Feminine leadership qualities?
A: Personally, and leading an institute concerned with management and leadership, I would very much shy away from saying that there are gender based leadership styles, because unfortunately that kind of thinking quite often leads in the other direction.
I think what is far more important is the concept of inclusion, and for me, inclusion comes down to this fact: the customer bases of the ASX200 companies and the top 30 private companies are pretty much 50% male and 50% female, and those organisations would do well to represent their customer bases - in their decision-making positions, their board and senior executive teams. That absolutely isn’t the case, and that is a very sad reflection on business, not only in Australia but around the world. And I think organisations are waking up to that.
The customer bases of the ASX200 companies and the top 30 private companies are pretty much 50% male and 50% female, and those organisations would do well to represent their customer bases.
Those that are currently thriving, and will thrive in the future, are doing this. If their future customer base is outside the borders of Australia, then that needs to be reflected in an organisation’s decision-making and employment makeup. For too long, companies have drawn their decision makers from certain pools of people, and of course in gender terms that would be males, but the tide is turning and the tide needs to continue to turn in that area.
Q: Does the gender dimension factor in at all when doing business in Asia? For example, are female CEOs taken as seriously as men?
A: Anecdotally, and speaking outside of the terms of reference of the report, I think it’s worth saying that one of the outcomes of the report was that businesses need to understand the cultural framework of the countries that they’re doing business in. And the cultural framework takes in a whole number of different aspects of those countries, gender being one of them.
But at the same time there’s different business etiquettes, and the businesses that are having the most success in Asia are those that take cultural differences into account. In some of those countries, gender is one of those things that some of the countries place more or less emphasis on, and for business to be successful they need to understand these sensitivities.
The businesses that are having the most success in Asia are those that take cultural differences into account.
Having said that, Australia also needs to reflect on its own business culture when it does business in those countries, and I would argue that we need to look at the makeup of our boards, and our executive teams, and we need to much better reflect the customer base that we’re selling our products into.
We are a culturally diverse and a gender diverse society and that is not currently represented in our management boards and the senior management of our ASX200 companies.