In Conversation with Datuk Alexandra Chin: Empowering Women to Assume Leadership Roles in South East Asia

December 21, 20157:53 am1409 views

Closing the gender pay parity gap to foster culture of diversity at workplaces, while encouraging more and more women to assume leadership roles in South East Asia, Datuk Alexandra Chin, President of ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) gets candid about the challenges to women leadership in South East Asia.

  1. What are the challenges to women leadership in South East Asia?

One big challenge is work-life balance, and being able to juggle professional and personal commitments.  In an Asian society like Singapore, cultural norms expect women to take on a larger role in family responsibilities, like taking care of children, the elderly and other family members.

More women have also taken on responsibilities beyond work – they serve the community and other associations. All these responsibilities test women leaders’ ability to manage their time and energy effectively.

It is common for women leaders to have self-limiting and overly critical mind-sets when it comes to their skills and capabilities – posing a challenge to themselves by undermining their worth and doubting their ability to scale corporate ladders.

As we go up the corporate ladder, the percentage of women who remain in each level decreases, dropping out to fulfil family commitments or because of self-limiting thoughts. Statistically speaking, this is a leadership pipeline issue as there are indeed less women in senior leadership positions as compared to men.

Another challenge is navigating the competitive work environment that modern corporate structures create. There are acres of management books about this issue. Business cultures often emphasise fast paced working environments, where masculine behaviour is the norm.

Women have to adapt and navigate such a culture intelligently if they want to progress, and in some cases, women need to work doubly hard to prove themselves.

  1. How can female talent be given equal place and opportunity in the workplace and on executive boards?

Having female talent on boards and in leadership positions is a significant change to the current systems. The problem today is organisations’ comfort level toward change – awareness is a key issue that needs to be addressed, in order to spark a mind-set change at the workplace and on boards.

Upper management needs to be ready and willing to embrace change in order to set an example in experiencing the mental shift. From ACCA’s previous research, it was found that how the tone is set from the top really matters.

Executives need to keep an open mind and put in place concerted efforts to seek out talent where diversity and equality is central to business HR policies and hiring processes.

  1. What are the measures organisations should take to bridge gender bias and pay parity gaps?

When it comes to pay, pay scales and increments should not be tied to gender. Ideally, pay should be matched based on merit, regardless of negotiation skills (even if it means that men are better at negotiation than women), and the onus should be on the organisation to empower women leaders by assuring them with a matched pay scale that can boost their self-worth.

Organisations need to put in place processes that can alleviate or prevent a second generation gender bias from happening at the workplace. For instance, in meetings, men can be much more dominant than women in putting across their ideas.

Leaders can help by reaching out to team members individually, for one-on-one time in order to get more solid feedback and reviews that may not come through in large male-dominated meetings. “I have found this especially effective during my time at ACCA as Helen Brand OBE, Chief Executive of ACCA, takes the time to call up each and every member of her board individually to get personal thoughts and comments on initiatives etc.”

Flexible policies should also be put in place for all staffers such that everyone can achieve a work life balance.

  1. How can organisations create an environment that encourages more and more women to take up leadership roles?

Organisations should have talent identification processes in place that highlight individuals with strong potential (not gender-specific), and capitalise on this process as a way of empowering everyone with the right skill set to take up leadership roles. It is important that organisations put aside budgets for training and development.

Culture-wise, openness and clear ways for women to state their intentions and goals via mentorship and/or quarterly/bi-annual reviews are good ways to track the intentions of potential leaders and keep them focused on their path of intended achievements.

  1. What is the role of men towards advancing women leadership in organisations?

This is about everyone – men and women – playing a crucial role in developing and sustaining leadership. In my time on boards, I’ve found that men are just as supportive of having women on a par with them, and they are more than happy to lend a helping hand – be it through mentorship or other forms of guidance.

See: How Can HR Managers Promote Women Leadership in an Organisation?

  1. Do you think implementation of gender quota systems as those implemented in Norway would work in South East Asia?

While these policies sound great and really effective on paper, I am a strong believer of the merit system of getting women onto boards and into leadership positions.

While the benefits of the system are evident, the question of quality of female members on boards and in leadership positions will be sure to arise. In true advancement of the cause of women in leadership, their place should be rightfully earned by merit, and I highly doubt that women would want to be merely a statistic to fulfil the quota.

  1. Is the rise of female leaders linked to their being members of prominent families – daughters, wives, or widows of former government heads?

Yes and no, there is definitely still some bearing on this, as being from a good family background does set the individual one step ahead of her peers – in terms of having the resources and networks to advance her, getting a head start and an edge.

That said, many women leaders I know have made it on their own, without familial ties to back them up. One thing that is unmistakable though, is that non-familial networks are still extremely crucial for career advancement, for both men and women alike.

A vast majority of firms continue to identify applicants to join their boards through personal contacts of the board members and management.

Datuk Alexandra Chin, President, ACCA

Datuk Alexandra Chin, President, ACCA

It is generally common to see that women are less willing to network and put themselves out there as compared to men as they tend to associate networking negatively with ideas of playing politics, and being inauthentic.

If women are able to overcome this perception, regardless of familial background, it could enhance women’s opportunities to be selected as board directors.

  1. Share your views on anomalies in the man’s world, wherein male allies seek to manipulate women and stop rising them to leadership roles?

Workplace ‘gaming ‘is a common practice.  I don’t see this as necessarily gender specific issue – yes, there are problems as the many management and self-help books on this issue prove.

My view on this is that as managers, whether men or women, we need to call out such behaviour and stop it happening. We need to make it clear that favouritism, manipulation – bullying – will not be tolerated.  We all need to ensure we work with respect, and treat each other with respect. And ultimately, if the working environment doesn’t recognise the value you bring to the table, perhaps it’s a sign to move on to look for alternative opportunities.

  1. Have female leaders’ efforts to bring about social, economic, cultural, and political changes transformed gender relations in any meaningful sense?

Yes, I think so. While much of the social and cultural factors tend to be pretty deeply embedded in society, with women working and leading organisations, most of urban Southeast Asia has moved pass the first generation gender bias. That’s a great start for the cause – but more can be done in terms of having the men play a more equal role when it comes to family responsibilities.

Political changes have emerged in terms of how more women are stepping up to undertake ministerial positions. Finally, widespread economic advancements in many Southeast Asian countries wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions made by women.

  1. Do you agree that “Women in Southeast Asia work significantly longer hours than men and spend more time on domestic activities and family care, which affects their economic opportunities”?

Yes; definitely– in my years of being a mother, wife, daughter, sister, leader, boss, colleague and friend (the list of roles goes on), I have learned to ask for help—and I have learned how much help I need. I learnt also to understand that you can’t do everything yourself. Team work matters.

By having a great team, a diverse team, and a strong support network, both at the organisation and at home – that’s the equation for success. For me, asking for help and feedback is a key leadership trait and one we – men and women – should not shy away from.

  1. How can Asian companies and governments benefit from bringing more women into workforce and higher-levels of management?

Women can be a tremendous source of benefit to the workforce to bring about greater economic value. When more women enter the workforce, there will be a higher percentage of the population making up a productive labour force and taking up higher value economic activity. It also contributes to creating a more diverse workforce.

Culturally and socially, Asian companies and governments will also be making headway towards a more progressive nation.

  1. How can the corporate world benefit from female participation to take up leadership roles?

Identifying potential candidates for board succession is a critical role for organisations long term success. Studies have shown that companies with diverse board representation outperform those without. With female participation, the cause is again enhanced as role models are being developed.

For instance, in the course of my work with ACCA, there have been countless female members who have come up to me during my travels to ask for advice and tips on work life balance, and how to ascend the corporate ladder.

Also read: Organizations Not Doing Enough to Help Women Advance to Leadership Positions: Skillsoft Survey

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)