Roadblocks to Women Leadership in Asia: “This is not a ‘women’s issue’, but a business issue and men are critical to making progress,” Nick Marsh Opines

March 1, 20168:16 am1353 views

The HR industry has evolved over the years, so has its different spheres to include – talent management, talent retention, workplace diversity, employee engagement, performance evaluation, social media recruitment and lot more. Nick Marsh, Managing Director, Harvey Nash Executive Search APAC candidly opines on the changing recruitment landscape and talent management trends, while placing special emphasis on the key challenges to women leadership in the APAC region. Read on…

  • Shed light on the key changes and evolution in HR witnessed over the last 2 decades at Harvey Nash and the industry as a whole in APAC?

Overall the HR industry has become more professional, and more business focused. We have seen an increase in the number of HR specialists working in specific fields such as Compensation and Benefits, Talent Acquisition, Training, Diversity and Inclusion, and Organisation Development. Outsourcing of HR tasks and processes has also increased partially, owing to the advances in technology and the availability of affordable and accessible solutions.

HR’s influence at the board level has increased over the years, as the global battle for top talent heats up.  HRDs are now increasingly sitting on the board of executive committees and of companies; they are now seen as core business leaders.

  • What do you think organisations today should do to enable gender diversity in the workplace?  

The change has to start at the very top, with directors and executives fully committed to leading the change, even before initiatives start.

Those responsible for making change have to be held accountable if goals are not met, with compensation or reward programmes put in place that align to supporting diversity initiatives. The CEO and the executive committee need to drive this.

Nick Marsh, Managing Director, Harvey Nash Executive Search APAC

Nick Marsh, Managing Director, Harvey Nash Executive Search APAC

  • What are the barriers in particular for women in APAC organisations to rise to key leadership positions? 

Many companies, both in Hong Kong and APAC, do not see gender diversity as a major issue, or are not prioritising it, often leaving employees feeling powerless and unsupported. Harvey Nash research outlined in The Balancing Act found that the primary barrier to women’s progression to the top is male-dominated corporate cultures, where gender bias is endemic albeit largely unconsciously.

Companies need to ensure their corporate culture and values are aligned with encouraging gender diversity, cascaded down from the leadership team throughout the entire organisation. The countries with particular issues include Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea, India etc.

This is not a ‘women’s issue’, but a business issue and men are critical to making progress. Ensuring male employees are engaged in diversity discussions is imperative, with the aim of turning them into ‘male champions of change’.

Men need be involved in the sponsorship of women, particularly as they often lack advocates and champions who make sure they have access to all possible opportunities.

Men also need to play a role in helping identify how organisational culture or policies could be hindering the fair progress of women and be actively involved in making the changes.

Companies need to dispel any beliefs of a “zero-sum” situation where men may suffer from the advancement of women.    

See: How to Get More Women into Leadership Positions?

  • Tell us more about the cultural inhibitions in Asia that hold women back from achieving excellence and assuming leadership roles in their careers? 

Companies in Asia often use their own private networks to hire to board and sub-board executive roles. These are usually made up of men of a similar background and age, as existing leaders have hired in their own image.

Asian women have always had to weigh the wider perception of their roles in society against their ambitions. As a general rule, men are viewed as being able to make a full and strong commitment to work, whereas women are often viewed as facing competing priorities – work vs. family – particularly at a senior level. Offering family friendly working practices, such as flexible hours or providing childcare facilities onsite, can help companies address this.

Many female leaders are less inclined to put themselves forward for opportunities. Women tend to qualify themselves out of opportunities although they have the skills and experiences required. Statistics reveal women will only pursue a role if they fulfill 80% of the stated criteria, while for men the figure is 50%.

This pattern continues through to the interview stage; where women have a tendency to under-sell their achievements and experience, whereas men will often over-sell theirs to secure a job. This means boards are rarely able to assess candidates on a level-playing field.

  • What are the benefits of balanced boardrooms and measures organisations should take to implement the same at workplaces?

Boards made up of members from the same small network can often lead to ‘Group-Think’.  A certain level of tension or conflict in a boardroom helps encourage better debate and decisions.

McKinsey, Blackrock and Catalyst have produced many studies indicating companies with diverse boards and management teams have better performance, than those which do not.

According to figures by Credit Suisse, the share prices of companies with $10billion and more market capital that had female directors, outperformed those without by 26 per cent across seven years.

For SME companies, the stocks of companies with female directors on their boards outperformed others by 17 per cent over the same period, proving the existing gender imbalance impacting the bottom line.

Measures that companies can put in place to work towards a gender balanced workforce include:

Changing the corporate culture – Align to encourage gender diversity, cascading down from the leadership team throughout the entire organisation.

Male champions of change – Ensure male employees are engaged in the diversity discussion and resulting company initiatives, with the aim of turning them into ‘male champions of change’.

Talent development, internal mentoring and succession planning are also central to creating change.

Hiring processes – Ensure that the interview process is unbiased. Use search firms when hiring at senior levels to access a wider network.

Businesses should be set up to support women with families – Flexible working practices can enable parents to better manage their commitments. Initiatives such as paternity leave or family care leave can help address gender diversity by enabling men to also share the workload at home.

  • What’s your viewpoint on the employee engagement challenges faced by HR Leaders in APAC and organisations globally to retain talented workforce?

Employees in Asia are faced with huge numbers of opportunities, and the tenure of employees is shorter than counterparts in Europe or the USA.  India, China and South East Asia are all experiencing huge salary demands to keep talent on the payroll, to a point where China is no longer considered a cheap employment option.

Companies in APAC are now starting to feel the need to use mechanisms from more developed markets to retain talent, for example investing more efforts into internal communications, training and creative compensation and benefit structures.

Employee engagement needs to be a top priority. The emergence of Asia’s Generation O – a demographic that is Overworked, Overstressed and generally Overwhelmed – combined with a highly competitive landscape shaped by talent shortages, results in a need for companies to focus their efforts wisely.

Engaged employees will make positive contributions to the advancement of an organisation. Every company, particularly during challenging economic conditions, can stand to benefit from prioritising employee engagement activity to increase the percentage of actively engaged employees.  Ultimately, this will serve to raise workforce productivity levels.

  • A recent report by Harvey Nash, talks about disconnect between HR professionals and the CEO. How do you think this gap can be bridged?  

I believe it can be bridged, and we already see the signs of this taking place among the more progressive firms. As HR takes ownership of key initiatives that drive real business impact – diversity, supporting digital transformation – then these relationships will improve. There are more HRDs than ever before representing the HR function on company boards.

  • How do you think organisations globally can address skills shortage issue in IT – specific to Asian markets? 

Companies need to take responsibility for incubating their own talent, supporting and training employees in-house. This requires active investment in IT training across all levels of business hierarchy, and starts in the boardroom, with directors assessing if they possess the relevant IT skills and understanding to offer counsel and support in the event of a major security breach or IT failure.

Internal corporate initiatives to educate teams on basic IT practices, in addition to supporting those who want to undertake more in-depth training, need to be introduced.

A skills shortage of this magnitude needs to be tackled at the grassroots level – in schools across the region. Nurturing home-grown talent by encouraging children, of both genders, to be more engaged with technology at an earlier age will help to fundamentally grow the talent pool for IT in a sustainable way.

Joint initiatives by the government and companies, aimed at sponsoring IT education, will have a lasting impact on the talent market for years to come. One part of this is to engage more girls in IT.

  • How can women gain more visibility in IT? What should HR managers do to encourage more women workforce in IT?

As mentioned above, by instigating internal corporate initiatives to educate teams on basic IT practices, in addition to supporting those who want to undertake more in-depth training,HR managers will identify female talent with the potential to develop their IT skills.

To proactively address the issue of engaging more women in IT, HR managers should be conducting mapping exercises to identify top female talent internally and externally.

Education is central to the future success of the IT industry. By engaging with girls at a young age and making technology seem appealing and attainable, we can increase the number of women in IT later down the line.

  • How far has psychometric tests gained prominence and usage by HR professionals in APAC markets? 

Psychometric tests have become increasingly popular in the region, as employers look to hire people based on attitude and corporate cultural fit, rather than relying solely on qualifications and experience.

In Asia, tests like these can be particularly valuable, with companies often spread across culturally diverse markets, requiring leaders to quickly adapt and manage a variety of different working styles. When it comes to developing an effective multicultural and team-centric environment, psychometric testing is an essential tool in a company’s arsenal.

  • How can organisations in APAC develop world-class leadership teams? 

Talent development, internal mentoring and succession planning are central to creating world-class leadership teams. Executive development programs are important to continually develop the skills of the management team.

Courses such as the Women’s Directorship Programme with the University of Hong Kong, not only serve to embed best practice board governance but also serve to address the gender imbalance in the boardroom across APAC.

Also prioritising workforce diversity, in all its guises, will lead to developing world-class leadership that truly represents the interests and needs of stakeholders.Closing the gender gap is a multiyear process, requiring businesses to identify potential leaders early, and help them map out career paths to accelerate their growth.

The use of external search firms when hiring for senior executive and board appointments also helps companies in APAC to get the competitive edge.  External firms have access to far broader networks, provide an objective view and can benchmark candidates according to industry wide standards.

  • What should be the top 5 priorities for HR professionals in APAC to focus in 2016? 

As the findings from the rest of the world point to a clear trend that HR is heading back to basics, HR professionals in APAC would benefit from focusing their efforts on the following priorities:

  • Recruitment
  • Talent management
  • Talent retention
  • Employee engagement
  • Workforce diversity

Forward thinking HRs will also be considering how they can best address digital skills development within the organisations.

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

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