Features | Society | Oceania

Smashing The Glass Ceiling

Where is the best place in the Asia-Pacific for female career advancement? Vivienne Stanton investigates.

By Vivienne Stanton for

Twenty-one years after Melanie Griffiths donned shoulder pads and a power suit as the ambitious secretary struggling for the top of the corporate ladder in the movie Working Girl, there’s still plenty of evidence that a glass ceiling – the invisible barrier preventing women from scaling the upper echelons of her career – exists. Studies show that less than a quarter of senior positions worldwide are occupied by women, and that women in similar jobs receive, on average, 75 per cent of men’s pay.

But while the glass ceiling appears to be global, its thickness varies from country to country. A number of factors – cultural, societal and individual – combine to determine women’s ability to progress in a given nation. And it doesn’t always play out in ways you might expect.

The Philippines, an emerging economy famous as an exporter of cheap domestic labour, has the highest number of women managers in the world. On the other hand, more developed counties, such as Germany and France, where feminist movements have been active for decades, have among the lowest. In Australia, a country that prides itself on its egalitarian principles, surprisingly few women reach ‘C-level’ positions (the upper echelon job titles that start with the word ‘Chief’). The number of women executives in the ASX top 200 companies has actually fallen, to 10.7 per cent from 12 per cent in 2006, according to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Commission.

A study by consultancy firm Grant Thornton International showed that women hold 47 per cent of all senior positions in the Philippines, followed by Russia (42 per cent) and Thailand (38 per cent). The lowest percentage is in Japan (7 per cent), with countries like Australia, the US and the UK trailing at between 20 per cent and 23 per cent. France and Germany have 18 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. If you confine that search to the top few hundred companies in each country, the numbers are even lower.

Analysts put Filipinas’ success down to a strong matriarchal culture that predates Spanish colonial influence. ‘Filipino women have always taken a strong presence in the home and community,’ says Senator Loren Legarda, a former TV news anchor and the youngest woman ever elected to the Philippine Senate, considered a leading contender for the 2010 presidential candidacy. If she wins, she’ll be the country’s third female leader. Still, she has had to work hard to overcome sexual stereotypes in her native country. ‘During my time as a journalist, being a woman was indeed a challenge,’ she told The Diplomat. ‘The newsroom was male-dominated – from the production crew, director, presenters, reporters and anchors up to the top management. As a politician, today I often find myself the lone woman among male politicians. But it has never bothered me or affected me in a negative way.’

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There’s not necessarily a correlation between women in politics and women in senior management positions. India and Chile both have female leaders and very few female CEOs. China, on the other hand, has increasingly large numbers of women entrepreneurs, including billionaire paper-recycling tycoon Cheung Yan, who was the richest woman in China before being eclipsed by property heiress Yang Huiyan, but very few female officials in the all-powerful Communist Party.

Yet another survey shows that, perhaps surprisingly, women in developed countries found cultural stereotypes and perceptions were in fact a bigger barrier for women than in developing countries. According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), communism in China has long promoted equality between the sexes – at least in theory – as was the case in Russia. The one-child policy meant girls didn’t have to compete with boys for parental involvement and recognition, which translated into improved self-esteem among girls. At the same time, parents of single-child families generally put a huge investment into their child’s education, benefiting a single girl where a girl among boys might have missed out.

Michelle Cheng, an Australian-Chinese woman working for the US design company IDEO in Shanghai, says young Chinese women are ambitious and optimistic. ‘Many are Chinese who’ve studied overseas and come back to China, who are saying, this is their time. If you Google the top 10 most successful women in China, you’ll find their average age is probably below 40.’

Also, China’s one-child policy makes managing home and work life easier, and eliminates uncertainty employers might have about hiring a woman of child-bearing age, as she’ll only take maternity leave once. Chinese women usually have access to childcare in the form of grandparents or nannies, which means much less time taken off work when it comes to having children.

This compares with Germany, where there’s still a strong societal expectation that mothers stay home with their children in their early childhood years. Generous maternity-leave laws actually work against women, PWC says, as many managers are reluctant to promote women of child-bearing age because of a general expectation that those women will be gone for a period of up to three years.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a Paris-based consultant, coach and co-author of the book, Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of Our Next Economic Revolution, says Asia is probably the region of the world that is both furthest ahead and farthest behind on the gender issue.

In countries like Singapore, women leaders are young, dynamic and optimistic, she says in her CEO’s blog (www.20-first.com): ‘They feel the world is shifting their way. Go east, young woman, may be the mantra for our children.’ That was in stark contrast to Japan, which has less than ten per cent of women in management. ‘It’s 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’.

Korea is seen as a similarly oppressive environment for women. Luxury goods magnate Sung Joo Kim, the sixth child of one of Asia’s wealthiest clans, was temporarily disowned by her family when she defied their orders not to work. Kim moved to the US, where she was able to build a successful career in the fashion industry before returning to Korea.

On the other side of the world, Maria Lourdes Sobrino has a similar story to tell. The 57-year-old Mexican woman used to tell investors she was representing her husband’s interests in Mexico. After the travel business fell through due to an economic crisis, she moved to the US where she made her fortune selling colourful, Mexican-style jellies to the Hispanic community.

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Reasons for the persistence of the glass ceiling vary, but the following are the main ones given:

Motherhood – a lack of access to affordable childcare is one of the biggest reasons women quit or take time out of the workforce. Balancing the needs of both children and career without it can take a toll on women’s ability to rise to the top ranks.

Sexism – the giant bear in the room. Many analysts claim an unofficial and even unconscious bias against promoting women exists; a case of like often preferring to hire like. They see not so much a glass ceiling as a sticky floor.

Time – it’s only been in the past decade that women have outnumbered men in university and graduate programs, and it will take some years before they work up to senior positions.

Lack of role models – research shows that few women on boards and in positions of power leads to fewer promotions of women to senior positions.

Still, things are changing rapidly in some parts of the world. Countries in which women have increased their share of senior management roles dramatically include Turkey, up to 29 per cent from 17 per cent in 2007, and Mexico, up to 31 per cent from 20 per cent in 2007, according to the Grant Thornton study. A lot of the growth is the result of greater access to education in those countries. ‘It’s still a man’s world in Mexico,’ says Sobrino. ‘They go and play golf or do business in bars, and it’s not well-seen for a woman to go to a bar. There’s also access to contracts, it takes more time for a woman to get a contract than a man, still, in Mexico.

‘But I see the new generation of women, in their 30s and 40s, business owners, much better educated, engineers and lawyers, ready to fight to get to the next stage,’ she says.

The PWC report shows that legislative actions have had a bigger impact on improving women’s opportunities than those from the private sector. For example, in Norway, the government requires the boards of directors of the 500 companies listed on the Oslo stock exchange to be made up of at least 40 per cent women.

Likewise, countries with better childcare systems have higher percentages of working mothers, for example Sweden (which is the highest ranked country in terms of women’s economic participation according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report), and France. Even then, taking time off for kids or seeking flexible work hours is often taken to mean women who take these options – sometimes referred to as ‘off-ramping’ or ‘taking the scenic route’ – are less committed than those who don’t.

Philippa Stone, a Sydney-based mother of five and partner at the law firm Freehills, where 21 per cent of partners are women, took brief periods off with some of her pregnancies, and says she’s never experienced a glass ceiling in her career.

‘One key thing is that I had a full-time babysitter or nanny, which was obviously enormously helpful,’ she says. ‘If you take five years off you have five years less experience of work. so you’ll be that many years behind, but I don’t see there being a reason why people can’t take time out.’

For many women, the issue of the glass ceiling doesn’t come up until they reach child-bearing age. ‘When you get to 30 or 35, it’s kind of your peak career age and you start to get somewhere, but at that same age you’re probably reaching your peak baby-making years also. If you do take some time out, it’s quite hard to get your foot in. So nature does put a spanner in the works,’ says Nicki Gilmour, CEO and founder of women’s networking site, theglasshammer.com.

‘Companies are basically haemorrhaging women once they get to a certain age and they can’t get them back, and they wonder why there’re only 12 [female] CEOs in the Fortune 500.’

Where race or class issues exist, the difficulties women face are compounded. ‘It’s about human connection, and often comes down to like wanting to hire like. If you don’t share a gender or a race with someone who’s at the top, you might find it hard to connect with that person,’ says Gilmour. While prejudice may exist, even this stereotype is being turned on its head. The CEO of PepsiCo, the largest company by market value to be run by a woman, is Indian-born Indra Noori, while Xerox CEO Ursula Burns recently became the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company.

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Much can depend on the culture of a particular company or industry, rather than the country it operates in. While service industries tend to be more female-friendly, industries such as oil and gas, IT, stockbroking and investment banking have traditionally been known for their ‘boys’ club’ culture, meaning women are excluded from male networks, and expected to work in the same way as men, with no allowances for women’s different needs or circumstances.

‘I wanted to be a stockbroker. I went to London and worked on the trading floor. I was working with all men and I liked the thrill of it, but it started to wear me down in the end,’ says Lucy Reed, a Melbourne-based, 34-year-old mother of two who left her career in finance after the birth of her children, and is now a yoga teacher. ‘You have to be a lot tougher to survive in there and you lose your femininity.’

Multinational corporations are often seen to offer more opportunities to women employees, both expats and locally hired. ‘There’s still a preference among Chinese organisations for male leadership,’ explains IDEO’s Michelle Cheng. ‘However, in international organisations there are more and more Chinese women and women leaders. I think that’s primarily due to influence from the West.  The companies either transfer women over here, or they hire a good percentage of local females as well as males.’

Many companies now see a business case for diversity and are making big efforts to incorporate more woman-friendly programs. Not only do companies loathe losing employees they’ve spent years and money in training, but mixed groups are also seen to make better business decisions. Research by American consultancy group Catalyst, which specialises in women’s business-development issues, has shown that companies with a higher representation of women in senior management positions financially outperform companies with proportionally fewer women at the top. Childcare, maternity and paternity leave, lactation rooms, flexible work hours, telecommuting and the introduction of women’s networks are some of the ways companies are trying to keep women in the workforce.

However, according to Gilmour, ‘the recession has put diversity on the backburner. Lehman Brothers had a very good program for getting women back to work. But they don’t exist anymore.’

Most analysts are uncertain how the global financial crisis will affect women’s progress in cracking the glass ceiling. ‘There’s going to be a shift to services as opposed to manufacturing, and women tend to dominate in the service industry,’ says Irene Natividad, a Washington-based Filipina-American who runs the Global Summit of Women, dubbed the ‘Davos for women.’ There’s a belief that women tend to be more conservative investors – hence beneficiaries of a backlash against the high stakes risk-taking that led to the global financial crisis, she says.

‘In terms of leadership, I think there’s been a greater demand for accountability, and women will go even further. I see this as an opportunity for women.’