The past 12 months have seen some notable milestones for women in senior positions. Fifty-one percent of senior management positions in China are now held by women, up from 25 percent in 2012. On a global scale the percentage of women in senior roles has risen from 21 percent in 2012 to 24 percent in 2013, and here in Korea, 2013 saw the inauguration of its first female president.
However, many nations still possess a culture and work ethic that prevent real progress in gender equality. Korea is no different and still struggles with drastically poor levels of female representation at the executive level. Of all of Korea’s 13 biggest state-run companies, there is not a single female executive, and of the 1,787 listed companies in the country, just 0.73 percent has a female CEO. To change this, both women and institutions need to adapt to a new way of thinking.
The issues Korea faces are not dissimilar to the rest of the world. Entrenched cultural barriers, a male-dominated corporate environment and impractical working hours inhibit the progression of women up the corporate ladder in most countries. However, companies who neglect the need to foster a more suitable working environment for women do so at their own risk. A general consensus is emerging, backed by a growing amount of research, that increasing female representation in workforces can significantly improve a company’s fortunes. A well-publicized report from U.S. consultancy McKinsey and Co. recently revealed that gender-balanced executive committees have a 56 percent higher operating profit compared with companies that have male-only committees. However the report by McKinsey also stated that 70 percent of Asian senior managers did not see “gender diversity” as a priority.
Asia suffers from some different problems to the U.S. and Europe. There are greater barriers to high-quality education for women, and overall work participation at all levels for women is much lower in Asia. While this means achieving greater gender equality may be more complex for companies in Asia, like their Western counterparts they are awakening to the importance of increasing female representation.
Globally, businesses are starting to understand the true value of what women can bring to a boardroom. Decisions that firms are faced with have become more complex in the past decade, especially since the financial collapse in the West. Discussions no longer result in simple black-and-white solutions, and they can only be solved by those who possess strong skills in deliberation and problem-solving. Women need to recognize that they may be better equipped to do this than men. Male workers are often driven by impulse, causing potentially reckless decisions, whereas women can bring a different attitude to the table. Their ability to listen, and to foster constructive criticism allows them to assess what is working and what needs to be adjusted more effectively. The skill in deciding what needs to be changed and to administer this change in a painless manner is more crucial than ever, and women have been proven to be more effective at this than their male counterparts.
Allowing women to realize their strengths over men and encouraging them to exhibit this to employers is key to enhancing gender equality. In the workplace men are often far more comfortable in telling their bosses why they may deserve a promotion or to highlight their recent successes. This comes less naturally to women and is another barrier in them reaching the top of companies. Changing this is crucial and is a prominent feature of a new program I have helped develop at Oxford University’s Said Business School, the Women Transforming Leadership Program. The program also discusses how companies should acknowledge that their current working atmospheres, especially in financial institutions, are far more geared to the needs of men than women. Long hours and relentless competitiveness are common features of the corporate workplace and do not appeal to women who face the double burden of work and domestic responsibilities. If companies want to benefit from the collaborative qualities that women can offer them, then their working culture must change accordingly.
Along with this change in culture, companies should also reassess where they search for their female talent. Many women will reach a certain point in their careers and have to take a step back to raise a family. Often these women, who have a strong interest in business, will not drop out altogether and in fact may start their own companies. Women who do this would make a perfect fit for larger firms who are looking to recruit someone who has previous corporate experience and a strong desire to re-join the corporate world. Critically, these women who do take up top positions in large corporations must encourage other women to do so. They must take some responsibility in inspiring women to realize that there is room for more than one style of management in businesses, and the need for diversity is creating a greater demand for more women leaders.
Fostering the specific qualities that women bring to the challenges of leadership must be the focus of any discussion on gender equality in the workforce. Introducing quotas has brought about change, however disguises the issue to an extent. To help women raise their profile in the corporate world, we first must acknowledge that diversity is good for business and that women can bring a different set of values that have the potential to increase profit and improve the culture of an institution. Korea has made strong improvements to promote female representation at the senior level; it is no longer the case that people assume most female executives will have inherited their senior position from high-ranking male family members. However, to change this, a cultural shift needs to be accelerated in which women can celebrate their skills, and diversity is acknowledged for its benefits to companies.
Gayle Peterson is a faculty member of Said Business School at the University of Oxford. She is a program director of the school’s newly launched Women Transforming Leadership Program. The opinions reflected in the article is her own. ―Ed.
By Gayle Peterson