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[Herald Interview] ‘Women in leadership should be new normal’

Philip Morris Korea’s manufacturing director talks being a woman in the tobacco industry in celebration of International Women’s Day

Iryna Ashukina, Director Manufacturing at Philip Morris Korea’s Yangsan Factory (PMK)
Iryna Ashukina, Director Manufacturing at Philip Morris Korea’s Yangsan Factory (PMK)
Despite South Korea’s slow progress in breaking the glass ceiling, its tobacco industry has seen a leap forward in recent years.

Last year, BAT Korea appointed its first female country manager. Philip Morris Korea has also made progress in building an inclusive work environment, with initiatives such as flexible working hours, remote working and half-day Fridays. In Korea, 33 percent of the company’s mid-level and senior management staff are women, with a goal of hitting 40 percent overall by 2022 and 40 percent in its factory in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province, by 2023.

Iryna Ashukina, director of manufacturing at the company’s production plant in Yangsan recalled her experience of 20 years as a woman at the company.

“My first assignment in manufacturing was back in Ukraine, my home country when at the age of 29 I was appointed a manager of a production unit with a hundred technicians and operators reporting to me, 95 percent of them being men of around 40 years old,” the senior official said during an interview with The Korea Herald.

“Since then I’ve been in many meeting rooms, conference calls and events where I was the only woman present. Of course, in the beginning it feels intimidating. However when you are confident of the value you bring to the discussion and to the business, you feel comfortable.”

PMK entered the Korean market in 1989 and built its first factory in the country in 2002 in Yangsan. In 2012, it built a new factory which is capable of manufacturing 40 billion cigarettes a year including brands such as Marlboro, Parliament and HEETS, tobacco sticks designed for IQOS devices.

The Yangsan factory has grown over the years. While IQOS and HEETS are available in 64 markets as of 2020 December, only 6 countries produce HEETS: Switzerland, Italy, Romania, Russia, Greece and Korea. And Yangsan is the first and only HEETS manufacturing facility in the Asia-Pacific region.

Being a mother, she has to juggle child care with her main role in the workplace, which is to oversee the manufacturing process.

“I start a day as a mother cooking breakfast for my son and seeing him off to school. When in the factory, I do my best to follow the standard work which implies spending ample time where the core business is, namely on production floor. My role is to support the teams to achieve safety, quality and productivity targets while being happy about what they are doing. Then there are a couple of meetings, a few calls with colleagues from all over the world and I am ready for the family dinner,” the senior official said.

South Korea’s gender pay gap stood at 32.5 percent in 2019 according to the OECD, the largest among the member states. The average stood at 12.8 as of 2018. Recent data from corporate tracker CEO Score also showed only 4.5 percent of boardroom members were women in Korea in 2020, while the figure was 30 percent in the US.

While Korea has been warned by the likes of Angel Gurria, the Secretary-General of the OECD, to introduce measures to help women and low-skilled elderly workers return to the workplace, Ashukina said companies should recognize the business benefit of having more women rather than trying to tick boxes.

“Companies need to stop thinking of adding female leaders to the roster as a box-ticking exercise and begin to recognize it for what it is: a business decision that reaps rich rewards. Why put those rewards off? In addition to the other inherent values women bring to executive positions, we offer experience and insights vital to connecting with female customers.”

The manufacturing director also cited two studies including Credit Suisse’s 2019 CS Gender 3000 study and a survey by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which showed that family-owned companies with at least 10 percent women executives had outperformed their male-only counterparts by around 410 basis points per year since 2014 and that having women in C-level positions such as CEO, CFO, and COO is associated with higher profitability.

“I’m proud to be a female leader but I have no interest in being the exception. We need women in positions of power to be the new normal,” she said.

“Women in the business world aren’t looking for favors -- or special treatment. I would simply ask corporate leaders to pause and ask themselves one simple question: Why are we operating without the best available talent?”

By Yim Hyun-su (