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Women on boards - why is progress so slow in Asia?

Nick Marsh, Managing Director, Harvey Nash Executive Search APAC

The publication of the Davies report has once again elevated the issue of board diversity to front page news, unfortunately most of this coverage has been confined to the UK. With FTSE 100 firms meeting the voluntary target of 25 per cent women board members and FTSE 350 companies having more women than ever before serving on their boards, with 550 new female appointments in just over four years, this shows just how far the needle can move if board diversity is treated as a business priority. 

Many will be asking why can't Asia replicate the UK's success? Why are we still struggling to make change, despite talking about this issue for years? Partly because many companies, both in Hong Kong and the wider region, do not see gender diversity as a major issue, or are not prioritising it, often leaving employees feeling powerless and that not enough is being done. 

Serving to compound this issue further, companies in Hong Kong often use their own limited networks to hire for board and sub board executive roles, which are usually made up of men of a similar background and age. Whilst some of the more forward-looking organisations do use external firms, many regional companies continue torevert instead to their existing connections, perpetuating the cycle of hiring in their own image. 

Despite these ongoing issues, the diversity situation in Asia is moving in a positive direction as we have seen an increase in the number of women on boards across the region this year. Australia leads with 19%, Hong Kong 11.1%, Singapore 9.6%, and India 9.5%. All of these are up on the previous year but as research from Catalyst shows, Asia is fast falling behind the rest of the world where countries are achieving a much higher proportion of women in the boardroom, for example Norway (35.5%) and France (29.7%).

Looking specifically at Hong Kong, last year saw the biggest increase in both the number of female directors and the number of director positions for women since 2009. Nearly three-quarters of companies now have at least one woman on their boards. However this improvement has been driven by only a handful of companies and there has been virtually no increase in companies with female executive directors. The rate of new appointments of women is failing to accelerate and, with seven major companies ignoring calls for greater diversity, Hong Kong is lagging behind global counterparts. 

There is still plenty of work for us all to do and we will explore actions that can be put in place over the next couple of weeks - follow this series of articles for more information.

If you have any questions please don't hesitate to contact me directly