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Gender diversity and inclusion for a fair business environment An ASEAN Narrative

Fostering gender equal leadership is one way to create a more efficient, equitable workplace. It contributes to the advancement of gender equality and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Given that the business sector is a key actor in realizing the SDGs, companies are called to shift from a voluntary corporate social responsibility approach to a model where business integrity is at the core of their value system. This also helps them mitigate risks associated with corruption, discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

This report provides a snapshot of catalytic factors to foster gender equal leadership across three domains: social norms, laws and regulatory measures, and companies’ organizational policies and practices. The company insights and good practices presented in this advocacy report cover a wide range of measures taken by companies in ASEAN to foster gender equality. We hope they will serve as examples for others to emulate, ultimately fostering a work culture more inclusive of women everywhere.

This report is the outcome of a research conducted across five of the ASEAN countries participating in UNDP’s ‘Promoting a Fair Business Environment in ASEAN (FairBiz) project, supported by the UK Government Prosperity Fund, ASEAN Economic Reform Programme: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam.

An ASEAN Narrative

The business case for gender diversity in the private sector has gained momentum in many parts of the world, and more recently in the Asia-Pacific region. There is compelling research demonstrating the linkages between gender diversity in senior leadership and tangible benefits for companies.

There is also growing evidence to establish the connection between gender-balanced representation in managerial roles and boards, and stronger corporate governance and transparency in business operations. This narrative, however, still stems from large multinationals and often lacks stories that can mirror a similar narrative for home-grown companies in Asia.

The purpose of this report is simple: to recognize the complex nature of addressing gender equality in leadership, and to advance the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) agenda in ASEAN. It aims to inspire companies and leaders in the region to move closer towards this goal by highlighting viable courses of action. Through desk research and interviews, it builds an ASEAN narrative that offers an overview of catalytic factors fostering gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in business: social norms, government measures, and companies' practices.

Why commit to Diversity & Inclusion

The right choice for business

Gender inclusive policies bring more than just a positive economic impact. Investing in gender diversity is the right choice for companies looking for sustainability and business success. Companies that score high on gender diversity in executive teams are seen to be 25 percent more profitable than those that do not prioritize this agenda (McKinsey, 2020).

Future-Proof Your Business through D&I

COVID-19 certainly created unprecedented disruptions and challenges. However, it has perhaps also provided a milestone wherein major disruptions require enhanced and diverse problem-solving skills for companies to design and implement new thinking around challenges that would impact their bottom line, their business strategy and their employees. Due to the unique perspectives and experiences that women and men bring in times of crisis, a gender-diverse leadership could lead to a better decision-making process (Banahan and Hasson, 2018).

D&I as part of the long-term strategy can ensure diversity in people and leadership during crisis, offering a sustainable and fair recovery while helping companies to deal with other future shocks.

Barriers & Opportunities

Three Domains of Exploration

A three-domain framework was designed to understand the full picture of the challenges and opportunities for increasing diversity, enhancing inclusion and creating greater gender-equal leadership in companies: Social Norms, Enabling Environment, and Organizational Practices. These three domains are independently critical, yet interdependent on each other.

Social Norms

Gender disparities are a persistent form of inequality across social, economic and political life, and they also manifest themselves in the labour market. For instance, cultural and traditional perceptions may continue to segregate gender roles and reinforce notions of the man as the family breadwinner and the woman as the family caretaker. This has an impact on women’s roles and functions at work, as well as their opportunities to take on leadership roles.

Continued efforts, advocacy and positive changes in laws, policies and practices are needed to shift such mindsets and cultivate social norms that see the capabilities of women and men as equal.

Women’s leadership potential - a victim of unconscious bias

Unconscious gender bias can be a major factor affecting women’s prospects in the workplace, across various sectors and levels. Stereotypes about leadership qualities often lean towards traits traditionally perceived as masculine, making it difficult for women to climb up to senior positions and rise to C-suite/executive level or board level roles.

Beyond addressing the glass ceiling that women face, it is also important for companies and other stakeholders to break down ‘the glass walls’. Increasing women's presence in occupational areas that are traditionally male dominated (e.g. engineering or IT) requires proactive and deliberate effort. Companies can make efforts to diversify their talent pool in male-dominated areas and ensure that all functions are more gender balanced.

Many companies are doing their fair share to identify, tackle and challenge these visible and invisible barriers.

Enabling Environment

Gender equality in the workplace can be fostered by the enabling environment, consisting of government measures, regulations, and policies, together with the work of non-profit groups and social movements promoting women’s leadership in business and beyond.

Gender equality laws and policies: a strong foundation for the D&I agenda

As observed in all five countries, the legal frameworks and government policies promoting gender equality in general are prerequisites for workplace equality and for promoting women’s leadership. Nevertheless, all these countries face challenges in the implementation and compliance of their policies and laws according to the Asia-Pacific Beijing+25 declaration.

Business coalitions and gender equality advocates are powerful agents of change

There is a range of women’s civil society movements and groups in all the five countries, playing an important role as agents of change.

Organizational Practices: company policies and measures

The challenges for promoting gender equal leadership are complex, but the prospects are promising. From simple, quick gains to comprehensive long-term initiatives, several companies are taking multiple measures to create and nurture greater diversity, inclusion and gender equality in the workplace, helping to shape an ASEAN narrative of D&I agenda.

Looking at these seven dimensions as building blocks critical to moving the needle on this agenda and to creating a company culture that embraces women in leadership roles, here are some simple tips on how to get started.

ENHANCE WOMEN'S LEADERSHIP

Consider setting baseline targets and timelines for increasing women in training, promotions and management positions.

AVOID GENDER-BASED PAY GAP

Address the factors that influence gender-based pay gaps (occupational segregation, interruption due to childbirth, lack of salary transparency), for example by establishing a transparent and fair salary structure based on functions and roles, or basing salaries on market rate for a job and not on an applicant’s previous salary.

IMPROVE WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Create accessible and safe spaces, including for childcare support, as well as the space for dialogue on work-life balance, such as having new parents share their experiences.

ENSURE BALANCED FEMALE REPRESENTATION ACROSS SECTORS

Senior male managers who are gender champions and advocates should be given visible roles to promote women’s engagement and leadership in traditionally male-dominated sectors and functions at work.

INCLUSIVE AND NON-SEXIST COMMUNICATION

Promote the use of gender sensitive language and images in communications, for example through training for staff, keeping in line with cultural sensitivities and language.

ZERO TOLERANCE OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Design gender-sensitive whistle-blower mechanisms taking into account different ways in which women and men feel comfortable about reporting issues (ensuring access, confidentiality and non-retaliation).

COVID-19

Maintain commitment to D&I, to build resilience to future shocks. For example, by ensuring flexible working arrangements, providing access to digital technologies (recognizing potential gendered digital divide), internal support (well-being surveys and employee resource groups) as well as external support (collating resources available on mental health, hotlines and shelters for addressing domestic violence).

Concluding reflections

Leadership and ambition are not a male prerogative

Women’s access to leadership and management roles in companies is often constrained by myths about their lack of ambition, leadership capacities, or tendency to prioritize family life over professional career development. In reality, women’s ambition can be influenced by the culture of their company, and they are likely to aspire to leadership roles within companies that have positive work environments and value diversity (Boston Consulting Group, 2017).

So while societal pressures and social norms do play a role, companies can provide an opportunity to bridge some of the challenges by providing a better workplace environment to enable women to reach out for career growth support and mentorship. Managers can also play a proactive role in identifying women who are ready to take on greater leadership roles.

Emphasize the “I” in Diversity & Inclusion

It is imperative for companies to build a culture around inclusive practices as they foster a better workplace environment for all. Companies should continue to establish measures promoting equal parental leave, flexible work hours, and job-shares, and to ensure that people who leverage these opportunities are celebrated rather than stigmatized. These efforts help to reshape social norms by creating a new narrative of shared responsibility for women and men.

In addition, ensuring zero tolerance towards sexual harassment is an important part of creating a safe and inclusive culture for all employees, and is critical for any business. While a policy against sexual harassment can be a first step to recognizing the issue and articulating commitment, companies must also put in place measures to prevent and respond to incidents.

Transparency and diversity: complementary goals

Transparency is a key aspect of corporate governance and should also be mirrored in D&I practices. In order to translate D&I commitments into real action and impact, companies should establish targets, monitor progress and communicate their results. Greater transparency on diversity goals would provide a platform to celebrate gains and keep track of remaining gaps.

While D&I initiatives can be organic and driven by human resources teams or employee resource groups, it is important that the accountability for overall results sits at the highest level of leadership. Placing final accountability with senior leadership can help ensure that companies are able to move beyond individuals and towards a systemic change. Further, greater diversity and having more women in leadership roles, especially at the Board level, also contribute to higher standards of transparency and better Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) outcomes (Di Miceli and Donaggio, 2018).

A role for everyone

The goal of reaching gender equal leadership is one which requires collaboration and concerted efforts from all stakeholders.

Governments must continue to develop laws, regulations and policies promoting gender diversity in business leadership. Companies must adopt organizational policies encouraging inclusive workplace practices and environment, which are essential for women to be able to take on leadership roles, while civil society and coalitions must continue to advocate and provide networking and training opportunities to this end. Finally, individuals must try to overcome their biases and challenge social norms which limit the leadership potential of women – whether in the household, in organizations, or society-at-large.

UNDP remains committed to promoting the diversity and inclusion agenda, together with gender equality in leadership roles, as a key element of business integrity, working with diverse stakeholders – from regulators to investors, as well as academia and advocacy groups.

This research was made possible by the contribution of the UK Government, as part of the Prosperity Fund, ASEAN Economic Reform Programme.

This advocacy report is part of an ongoing knowledge series exploring the intersection of gender equality and fair business environment, to:

  • enable equal opportunity for women and men through fair and transparent processes
  • strengthen accountability for the Diversity & Inclusion agenda
  • promote diversity in leadership as a key feature of good corporate governance.

Find out more about

Regional Initiative ‘Promoting a fair business environment in ASEAN (2018-2021) (FairBiz)’

Regional Dialogue ‘The Future of Leadership is Gender Equal’ (2019)

Regional Webinar Series:

For more information, please contact

Liviana Zorzi, Project Specialist on Transparency & Accountability, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub, at liviana.zorzi@undp.org