International Women’s Day: female leadership in Asia-Pacific businesses is shrinking as flexible working arrangements are dismantled, Grant Thornton says

International Women’s Day: female leadership in Asia-Pacific businesses is shrinking as flexible working arrangements are dismantled, Grant Thornton says

International Women’s Day: female leadership in Asia-Pacific businesses is shrinking as flexible working arrangements are dismantled, Grant Thornton says

Senior female business leadership in the Asia-Pacific region has been shrinking this year and is lagging behind other parts of the world, with the lack of flexible working in the post-Covid era posing a hindrance to gender parity, global advisory firm Grant Thornton International said.

The proportion of women holding senior management positions in mid-market businesses in the region has dropped to 31 per cent this year, one percentage point lower than 2023, the firm said in a report released on Friday. Latin America leads the world with a representation of 36 per cent, it added.

Grant Thornton defines mid-market businesses as those with annual revenue between US$5 million and US$500 million in mainland China, and those with sales between US$100 million and US$4 billion annually in the United States. In Europe, employers with a staff of 50 to 500 fall into this category.

“The advancement in the representation of women in senior management within the mid-market sector has been disappointingly slow,” said Mabel Chan, deputy managing partner at Grant Thornton’s Hong Kong office. “We urge businesses to proactively take concrete measures to hasten progress towards gender parity.”

These findings are significant because flexible working arrangements will be crucial for Hong Kong, where the Legislative Council has approved a bill aimed at encouraging more people to join the workforce to ease shortages in the labour market, according to flexible office spaces provider IWG.

The Grant Thornton report is based on the conclusions of a survey of about 5,000 mid-market companies in 28 countries between October and December last year. The survey found that the trend of return to office had deprived women of flexible working arrangements, a key element empowering female corporate leadership.

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About 47 per cent of the businesses surveyed operate from offices currently, up from 36 per cent for the previous year, while the proportion of companies adopting a hybrid working model, where employees spend some time working remotely, fell to 45 per cent from 53 per cent, the report said.

The issue of gender inequality continues to be a pervasive challenge, particularly in the labour market, although some of the attention of late has been diverted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the tightening of global monetary policies and the Russia-Ukraine war, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

More female participation in the labour market or representation in senior management positions will be critical for a global economy that is grappling with a slowdown in China and decades-high interest rates in the US, Moody’s said. The narrowing of the gender gap in labour force participation since 2019 has added US$1.5 trillion to global income, it added.

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Grant Thornton’s Chan suggested that companies re-evaluate decisions linked to return-to-office arrangements and appoint senior female leaders to spearhead and oversee gender-equality strategies.

The report shows the challenges companies are facing worldwide in promoting gender parity, with flexible working styles preferred by women currently taking a back seat to conventional office modes advocated by male executives. Grant Thornton said that achieving the goal of gender parity in senior corporate roles would be a long haul without further supportive moves.

Hybrid working does have a material impact on the alleviation of gender parity. A report released this week by IWG showed that 53 per cent of the more than 1,000 female hybrid workers it spoke to were emboldened to pursue promotions and to apply for more senior positions. The proportion was even higher at 61 per cent among women in minority groups that are identified as disabled or from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the report.

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More work will be required to reverse the almost stalled progress in gender equality in the business world globally. On top of senior management positions, the representation of female CEOs has also witnessed a significant decline on a worldwide basis over the past year. The proportion has fallen to 19 per cent currently from 28 per cent in 2023, because of public pressure, caregiving responsibilities and the feeling that they have to adopt more masculine behaviour, Grant Thornton’s report said.

China has seen a decline of 14 percentage points in the number of female CEOs in the same time span and the drop in the US is 15 percentage points, it said.

Raising the female labour participation rate and ensuring that women receive adequate representation in leadership positions are two key avenues to closing the gender gap that will have beneficial effects on economic growth, according to Bank of Singapore.

In Asia, India is ranked among the lowest in terms of female participation in the labour force, while Japan’s participation is quite high and has the potential to increase quality, it said.

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