Increasing Boardroom Diversity to Improve Productivity: Singapore Example

An encouraging piece of news on a growing recognition of diversity as a driver of productivity. A great step forward towards ensuring gender inclusion in the boardroom. To read the article click here.

Women Leaders and the New Asian Century

Women Leaders and the New Asian Century[1]

Astrid S. Tuminez, Maria del Mar Garza and Lilia Saetova

Gender equality in Asia has advanced significantly in the last three decades, as measured by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. More women in Asia have access to tertiary education and consequently enter the labor market, with a chance to advance to leadership roles. However, a gender gap still persists: the more senior one goes up the leadership ranks, the fewer women there are.  And, in Asia, gender inequality is rooted in entrenched cultural variables such as the tendency to value girls less than boys.  This disparity in valuation of female versus male lives leads to continued female feticide, family decisions to invest less in girls’ than boys’ education, and continuous obstacles to women’s leadership.

To continue the discussion of possible solutions to promoting female leadership in Asia initiated in 2012 with the launch of the Rising to the Top? Report,[2] the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Microsoft, Rockefeller Foundation and Oxfam brought together senior leaders from government, corporations and non-profits at a symposium in Bangkok, Thailand, in April 2014. While Asia has been advancing economically, it confronts complex problems pertaining to severe inequality, widespread environmental degradation, and intractable conflicts. To effectively address these challenges, Asia needs to tap all of its human and leadership capital, male and female.

At the Bangkok symposium, participants from the government, corporate, and non-profit sectors sought to explain the ongoing problem of gender inequality in leadership in Asia and highlight potential solutions.  Participants from the corporate sector (Microsoft and CIMB) noted that diversity and inclusion are conducive to building a competitive advantage for teams and organizations, and to promoting creativity and innovation in the workplace. Women’s leadership must be at the core of any discussion of diversity and inclusion. A recent Fortune 500 analysis showed that organizations with higher female representation delivered 53% more return on equity to shareholders than those with fewer women[3]. However, to achieve genuine diversity and inclusion, Microsoft’s experience suggests that diversity must begin at the top and must also be part of managers’ performance targets. Generous and supportive maternity leave policies and flexible work conditions for women also help maintain work-life balance and helps women in their child-bearing years to stay in the workplace and continue to advance as leaders. Nonetheless, experience from the financial sector also emphasizes the need for not only institutional change, but, more importantly, change of attitudes. In Singapore, for example, only 30% of corporate leaders think it is important to have women on the board. A shortfall in creating the value proposition for gender diversity in the corporate sector still remains and must be addressed.

Women inspired to pursue careers in the public sector also find it challenging to make it to the top echelons of authority and decision-making.  Research conducted in Thailand revealed that, in many cases, organizations have no discriminatory policies and women perform as well as men.  Women also enter public sector careers at roughly the same numbers as men.  But after a certain point in time, the career paths of men and women diverge: men continue advancing to leadership roles, while women are left behind. One of the main reasons for this is that women continue to bear greater responsibilities at home and, with motherhood, those responsibilities increase intensively.  This is the “first hidden barrier to leadership” that women face. In sum, the unequal distribution of family responsibilities prevents women from moving forward in their careers.

Further evidence suggests that less female representation in leadership roles is not due to lower levels of education among women compared to men; on the contrary, in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, more women than men are enrolled in universities. However, the overall picture in Asia-Pacific shows that 14% of women enrolled in tertiary education do not work at all and only a negligible number of well-educated women reach leadership positions. These factors are deeply rooted in prevalent cultural norms, values and attitudes, concludes Dr. Juree Vichit-Vadakan from the National Institute of Development Administration of Thailand. In many cases, women do not receive the approval and support at home that they need to enable them to invest more fully in their professional roles. These cultural factors result from a long and large socialization process involving family, school, university and media. Thus, changing cultural values by transforming how people think, perceive and believe will enable a positive shift towards greater gender equality.

In Thailand, continuous advocacy efforts for gender equality have resulted in an 8% increase in women’s participation in the public sector in the last 24 years. Such advocacy work targets three levels: 1) the general public—to increase social acceptance of women’s achievements and changes in gender roles; 2) political parties—to conduct activities prior to elections, generate space to discuss specific policies for women, and increase women’s representation in political parties; and  finally, 3) women candidates—to provide intensive mentoring and training, and to create  networks among elected women leaders and women organizations to create awareness of challenges that women face.

A representative of UNDP emphasized some of the contributions of women as leaders.  Higher female participation in the public sector, for example, helps better prioritize health-related issues in policy-making. Women are also better at creating a collaborative environment within different parties, and their involvement in peace-making processes enhances the chances for long-term success. However, notwithstanding these positive contributions, Asia still lags behind in female participation in the public sector. The 2010 Regional Human Development Report identified three broad areas sustaining this trend: stereotypes of women’s traditional roles, political barriers, and economic barriers. Moreover, the report also suggested that economic development and democracy are a necessary, but not sufficient, solution to women’s participation in the public sector. Examples from Afghanistan and Japan confirm this statement and underline the need for design and intentionality when addressing the issue of gender inequality.

A speaker from UN Women argued that the low participation of women in the public sector is also due to prevalent unconscious bias and gender stereotyping that privileges men over women. A strong and well-documented evidence for this is the persistent wage gap between men and women. Another example is persistent discrimination against women as public sector leaders. To address cultural bias and gender stereotyping in the public sphere, some countries have resorted to affirmative action in the form of quotas for women participants and leaders. In countries where such quotas have been adopted, the number of women in parliament and other elective offices has increased.

Representatives from media emphasized the lack of female representation in leadership roles in their sector. Young female journalists have difficulty finding female leadership role models.  It is particularly important to have more women decision-makers and leaders in media because what they do could potentially promote gender inclusion, educate the general public, and raise the level of debate on such gender-related issues as sexism, teen pregnancy, violence against women and women’s leadership.

Civil society is also a driving force in improving gender diversity in leadership. A representative from Cambodia noted that civil society has underpinned efforts to increase women’s political representation in Cambodia. From 2005 to 2012, the percentage of women elected in local governments increased from 8% to 17%. These figures are encouraging, but more needs to be done.  Many male political leaders in Cambodia remain reluctant to support more women leaders because they view the situation as zero-sum:  if women reach higher levels of authority, men will be left behind.  A discussion is needed to help male leaders appreciate better the unique perspectives and contributions of their female counterparts, and to help advance the notion of healthy competition based on merit rather than gender.

Oxfam, a development organization that works in Asian countries where gender inequality is the largest challenge to poverty reduction, addressed the issue of women residing in rural.  A core challenge these women face is limited access to markets, information, credit and mobility. Oxfam works to empower rural women by investing in rural companies and cooperatives, and providing training to their members. These companies promote women’s participation at all levels, including in decision-making positions. However, culture, including traditional gender roles and traditional beliefs, remain a difficult barrier to overcome. To help overcome cultural variables, Oxfam has established women-led cooperatives, with the goal of changing perceptions of women and their potential contribution as leaders.

Finally, the non-profit sector, while having more women leaders than other sectors, exemplifies vulnerability in leadership.  Salaries offered in non-profits are significantly lower compared to the private or even public sectors. This tends to exclude men from pursuing non-profit careers because the compensation offered is not enough for them to sustain their roles as breadwinners. Thus, the main challenge faced by non-profits has less to do with the underrepresentation of women than with building more savvy and competitive human capital. Women leaders in the non-profit space need to learn better and do more to sustain what they do without having to rely constantly on the good will and generosity of external funding agencies.

To advance women’s leadership and promote greater gender equality in Asia, strong political will and commitment are critical in the private, public and non-profit sectors.  The region has already made progress in gender equality, but it is not enough.  For all of its new affluence, a “rising Asia” can continue to rise in a more sustained manner only if it is able to tap the talents and leadership contributions of all its men and women.

[1] For a full version of the report from which this article is derived, please see the following link:

[2] Tuminez, A. S. (2012). Rising to the top? A report on women’s leadership in Asia.

Available at:

[3] Carter, N.M. (2011). The bottom line: Corporate performance and women’s representation on boards.



Mr. Haresh Koobchandani, Managing Director, Microsoft Thailand


Symposium participants


Symposium speakers (from left to right): Dr. Maytinee Bhongsvej, Secretary General, Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, Thailand; Ms. Caitlin Wiesen, Regional Manager, UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Center; Ms. Roberta Clarke, Regional Director, UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific; Mr. Jeff Bullwinkel, Associate General Counsel and Director of Legal & Corporate Affairs, Asia Pacific/Japan, Microsoft


Symposium speakers (from left to right): Ms. Sasiya Sophastienphong, Regional Enterprise Development Program Coordinator, Oxfam; Ms. Chaliya Sophasawatsakul, Global Digital Vision Producer, Oxfam; Ms. Srisak Thaiarry, Executive Director, National Council for Child and Youth Development, Thailand; Ms. Thida Khus, Executive Director, SILAKA Cambodia; Ms. Fern Uennatornwaranggoon, Senior Program Associate, Rockefeller Foundation




Symposium participants


Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez, Regional Director, Legal and Corporate Affairs, Southeast Asia Microsoft




Dr. Juree Vichit-Vadakan, Advisor and former Dean, Vice-President and President, National Institute of Development Administration, Thailand


Symposium participants


Symposium speakers (from left to right): Ms. Watanan Petersik, Independent Director, CIMB; Ms. Siriyupa Roongrerngsuke, Executive Director and Head of Human Resources Program, The Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration, Chulalongkorn University

Ms. Nattha Komolvadhin, TV Journalist, Thai Public Broadcasting Service



“Women Leaders and the New Asia Century” Event in Bangkok

On April 21st, leaders from the private, public and civil society sectors met in Bangkok to discuss the rise of women’s leadership in the Asian century. Panel discussions and event dialogue was centered on the following topics related to women’s leadership in the region: How are the different sectors contributing to it? What policies, practices, initiatives and innovations are supporting women in their rise to the top? Which ones are not?

The event, organized by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Microsoft Thailand, Oxfam and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, is part of a series of conversations with leaders across sectors from Asia.

The goal of the event was to bring together experienced practitioners, draw lessons and exchange insights on best practices and innovations to support women’s leadership and contributions to twenty-first century Asia.


The diverse group of speakers included:

– Dr. Astrid Tuminez, Regional Director Legal and  Corporate Affairs, Southeast Asia, Microsoft
– Haresh Khoobchandani, Managing Director, Microsoft Thailand
– Dr. Juree Vichit-Vadakan, Advisor and former Dean, Vice-President and President of the National Institute of Development Administration, Thailand
– Roberta Clarke, UN Women Regional Director of UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and Representative in Thailand
– Caitlin Wiesen, Regional Manager, UNDP Regional Center
– Dr. Maytinee Bhongsvej, Secretary General of  Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, Thailand
– Jeff Bullwinkel,  Associate General Counsel and Director of Legal & Corporate Affairs, Asia Pacific/Japan, Microsoft
– Nattha Komolvadhin, TV Journalist, Thai Public Broadcasting Service
– Siriyupa Roongrerngsuke, Executive Director and Head of Human Resources Program at the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration, Chulalongkorn University.
– Watanan Petersik, Independent Director, CIMB Building Resilience:  Women’s Leadership in the Civil Society Sector
– Thida Khus, Executive Director, SILAKA Cambodia
– Chaliya Sophasawatsakul, Global Digital Vision Producer
– Sasiya Sophastienphong, Regional Enterprise Development Program Coordinator,  Oxfam
– Srisak  Thaiarry, Executive Director,  National Council for Child and Youth Development
– Fern Uennatornwaranggoon, Senior Program Associate, Rockefeller Foundation


The event, held at the Anantara Bangkok Sathorn, provided a unique opportunity for attendees to network with like-minded leaders from organizations across sectors.


Source: Women’s Pathways to Leadership in Asia.

Study: Female Representation in Top Asian Companies Lags Behind Western Counterparts


Source: Harvard Business Review.

According to a recent study by the 20-First consultancy group, 60% of the top U.S. companies now have at least two women on their executive committees.

However, Asian companies have yet to see equal female representation in their executive committees. The survey revealed top Asian (including Australian) companies are “still dominated by men.”  Close to 90% of the Asian companies surveyed have less than two women on their leadership team.

Click on the image to read the Harvard Business Review article.


Harvard Asia Center’s “Values and Morals in Business and the Professions Event”

On January 8, Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez, Founder of Women’s Pathways to Leadership in Asia, joined a panel discussion in Shenzhen, China on “Morals and Values in Business and the Professions.”  The panel was part of a multi-year collaboration between the Harvard Asia Center and Vanke Corporation, the largest residential real estate developer in China.

Harvard Event

Source: Harvard Asia Center.

Close to 200 business leaders attended the panel, which was led by Prof. Arthur Kleinman, director of the Harvard Asia Center.  Dr. Tuminez’s portion of the panel addressed women’s leadership in Asia.

Harvard Event 2

Source: Harvard Asia Center.

In addition to the panel, she participated in taping a short commentary on women’s leadership, with the video intended for use at the new Vanke in-house management institute.

For more information on the Harvard Asia Center click on the link.


Slow Progress in Asian Executive Boards

The recently released “Diversity Scorecard 2012: Measuring Board Composition in Asia Pacific” reveals that progress in improving diversity in executive boards across Asia’s leading companies has been slow. Most countries’ boards now have a slightly higher percentage of female directors, with female directors accounting for 16.7 percent, up from 11.2 percent in 2010.

Click on the link to read the full report.

Source: Korn Ferry Institute.

Asia and the Pacific: Closing the Political Gender Gap

Last week saw the release of the annual Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum. Interestingly, Asia and the Pacific lead on political empowerment with 24% of its political gender gap being closed; the Middle East and North Africa takes last place for political empowerment at 7%.

Iceland has the smallest gender gap of the 136 countries in the report, and the other Nordic countries are close behind it. Yemen has the largest gap, followed by Pakistan, Chad, and Syria. The United States comes in 23rdplace. Saudi Arabia, where some courageous women stood up to a driving ban last weekend, ranks 127th out of 136 in the index overall.

To read the full report, visit the World Economic Forum site.

Women Deliver 2013 Conference Celebrates Success in Women’s Equality in Asia

Held in Kuala Lumpur, the Women Deliver 2013 conference was one of the largest gatherings of policymakers, advocates and researchers focused exclusively on women’s health and empowerment to date. The event, held, for the first time in Asia, was attended by over 4500 experts, policymakers, advocates, and participants from more than 150 countries.

The three-day conference, held for the first time in Asia, was attended by 5,000 experts and advocates from more than 160 countries, was the biggest meeting on women and girls. It focused on the ongoing challenges to improve the health and wellbeing of girls and women.

Photo courtesy of Women Deliver 2013

Female leaders across the globe including former president of Finland Tarja Halonen, Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards, former United Nations special rapporteur on Violence Against Women Yakin Ertürk, and Al Jazeera journalist Ghida Fakhry, addressed questions about women in leadership and empowerment of women in Asia. Among the milestones and challenges in women’s equity reached in the Asia region, the following were highlighted:

– Countries in the Asia-Pacific region have increased women’s representation in government bodies in recent years. However, numbers are still low and vary greatly—women’s representation in parliament ranges from 3% to 34% across the region.

– The Asia-Pacific region ranked highest in the world for women’s political empowerment, according to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index. However, there is significant variation among countries, with the Philippines ranking among the top 10 worldwide, and India and Nepal among the 20 lowest ranking nations.

– Although the median age of first marriage is rising worldwide, it remains lowest in Southeast Asia.

– Approximately one in five women between 15-24 years and one in six women between 40-49 years in Southeast Asia are subject to gender-based violence from their intimate partner or husband.

Source: Women Deliver 

The conference featured a wide range of experts, policymakers and game changers in the health and development sectors. Focused on girls and women, the conference workshops and events provided a forum to discuss the future of the development framework. For more information on the conference coverage and media visit the following link.



‘Kimchi Paradigm’ Offers New Insights Into Success at Asian Women Leaders Conference

True, we were eating mainly delectable Indian dishes at the fourth annual Women Leaders of New Asia summit in New Delhi, but the reference to kimchi did come up. When discussing the subject of next-generation leadership, one delegate, who is among the handful of female senior executives in the Korean private sector, noted that women often do not know how to ask for what they want or deserve. They also do not negotiate well (this is amply borne out by research) and, as a result, men tend to be paid better than women for similar work. In addition, women may be handicapped in other areas, including networking and executive presence. She noted that the next generation needs to cultivate readiness to become global leaders, learn to do self-marketing, and be open to feedback.


Photo courtesy of Asia Society

The delegate further recounted how she overcame some of the common pitfalls for rising women leaders when, as a young professional in a U.S. company, she found that she did not have much to contribute when the largely male executives talked about sports and other things American. So the next time she was at a gathering, she prepared her own talking points: kimchi and other things Korean. This made her stand out. Soon, others, with knowledge and curiosity, joined in. She was no longer left out. She led the conversation. She redefined discourse and dynamics to make herself noticed as an articulate and capable professional.

I may have read more into the kimchi story than the speaker intended, but I immediately blurted out during the session that we had just heard the kimchi paradigm! So what is the kimchi paradigm? It refers to the fact that successful women leaders often know (or, at least, learn) how to take who they are and what they know and let their individuality shine. They are (or become) confident in their skin. In addition, these women leaders know how to take the unique strengths of other individuals and capitalize on human variety and spice to create teams that work effectively.

In a more interdependent and globalized world, the old paradigm of leadership — based on aggression, authority, hierarchy and competition — is increasingly becoming questionable. It may still work well in some contexts, but leadership gurus note that, in many instances, new modes of leading may be needed — based on authenticity, transparency, collaboration, and even vulnerability.

At the summit, I was inspired by all the kimchi in action. Around the table of 35 women leaders were scholars, politicians, journalists, activists, art connoisseurs, entrepreneurs, corporate executives, philanthropists, venture capitalists, and others. It was a spicy, interesting group of individuals. There was a great fermentation of ideas. We were variously seasoned by the insights and stories and personalities of women who have blazed amazing trails and improved the lives of others, in particular. I came away with new energy, feeling the heat and kick of kimchi in my brain.

Post courtesy of Dr. Astrid Tuminez, Regional Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs in Southeast Asia for Microsoft Corporation. Article published by the Asia Society Blog on April 25th, 2013.

4th Annual Women Leaders of New Asia Summit in New Delhi

Article published by the Asia Society on April 15th, 2013. 

With important elections pending in key Asian countries and in the wake of a number of highly publicized acts of violence against women in the Asia-Pacific region, Asia Society convened its 4th Annual Women Leaders of New Asia (WLNA) summit. Over 35 distinguished delegates from 14 different countries across the region and disciplines gathered to identify critical issues affecting women and to develop an action plan to address these concerns in a collaborative manner.

Over the course of two days’ of deliberations, the participants repeatedly underscored why it is imperative to invest more in efforts to change social attitudes and mindsets and how they might go about doing so.  Other key components identified that would be crucial in this endeavour include  providing opportunities for proper trainings and  mentorships;  advocating for the private sector to incorporate gender issues into their strategic planning; sharing their success stories; preventing  career pipeline leakages; and exchanging best practices from across the region.   Astrid Tuminez, Regional Director, Legal and Corporate Affairs, Microsoft Southeast Asia, and author of last year’s WLNA report Rising to the Top? A Report on Women’s Leadership in Asia will also be releasing a follow-up later this year on the role of men in mentoring and empowering women.

Photo courtesy of Asia Society 

As President Emerita of Asia Society and Special Advisor for Global Affairs at Columbia University, Dr. Vishakha N. Desai, said, “It’s not just about women having a seat at the table – it’s changing the shape of the table.”  Delegates agreed to take forward a number of concrete activities towards this, including setting up a regional chapter of WLNA in Pakistan to take forward the women’s agenda there, starting a mentorship programme for women across ages and regions (in collaboration with the Asia Society’s Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative), and rolling out a campaign that leverages the extensive corporate, government and social sector networks of the delegates to shape mindsets for gender parity.

The summit was launched with a public program featuring: Dr. Desai; Governor of Rajasthan, Margaret Alva; Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute of Women, Peace and Security, Melanne Verveer;,Bangladesh Minister of Women and Children Affairs, Shirin Chaudhary; and Singapore Member of Parliament, Penny Low, who suggested that we need to develop a global shapers community that cuts across regions, disciplines and ages, to keep women linked and working towards a progressing path. Further, she said that we need to find the “killer app” to implement inclusive policy.

While the participants felt that the moment is ripe for pushing the agenda for women’s empowerment and gender equity, they were  mindful that changes will come in increments.  They also acknowledged that change will only be possible when the policy changes go hand in hand with changes in social attitudes. Vishakha Desai said that “There is a mismatch between policy and social norms – to change an attitude takes not only courage but generations. It is easier to change infrastructure than mindset or culture. It is a work in progress, we have to be relentless.”

For a link to the article, please visit the Asia Society’s Women Leaders of New Asia