Women's Leadership: How to Close the Gender Gap in Asia

Astrid S. Tuminez
Astrid S. Tuminez

By Karen Lane

Asia’s booming economic growth has helped reduce the gender gap in many countries. However, there is still much room for improvement. We sat down to discuss women’s leadership with Microsoft's Astrid S. Tuminez.

Over the past two decades, Asia’s booming economic growth has helped reduce the gender gap in many countries. However, there is still much room for improvement particularly in government and in corporates. We sat down to discuss women’s leadership with Astrid S. Tuminez, Regional Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs in Southeast Asia for Microsoft Corp.

Asia has had a number of female heads of state and at high levels in companies but in many countries, the female workforce participation rate is still very low participation. How can these two trends coexist?

Asia, more than any region, has had the highest number of female heads of state. But this is largely due to family or dynastic connections, rather than gender equality. Some Asian countries with the highest human development index also tend to have the lowest gender equality and low levels of female workforce participation. That means the investment in human development (for example, education and health) for women is not being harnessed. Why? First, culture impacts the way that a woman can sustain her ambition and motivation. In many instances, women do all the work, but they would be deputies to the head, who tends to be a man. Being culturally undervalued or stigmatized for playing non-traditional leadership roles can discourage women. Second, policies in organizations matter. Do they support women, for instance in their childbearing years? Is there enablement, mentoring, and support for women, whose pathways to leadership tend to be different from men’s? A third factor is women’s own motivation. Are they working in a field that makes them feel alive and passionate? What are the drivers for them?

What do companies actually gain from having a more diverse workforce?Do you think that Asian companies and governments are fully aware of the gains from bringing more women into the workforce and into higher–levels of management?

Governments and companies are beginning to be more cognizant, but definitely not fully cognizant. For women who choose to have children, if you tell them due to biology your career path may be different, but we will support you, we can create a situation whereby women can flourish both as mothers and leaders in professions. And women will deliver!  In the Republic of Korea, the prime minister is a woman, and she and her former Minister of Women’s Affairs have done some creative things like certifying corporations that enforce a good diversity and inclusion policy.

The owner of a leading fashion house in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

What about the corporate world? How can we better reap the benefits of female participation?

We can reap the benefits of female participation by hiring and promoting more women as part of our talent pool.  At Microsoft, for example, the heads for six regions (Singapore, Philippines, Australia/New Zealand, Brunei, Bangladesh, and New Markets) are all women. In Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, we have 40-50% female employees overall, and 40-50% females as well among managers and up.  In my own department, Legal and Corporate Affairs, we have an Asia-Pacific leadership team that is 50% female, including the heads of Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.  Second, let’s listen to the perspectives of women. Microsoft works to bring technology, for example, to women entrepreneurs. When I work with these women, I feel that I understand them and they understand me. Besides work, we can laugh at the same things, we talk about kids… Third, many purchasing decisions are made by women. By having more women in companies, we can benefit from their perspectives on female consumption and decision-making.  The fundamental question is: what kind of communities and societies do we want our daughters to grow up in? Is it a society where they feel there is a wall they must scale every time they want to do something? I don’t think that is a just, equitable, or sustainable society.

There is a lot of correlation between more gender-diverse teams and better problem-solving, governance, and profitability. Women, for example, are better at attendance when they are on boards; their diligence helps change dynamics for the better.

Should we be targeting women to educate them about opportunities and cultural changes? Or should we target men? And how does diversity facilitate good long-term decision making?

Women tend to favor more participatory decision making. In the 21st century, where many workers may not have to go to an office anymore, young talent wants to work for companies where their voices are heard, and where they feel they are working for a meaningful cause. If you want to tap into that pool of talent, you’re going to have to bring a more female style: participatory, flexible. It’s the opposite of traditional, top-down decision making.

Asia is a very diverse place, but what can some Asian countries learn about diversity from more developed nations, and vice versa?

Singapore, Korea or Japan are more developed, with a very high human development index, [but] they are not always succeeding in female leadership. In some emerging countries it’s different. For instance in the Philippines, women are culturally strong, so their voices are heard and they are active leaders in practically all spheres. But, of course, there are other developing markets with both a poor human development and high gender inequality.  There are cultures that severely undervalue girls and women. India is an example, with its regrettably high rates of violence against women and persistently traditional expectations of females.

Kyrgyz pharmacists meet with ADB representatives in Bishkek.I would target leaders of governments and corporations, men and women. One public policy change, one national law, can have a huge ripple effect – especially if there is political will to implement it. Leaders of corporations have the power to implement change, and do it nimbly. At Microsoft, for example, we measure leaders’ performance on diversity.  In Asia, we may need to target men who feel a real loss when gender roles change. We need a redefinition of what it means to be a man, and there is interesting research here. It’s is not just about women fighting for rights, but also men willing to lose certain things they feel entitled to because that’s how they were educated. It is a family and a societal issue.

If you could address leaders on this issue, what would you tell them to do first?

I would paint a picture of where they are and how much they can gain, and second I would tell them: this will be your legacy, with specific examples. You must present a vision on how to get there, and it has to be different with each government, so they see their women as their single largest untapped asset.