Women's movement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2011, 12:00am


Soon after Dr. Nirmala Menon was appointed chief executive officer of ING Insurance for Malaysia in 2007, she was invited to a gathering for leaders of the insurance industry.

The reception she received from the all-male gathering was not exactly welcoming.

'I remember walking into the meeting and they just ignored me,' she said.

Dr. Menon, who began her career as a medical doctor before climbing the ranks of the insurance industry, had just become the first woman to be appointed to lead an insurance company in Malaysia.

She may have been the only woman in the room back then, but there is no shortage of female senior managers within her own company now.

With women occupying half of the senior management roles, the Malaysian arm of ING Insurance has already surpassed the parent company's goal of having women occupy 33 per cent of its top leadership positions by 2013, Dr Menon said.

While the upper ranks of many industries remain dominated by men, more companies are taking steps to ensure women have greater access to leadership opportunities and that working hours are more flexible.

As competition for talented staff intensifies, commentators say the need to provide workplaces which appeal to women will only become more critical.

For Dr. Menon, who was named 'Asia's leading woman in finance and investment' at the Women in Leadership Forum in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, the fact that she was regularly offered challenging new roles was a large part of the reason she has remained at ING for 19 years.

Last July she added the title of head of Southeast Asia to her business card, the first female to hold that position within the company.

Asked why the Malaysian division has more women in senior positions than many other countries' divisions, Dr. Menon said Malaysia had many female leaders, such as the Central Bank governor, Zeti Akhtar Aziz, who helped inspire young women.

'If they see examples they strive to emulate,' she said.

Dr. Menon cites extended family support as a critical factor which can help women succeed in the corporate world.

'In Asia it's a very common thing where your extended family is living with you or nearby,' she said, adding that her parents lived with her and her husband when their three children were young.

To help ensure women have the opportunity to reach leadership positions, ING Insurance offers leadership training specifically for women and seeks to ensure that there are both female and male candidates for all job vacancies, Dr. Menon said.

Mildred Tan, managing director of Ernst and Young Advisory Services in Singapore and one of the judges at this year's forum, said awareness of the need to create women-friendly workplaces varied across different segments of the economy.

While many multinational corporations have realised the need to foster women's careers and provide flexible workplaces, small to medium enterprises have been slower to catch on, she said.

At Ernst and Young, three out of the 15 members - or 20 per cent - of the company's global executive board members are women, while in the Asia Pacific region, women represent 22 per cent of the firm's partners.

Tan, who also oversees the company's advisory services in Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, Guam and Sri Lanka, is the only woman among 10 board members in Singapore.

She said the company had introduced a range of programs to help more women reach leadership positions, rather than leaving it to chance.

For instance, the female partners have started a mentor program for other female staff; the company identifies high-performing women for extra coaching and mentoring, there are intensive training courses for personal and career development, and a 'Working Mums Network' for those with children.

One of the female partners in Singapore who recently had a baby is currently working part-time and the company allows women to choose how they use their maternity leave.

While the company offers the standard four months maternity leave as required by law in Singapore, Tan said some women had opted to stagger the fourth months, taking one or two days off a week for several months.

'For us the flexi work arrangements are a critical component of retaining good talent. In Singapore we are desperately short of good talent,' said Tan, who became a nominated member of Singapore's parliament two and a half years ago after she was recommended by business and community leaders.

She is chairing a government committee which is studying the potential for more women to be involved in 'home-based work'.

Tan said estimates suggested that between 200,000 and 300,000 Singaporean women of working age were currently out of the workforce.

She said tapping into this pool of women could help ease some of the city state's labour shortages.

'If we've got women at home, and we've got the technology available, why can't we bring the two together and create the opportunity for them to work,' she said.

Tata Consultancy Services, an IT company with offices in more than 42 countries, already has a number of female employees working from home in countries such as Singapore and India.

The company, which was named Asia's most women-friendly employer at the forum, also gives staff the opportunity to work flexible hours, according to Georgia Tan, head of organisational development for Asia Pacific.

Georgia Tan recalled how one of her colleagues, who has young children, largely determines her own work hours.

'Nobody tries to dictate what time she comes in and goes home, as long as she gets the work done,' she said.

The company has received an influx of female employees in the past decade, with women now representing 30 per cent of the company's workforce. She said this influx of female employees coincided with changes in societal norms in some parts of Asia.

For instance, Georgia Tan said, it had become more acceptable for women to work outside the home, and to continue working after they had children, in countries such as India.

While more companies appear to be taking steps to help women climb the corporate ladder, social commentators say much more remains to be done.

'These activities fall short as they do not address the issue that corporate cultures are gender-biased and imbalanced,' said Christina Ioannidis, the co-author of a recently released book, Your Loss: How to Win Back Your Female Talent.

'While companies have undertaken these activities, the dial on gender diversity in the corporate world has only marginally improved.'

Transforming the gender make-up in the corporate world may be a slow process, but some female leaders are optimistic that much change will occur in coming years.

Georgia Tan, from Ernst and Young, predicts more female leaders will emerge and those already in board rooms will take on more active roles.

'In five years time it's going to be a very different picture,' she said.


Making workplaces 'female-friendly' has become an oft-repeated catchphrase in the corporate world.

But despite the proliferation of company policies designed specifically with women in mind, some women are finding genuine change is taking longer to eventuate.

In response, some are choosing to take their careers into their own hands and start their own businesses, according to Christina Ioannidis, founder and chief executive of Aquitude, a UK-based consulting company.

The company's survey of 168 female entrepreneurs in Australia, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the US and Canada, found that the women chose to leave their corporate careers behind for a range of reasons.

Of the women surveyed by researchers last year, 36 per cent said they chose to leave their company because they felt unfulfilled. About 32 per cent resigned because they wanted greater flexibility.

Almost a quarter of those surveyed also said that being excluded from decision-making was a factor in their decision to resign.

With studies showing that the cost of replacing a manager could be as high as 200 per cent of their base salary, Ioannidis said companies needed to create inclusive cultures, address gender bias and increase the number of women in leadership positions if they wanted to avoid incurring the costs associated with finding replacement staff.

'The hidden costs of losing talent are huge,' she said.