Women are still banging their heads against the ceiling

If Hong Kong looks bad for numbers of female board members, in South Korea it's worse

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 3:57am

South Korea may have elected its first female president earlier this year but in the corporate world, it is still a country dominated by men.

Park Geun-hye made history in February when she reached the country's top political spot, but a recent report issued by the international headhunting firm Heidrick & Struggles shows the vast majority of decision makers in South Korean boardrooms and in top leadership positions are men.

South Korea ranked at the bottom of a league table compiled for a McKinsey & Co report last year, with only 1 per cent of directors being women. There were no women executives running South Korea's biggest state-owned companies. There were only 13 female chief executives among the 1,787 listed companies on the Korean Composite Stock Price Index, just 0.7 per cent of the total.

While we complain Hong Kong has too few female directors with only about 9 per cent of places on listed companies' boards being taken by women, compared to South Korea, our ladies are not doing too bad.

So why does South Korea lack female business leaders?

The Heidrick & Struggles survey in March this year showed 83 per cent of female executives said there still remained an invisible barrier to their upward progression, while 60 per cent said there was a general lack of faith in the professional competence of women in South Korea.

The reasons they gave are related to a combination of cultural barriers, gender discrimination and pressure on women to leave their jobs to take care of their children once they have a family.

As one female executive told Heidrick & Struggles: "There are no invisible glass ceilings for talented women executives in Korea - just very visible ones!"

However, the survey found that women in South Korea have seen signs of improvement, with some companies having a policy to remove gender discrimination.

Hong Kong's female representation on boards is higher than Taiwan and mainland China, both at 8 per cent. Singapore has 7 per cent of directors who are female, Malaysia and Indonesia 6 per cent, India 5 per cent and Japan 2 per cent, according to the McKinsey report.

Hong Kong still lags behind Australia, with 13 per cent of board seats occupied by women, while the United States, Britain and European countries have 17 per cent to 40 per cent of women directors on listed companies' boards.

The high ratio in Europe is probably due to statutory requirements. In Norway the law requires at least 40 per cent of board members to be women. Other European countries, such as France and Italy, are planning to introduce similar rules.

In Hong Kong, many disagree with such a quota system. Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing will require all companies from September to have more women or people of different ages and background on their boards. If they fail to comply they will have to explain why not.

It is better to establish a culture in which companies think it is important to have more women or people with different backgrounds on board, instead of forcing them to do so.

If you force companies to meet quotas, they will simply ask their female relatives or friends to meet the quota. If this happens, it will not result in more diverse boardrooms.