Anne Rayner
May 18, 2017

Why Southeast Asia is ahead of the region on gender equality

Levels of gender inequality in Asia Pacific remain depressing, but regional variations show that things don’t have to be this way, writes Anne Rayner of Kantar TNS.

Anne Rayner
Anne Rayner

I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about gender equality, most recently whilst developing the Campaign Asia-Pacific and Kantar study into gender in the media and marketing industries (see "Agencies better for gender equality than brands: Exclusive research" and download the report here). As an Australian, I find the findings make for tough reading. The only thing more disappointing than how unequal the industry remains is where some of the greatest inequality lies.

Australia and New Zealand have a decades-long history of awareness and activism around women’s rights. It seems natural to assume that such countries should be leading the way on equality. In fact, almost the opposite is true.

It would be stretching things to say that they are the countries with least opportunity for women across the industry. In Japan and Korea, rigidly male-dominated social structures are translated into a workplace that remains stubbornly unsupportive of female careers. However, Australia and New Zealand are not all that much better—and that’s the surprise.

How Australia and New Zealand fall short on gender equality

Across Australia and New Zealand combined, 68 percent of women believe that men have more opportunities in the workplace. That’s more than in China and India, and it’s over twice as high as in Southeast Asia. Similarly, while only 17 percent of women in Southeast Asia felt that they had missed out on opportunities at work because of their gender, more than 40 percent of those in Australia and New Zealand said that they had.

These experiences of inequality in the workplace have a clear outcome in the number of women in leadership positions. Of the men and women we spoke to in our survey, 39 percent of those in Southeast Asia worked for a female CEO, whereas only 18 percent of those in Australia and New Zealand did.

With 46 percent of Australians reporting meetings that are regularly dominated by men (twice the rate for Asia Pacific as a whole), we seem to be looking at a culture with systematic male bias. And worryingly, persistent workplace inequality seems to be actively eroding the ambition of women. Only 68 percent of women in Australia and New Zealand now want the top job—significantly fewer than the 89 percent average for Asia Pacific.

If we want leadership on gender equality in media and marketing, it’s to the countries of Southeast Asia that we must look. What explains their significantly better performance? What do they have that Australia and New Zealand don’t? Or perhaps more accurately, what don’t they have that Australia and New Zealand do?

The cultural archetypes embedding unconscious bias

Australia and New Zealand share a common characteristic with Singapore, which also performs poorly on most of our measures of gender equality: an individualistic, Anglo Saxon-influenced business culture stemming from a colonial British heritage. The evidence suggests that this working culture has embedded unconscious bias in judgements of women in the workplace, which is proving extremely difficult to address.

This makes sense when you consider how unconscious bias works: an instinct for pattern matching that shapes what leadership, talent and potential look like. It’s never consciously considered or expressed, and as a result is extremely difficult to eliminate, even in a country with much conscious discussion of gender inequality. It remains deeply rooted in the western cultural archetypes around business success.

The contrast with Southeast Asia suggests that unconscious bias against women isn’t an inevitable part of workplace culture. In societies that value individualism less, and have more collective and community-based ideals, the contribution of women has traditionally been more valued at all levels. This appears to have helped Southeast Asia move forward on gender equality. It’s significant, for example, that supportiveness, a far more collective trait, is valued so much more highly as a leadership trait here than elsewhere.

Not perfect, but proactive

This isn’t to say that Southeast Asia has no problem with unconscious bias. Gender inequality remains, and almost a third of women in that region still perceive that men have more opportunities in media and marketing. The advances that Southeast Asia has made may reflect some natural cultural advantages. However, they also reflect a more proactive approach to addressing the imbalances that do exist. The 22 percent reporting policies that their organisation has developed to address imbalance of opportunity in Southeast Asia is more than for any other part of Asia Pacific.

Across Asia Pacific, women are more likely than men to state that more opportunities are granted to their male colleagues. Only 26 percent of men believe that this happens, compared to 58 percent of women. It’s important for male leaders to recognise that just because they don’t ‘see’ the bias, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

The levels of gender inequality in Asia Pacific remain depressing. However, the regional variations that exist show that things don’t have to be this way. Raising awareness of the importance of gender equality isn’t enough. It’s only by identifying and addressing the particular unconscious biases of each culture that we can move forward. Our hope is that our study will help—in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

Anne Rayner is global head of communications research with Kantar TNS

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