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Women in business

Until the more progressive countries of the World came to recognise the realities of "LGBT", it was popularly believed that all of society was born into two roughly equal groups. There were little boys and there were little girls, most of whom grew up to become men and women. Institutions recognised that natural diversity, but, except in the most enlightened societies, failed to treat those two groups with the equality that they deserved. The men went out hunting, did the heavier work, often fought with neighbouring communities, and tended to rule the roost. The women stayed home, did the housework, produced and nurtured the babies, did a lot of the lighter work around the farm, but seldom rose to leadership even though they were often wiser and tended to live longer.

Although societies have become more sophisticated, with hunters moving into smart offices or factories, and fighting with sophisticated weaponry, men continue to think of themselves as the top dogs. Women still have to bear the children, since no-one has yet invented an effective alternative means of procreation and still have to do a lot of the housework.

But in more advanced societies, women also take on all kinds of gainful employment, in many cases alongside their menfolk, but often in lesser capacities. Even in equal capacities they often earn lower levels of remuneration. The concept of equal pay for equal work should be a basic human right but this right has been neglected, even rejected. In a recent study led by Professor Paula England conducted jointly by New York, Pennsylvania and Haifa (Israel) Universities, it was found that not only were women paid less than men for conducting the same jobs, but also jobs conducted by women were considered intrinsically less valuable. When women moved into an employment sector previously dominated by men, wages fell by 30 to 40%. However when computer programming, originally a task dominated by women, was largely taken over by men, the job itself rose in prestige and the pay sky-rocketed.

Thailand has long been known as a country where women hold high status. Women are regarded as the "hind legs of the elephant" a role which, although not guiding the direction of the beast, provides the main motive power. In a recent study by Grant Thornton, part of their annual Corporate Governance Report, Thailand managed to upgrade into the top five, out of 36 countries studied, in terms of women in senior management. These top five were Russia, the Philippines, Lithuania, Estonia and Thailand. They were closely followed by Indonesia, Poland, and China. The laggards were India and Germany along with a dismal performance by Japan, which seems to be getting worse than ever in terms of women in management.

The Baltic states enjoy pride of place, suggesting that socialism did achieve gender diversity if not economic progress. ASEAN also performs well, with the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore strongly placed in the league order. However, with the possible exception of Russia (45%) and the Philippines (39%), representation of women in senior management is still not that great. Half of any population is composed of women, but women only achieve a quarter to one third of the top jobs. Moreover, analysis of what jobs women actually hold (which the Grant Thornton report also analyses in detail), many of the jobs are in functional roles such as chief financial officers or human resource directors, rather than chief executive officers. It is, of course, essential to have women in these key positions, since other studies have suggested that in money matters women tend to be more prudent, while in people matters they tend to be more humane. But since they run the households and bear the children (including all the eventual chief executive officers), why cannot they also head up the organisations in CEO capacities?

Thailand enjoys relatively strong, although still inadequate overall performance in recognition of women in business leadership. Their strength is attributed to a number of reasons beyond traditional roles of women in society. According to Sumalee Chokdeeanant, Grant Thornton Audit Partner, who oversaw the Thailand research, "a well-established culture of women receiving further education and advocacy of women in business has spurred change".

Thai women in business leadership differ somewhat from the world norm. Worldwide, leaders tend to rate communication skills as the main attribute for leadership (35%). Thai women leaders opt strongly for passion (64%) whereas Thai male leaders opt for integrity (63%). However this may be an advantage for Thai women, since men make most promotion decisions, and women tend to be better endowed when it comes to integrity.

Only 21% of Thai companies interviewed have no women in senior management, whereas in developed Asia Pacific countries, this number reached 57%, and even 73% in Japan. However, socialism seems to win, since in Russia not a single interviewed company lacked women in senior management. Clearly Thailand also has an advantage, because companies with women in board of directors positions tend to achieve better financial performance compared with those with male only boards. Better performance by boards with higher levels of diversity has been extensively evidenced in research studies across the globe.

However, social commitment, rather than legislation, is needed to bring diversity to reality. The UK passed in 2010 the Equality Act, which mandates equal treatment for ethnicity and gender in employment. Cases under the Act suggest that, rather than emphasising the major issue of promoting capable women to senior management positions, there tends to be concentration on the minutiae of legalistic arguments.

Instead of positive promotion of diversity, tribunals get bogged down on issues such as which toilets LGBT complainants can use, whether men should have equal opportunities to serve as women’s dress-fitters, or who is harassing who in sexual harassment cases. Thank goodness that women in Thailand maintain a sense of proportion (in more senses than one) and long may it continue to be so.

Christopher F. Bruton, 45 years in Thailand, is Executive Director of Dataconsult Ltd, a local consultancy. He can be reached ab. Dataconsult’s Thailand Regional Forum provides meetings, seminars and extensive documentation to update business on present and future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.