Women account for one quarter of Vietnam's CEOs and directors

19 January 2018 Consultancy.asia 6 min. read

Vietnam leads its Southeast Asian counterparts for gender diversity at the upper senior level with one quarter of its CEO and board positions being occupied by women, and the alignment of male and female opinions on workplace diversity in the country could hold the key.

A report from management consulting firm The Boston Consulting Group has revealed Vietnam to be the most progressed advanced-economy Southeast Asian nation for the promotion of top-level female executives, sitting well ahead of its southern neighbours Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.

The survey, which involved interviews with employees and executives of some of largest companies in the region across many sectors (including financial services, technology, media, and general industry), found that 25% of CEO/Board-level positions in Vietnam were held by women, compared to 14% for Malaysia, and only 10% and 6% for Singapore and Indonesia.

Gender gap remains significant in SEA

In specific contrast to Malaysia, while senior management positions at a step down were close to par between the countries, with women comprising a 25% and 22% respective share in Malaysia and Vietnam respectively, Malaysia’s overall female workforce participation outstripped Vietnam by six percentage points (54% as compared to 48%), and it’s national percentage of university graduates (62% female) was a long way ahead of Vietnam’s even split between genders.

While female workforce participation still has some way to go (the report notes that although the region’s rate of 42% is higher than the 39% global average, the figure for Southeast Asia has only risen by two points in the past thirty years; also, Indonesia, with a similar 50/50 split in university graduates to Vietnam, only has a 38% female workforce share), the disparity in graduate-to-upper senior employment figures highlights a further breakdown in the lesser-represented countries when it comes to female career advancement.

Here, the report looks into the contrasting male and female perceptions on company programmes for gender diversity in the workplace, revealing that, with the exception of Vietnam, male employees across each of the other surveyed countries were far more positive than their female colleagues on the current state of affairs. The reverse was true for Vietnam, where the men of the country were generally more likely to believe that their companies weren’t doing enough, as compared to their male counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Men are much more positive about the status of gender diversity than women

Indeed, while Malaysia only registered a 14% female representation rate at CEO/Board level, some 71% of its male employees agreed that their company ‘had good gender diversity in the top management team’ – greater than the 65% of Vietnamese male employees surveyed despite their own far higher rate of top-level female representation. This anomaly is mirrored in further categories, with 80% of Singaporean male employees compared to 67% of the Vietnamese respondents believing that their company is doing a lot to improve gender diversity, and 73% versus 64% agreeing that their company has made positive progress at all levels over the past three years.

The differences in male attitudes and perceptions between the countries may go some way to explaining Vietnam’s greater female representation, with, of course, men in Vietnam still holding over three quarters of all senior management and board level positions, thereby having a greater decision-making capacity to effect change. In addition, the thoughts of men and women in Vietnam were also more closely aligned as compared to the other nations on the current obstacles standing in the way of greater diversity, which, under male-led interventions, can in turn result in a misallocation of resources.

Of note, 41% of female Malaysian respondents strongly disagreed that ‘culture’ was an obstacle, along with 39% of senior managers. Yet, in response to the survey, 96% of Vietnamese women in the workforce expressed an intent to seek promotion within their company (81%) or elsewhere (15%), compared to only 75% of Malaysian women – and just 59% of those with their current employer – suggesting perhaps that a good culture tends to beget a better culture.

Mens and womens perception of key obstacles for gender diversity differs

As an example, the report forwards the promotion of ‘positive role models’ as one of three key areas of greatest payoff by which companies can better achieve gender diversity, along with implementing initiatives that ‘capture moments of truth’ (such as in the case of pregnancy or increased caring responsibilities), and ‘achieve an inclusive work environment’.

In contrast, the consulting firm noted that interventions supporting professional development and increasing leadership commitment, along with efforts to reduce bias, were shown to be the least effective, most often due to poor implementation. The report states; “During our interviews with executives, we heard from companies that the key success factor for gender diversity is commitment from leadership, and that gender diversity must be embedded in company values and culture”.

As the economic momentum in Asia continues to increase, with its collective hubs projected to generate half the world’s economy by 2035, and concerns already growing as to shortfalls in the talent pool – noted in a Grant Thornton survey with regional CEOs and backed by a comparable finding from PwC – the authors of report conclude that prompt action is required;

“Given the looming talent shortage in the region, now is the time for companies in Southeast Asia to take bolder steps to promote gender diversity… they need to rethink their assumptions on what works in promoting gender diversity and go beyond policies focused on cultural interventions to making meaningful changes to how work gets done in their organisations,” the report states.