Opportunities for women in Asian put UK to shame


Women in south and eastern Asian countries are more likely to break through the boardroom glass ceiling than their contemporaries in Britain, despite UK businesses devoting vast budgets over the years to promoting diversity and improving gender equality.

A study by financial advisory firm Grant Thornton found the percentage of women in senior management positions in British medium sized businesses trailed south eastern and east Asian companies by a significant margin.

In the research, which looked at 7,200 privately held businesses across 32 countries, Britain managed only a mid-table ranking, with 64 per cent of businesses saying they employed women in senior management positions.

The Philippines, by contrast, came top with 97 per cent while China's economic boom had contributed to the businesses polled reporting that women, astonishingly, filled 91 per cent of their senior management positions.

Across the 600 UK companies surveyed, the number of women in senior roles had clearly stagnated, said Grant Thornton, rising just 2 per cent between 2004 and 2007.

Sectors that could do better included retailing, where women occupied 55 per cent of senior roles, compared with the service sector, which came in at more than three quarters.

Alysoun Stewart, head of Grant Thornton's strategic services group, said: "At first sight it may seem staggering that our supposedly enlightened western democracy lags behind countries such as the Philippines, mainland China and Thailand.

"This clearly challenges the commonly held perception that East Asia is less developed than the UK both economically and in the area of gender equality," she added.

"Given the numbers of female graduates entering careers, and the fact that recent research indicates that women's pay is actually slightly ahead of men's between the ages of 22 and 29, the UK's lack of progress is most likely to be attributable to the continuing issues surrounding working practices that do not allow parents to easily balance work and family responsibilities.

"The introduction of quotas would be one possible (although not popular) way to overcome this and has proved successful in Scandinavian countries, where women's representation on boards has grown rapidly in the past two years, whereas it has hardly changed in the rest of Western Europe," she continued.

With just under a fifth of women on average in senior management, the UK exceeded the EU average by 2 per cent but, again, trailed east Asia, which registered an average of 23 per cent.

In this area, the Philippines again ranked highest of all the 32 countries questioned, with half of women employed in the senior management of the companies polled.

Stephen Weatherseed, international business partner, Grant Thornton, said one factor could be the relatively youth of the east Asian economic landscape.

This meant opportunities for women to participate in the senior management of business were far greater and the percentage of businesses with women in such roles was therefore higher.

A recent study by the Equal Opportunities Commission in the UK suggested that it will take 60 years for women to win parity in City boardrooms.

At present, they only constitute a tenth of the directors of FTSE-100 companies in the UK.

The EU, said Grant Thornton, had showed no increase in the percentage of women in senior management since 2004, with the figure stagnating at 17 per cent.

Within NAFTA – which comprises North America, Canada and Mexico – the situation was only marginally better, with the percentage rising from 20 per cent to 23 per cent.

The Far East clearly demonstrated the most significant growth of women in the senior management of business between 2004 and 2007, increasing from 17 per cent to 23 per cent, the research concluded.