Hong Kong is no stranger to female leaders. Earlier this year, Hang Seng Bank announced that Irene Lee Yun Lien would be appointed as its chairman later this year; the first woman to serve in this role in the bank’s history. In 2018, Laura Cha became the first woman to chair the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX) board in 127 years. Not to mention, Marjorie Yang, chairman of Esquel Group, became the first woman to be appointed to represent Hong Kong at the APEC Business Advisory Council, the private-sector arm of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, in 2017.

Women who are entrepreneurs and leaders have made notable strides in recent times around the region. This year, IBM Vietnam, for the first time, appointed a female Vietnamese CEO, Pham Thu Diep, after the company's 25 years of operation in the Vietnamese market. Mahani Binti Amat became the first female board chairperson appointed for AIA PUBLIC Takaful in Malaysia. Thailand’s Judicial Commission had endorsed Methinee Chalothorn as the new Supreme Court President, making her the country’s first woman to hold that post.

In Singapore, ExxonMobil Asia-Pacific named Geraldine Chin as chairman and managing director, making her the first woman to head the company. Ridha Wirakusumah was appointed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to head the country’s first sovereign wealth fund. Last year, Harpreet Singh became the first female CEO Of an Indian airline carrier, specifically Alliance Air. In 2018, Nina D. Aguas became the executive chairperson of Insular Life Assurance Company, the first and largest Filipino life insurance company. 

Earlier this year, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female vice president in US history. On top of that, Iceland passed a law prohibiting organisations from paying women less than men. There’s plenty to celebrate.

However, while much has been accomplished, there is still a long way to go when it comes to workplace gender equality. The good news is, there is progress. According to the 2021 Women in Business report by Grant Thornton, the proportion of leadership roles held by women worldwide stood at 19% in 2004, and the number has risen to 31% in 2021.

Despite all that, women are still underrepresented at every corporate hierarchy level, with the gap becoming more significant at senior executive levels. Women are still overlooked for leadership positions, and many do not feel supported at work.

Related: Top do's in company diversity and inclusion practices

It may seem small, but celebrating women's achievements in the workplace can have a huge positive impact on workplace diversity and encourage more women to take up leadership positions. Interestingly, there is a surprising outcome of calling out women’s wins publicly at work.

Celebrating successful businesswomen leads to empowerment

According to research by Dr Jingnan Chen from the University of Exeter Business School, women working in male-stereotyped industries are twice as likely to shy away from leadership roles. Also, the research study found that increasing the number of men in mixed-gender teams can negatively impact a woman’s desire to lead.

There are a couple of key reasons behind this. On top of being less likely to self-promote themselves, women often feel less encouraged in their existing workplace — which leaves them feeling like they shouldn’t aim to climb the corporate ladder.

However, providing public feedback about a woman’s capabilities and achievements in the workplace helps to counteract this effect. Chen’s research found that when a woman’s efforts are celebrated openly, it significantly increases their desire to become the boss. Women who receive positive feedback on quantitative achievements are more likely to step up to the table and use their leadership skills.

In addition, this encouragement inspires the high performers to aspire for senior roles. In other words, when women are supported, they feel empowered to aim higher and dream bigger in their careers.

The new Michael Page Talent Trends 21 report, which compiled the responses of over 5,500 businesses and 21,000 employees across APAC, revealed that as businesses in the region recognised the benefits that women leaders were bringing to boards, it is expected to see an increase in business discussions around gender diversity. 

The report also highlighted that the top three job types with the highest number of senior female appointments were chief financial officer, marketing director and legal director.

Mentoring matters: How programs can benefit women at work

A proven way to help working women reach more managerial and leadership roles is to adopt mentoring programs or establish mentoring relationships between staff.

However, for mentoring to be successful, both mentor and mentee have to understand how to make the most of it.

Rebecca Clarke, the co-chair of [email protected] and Manager at Michael Page Australia, shares the following tips.

Mentors:

  • A good mentor must be genuinely interested in helping others succeed.
  • Sharing your own personal experience helps build trust and make you relatable – this means being vulnerable. 
  • Mentoring takes time, and you must be willing to put the focus and energy into your mentor sessions.
  • Key skills required include active listening, asking coaching questions, sharing empathetic yet honest feedback, and treating the relationship with a growth mindset.
     

Mentees: 

  • Show a real interest and passion for self-improvement. 
  • Be prepared and take the initiative to help set the agenda to ensure you get what you need from the sessions.
  • Be open and receptive to someone else’s ideas, and be vulnerable in sharing the good and the bad experiences where you can.
  • Accept feedback.
     

Related: How to be more confident at work according to Asia's female leaders

Female leaders on progress, resilience and change

So how can women ensure they thrive in the workplace, even when the chips are often stacked against them? Some of the world’s top female executives share their leadership and career advice.

“Start somewhere and go for it. Don’t be scared of the ‘what ifs,’ because the truth is, the only failure is not trying. That’s the only way you can fail. Trying and having it not work out isn’t failure.” — Whitney Wolfe, Founder of Bumble. 

“Find something you love to do, something that brings you joy and a sense of contribution and achievement. Then, find a way to work that will allow you to develop people and leadership skills at the same time as you build your technical skills, whatever industry you find yourself in.” — Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, Chief Executive and Managing Director of Mirvac.

“Education will open doors. Talent will open worlds. But it is hard work that will enable you to accomplish more than you ever imagined. Do every job you’re in like you’re going to do it for the rest of your life, and demonstrate that ownership of it.” — Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors.

“Be prepared to spot growth opportunities when they present themselves — because they are the key learning opportunities. You’ll know because they make you uncomfortable, and your initial impulse may be that you’re not ready. But remember: Growth and comfort never coexist.” — Ginni Rometty, former CEO of IBM.

“The easiest way to get something to grow and flourish and thrive is to create an ideal environment for it. But right now, women are not thriving in a workplace built by men, for men. And so the Third Women’s Revolution will be about not just getting women into leadership positions, but about what they’ll do once they get there: leading the way in redesigning the way we work and the way we live... When we prioritise our wellbeing, reject our always-on culture and take the time to unplug and recharge, our performance actually goes up across the board – in creativity, decision-making, problem-solving, focus, attention, and productivity.” — Arianna Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global.

“My advice for women who want to rise up into leadership is to stop asking yourself if you can. Doubt is a killer for action and promotion. If it is in your mind, it will enter others’ minds. Don’t question yourself. Start walking, and the path will create itself under your feet.” — Catherine Perez, VP of Corporate Planning & Program Management Office of Nissan Motor Co, Ltd.

“[It’s] the ultimate chicken-and-egg situation. The chicken: Women will tear down the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. We will march into our bosses’ offices and demand what we need, including pregnancy parking. Or better yet, we’ll become bosses and make sure all women have what they need. The egg: We need to eliminate the external barriers to get women into those roles in the first place. Both sides are right. So rather than engage in philosophical arguments over which comes first, let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts. They are equally important. I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg.” — Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Embracing workplace diversity benefits everyone in an organisation, not just women. By celebrating female achievements and encouraging them to lead, businesses can further bridge the gender gap and build a diverse team that thrives.

The Hong Kong Talent Trends 21 report provides insights into what businesses and employees experienced in 2020, practical learnings and expected focal points in 2021, including gender diversity and salary expectations. Click the image below to download the full report.

Read more:
8 must-have qualities of an effective leader
Contracting vs permanent job: Which is better for you?
The importance of good communication in the workplace

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