Back in 2010, I was in Paris with a colleague running a workshop at the Women’s International Networking global conference. We had 100 persons show up for our workshop and my male colleague turned to me and said, wow I feel a bit self-conscious being one of only 3 men in this room. And I replied, well that’s how many women feel every day.
Today I still find it to be the case, that when working with European companies at a senior and board level, I find often I am one of the only, if not the only woman in the room. This is of course changing and there are many positive benefits to be gained with increased gender diversity on boards. Numerous studies have shown a, “positive correlation between the presence of women in corporate leadership and performance.” Gender diversity in boards is one of the ways for bringing in different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences to improve the quality of decision making.
From my own experience, I do notice a difference while working with one of our clients in Bangkok, where 50% of the board and senior leadership are women. And this is not unique to this client; in Thailand, there are more women in senior leadership positions (37%) than globally (24%). And in some sectors, like the financial industry, there are more women than men (57%) and a very high proportion of women in the seats of boards and executive committees (31%). The President of the stock exchange is a woman and between 2006 and 2010, a female governor led the central bank.
Drivers of gender diversity in Thailand
Anecdotally I’ve learned about several factors that people perceive driving the high number of female leaders:
- Historical role models: Thai folklore is rich in stories of women who have fought alongside men as warriors, lead men into battle like Thao Thep Kasattri and Thao Si SunthonIn in a month long siege against the Burmese or in the case of Suriyothai gave up their lives in defense of their kingdom.
- Persons in power: Starting in the reign of King Rama IV women were encouraged to be educated. And the monarchs to follow continued to encourage women’s status to be considered equal to men. When Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, prime ministers like P. Pibulsonggram enacted policies to continue to improve women’s status.
- Cultural: Thailand is known as the land of smiles and in all aspects people are genuinely friendly, considerate and hospitable, all characteristics which fit well with Hofstede’s definition of the dimension of a more feminine culture. The late King was well known for promoting sufficiency thinking, which calls for moderation, reasonableness and prudence and are used by applying knowledge and virtues such as altruism. Many Thai companies and business leaders feel it is their duty to contribute back to their community through their business activities.
- Gender roles: The impression I’ve had is women’s femininity is not seen as contradictory to their ability to lead and provide direction with confidence. Many of the women I’ve worked with also give the impression they have a supportive home life; they joke with each other to not work too late so their husband and kids don’t miss them too much.
Going beyond structural and individual solutions
Most of what I’ve read, watched and experienced in Western countries to stimulate more women to aspire to and end up in leadership positions is focused on structural solutions like setting quotas for women (as in Norway) or individual solutions such as telling women to take responsibility themselves and develop confidence to have a seat at the table (like the Lean In movement). However, the learnings from my Thai experience point to additional questions we should ask ourselves that can enable the organisational conditions and climate for more women in leadership roles:
- How are we finding and sharing the stories of female leaders who can be role models for women and men?
- How do people in power, and particularly men who are in power, enact policies to continue improve women’s status and ability to work? (policies like equal pay, anti-discrimination, etc.)
- How can we stimulate a culture that in a more balanced way values both the more masculine traits of achievement, assertiveness and material reward together with the more feminine traits of cooperation, modesty and caring for those less well off?
- How can we shift our mindset on the roles genders are supposed to play and give more flexibility for women and men to lead in more balanced ways?
Ultimately having more gender diversity in boards can stimulate better decision making and contribute to improved organisational performance. Beyond the structural and individual solutions (setting quotas and encouraging women’s self-confidence), the learnings from Thailand show there are also behavioural, habitual and cultural solutions where there is more we can do to create the conditions and climate for more women to not only develop the ambition to take on leadership roles, but to end up in them.