The Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) recently commissioned Women’s World Banking to study women’s participation in labor markets in Southeast Asia, specifically in financial services. For Women’s World Banking, the motivation is clear: financial institutions targeting women customers will be more successful at understanding and responding to customers’ needs if they mirror their market. Having women’s voices at the decision-making table will lead to decisions that are more responsive to women clients. In addition, diverse teams have better outcomes: data from the financial institutions that comprise Women’s World Banking’s network shows that more gender-diverse institutions have a higher return on assets and serve more women clients and Catalyst has found that gender diversity in the workplace is associated with many positive outcomes including better financial performance and increased innovation.

What we found in our research is in some respects extremely encouraging. But our findings also point toward necessary changes that will need to happen in the way businesses in the region employ, support and promote women if the region is to achieve gender equity.

We focused on ten multinational and local banks in five countries approaching middle-income status—Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos and the Philippines—and looked at the proportion of women employees across the board and in senior management and executive positions. We also examined how women are being hired, retained, supported and promoted at these same institutions. The results of Women’s World Banking’s research will inform DFAT’s efforts to help the public and private sectors in the region expand opportunities for women and get closer to achieving gender equity in the labor force.

Outlook: positive, with room for improvement

In many ways, Southeast Asian countries as a whole are outperforming much of the world with regards to women’s participation in the formal labor force. This statement however, belies the great regional variety by each sub-region, making it difficult to make generalizations. The few that we can make, based on our research serve as the starting point for the recommendations that follow.

Women leaders deep in discussion at the 2016 Women in Leadership Program (India)Women are approaching gender equality in lower-income Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar; in middle-income countries like Indonesia, women’s labor participation remains low. This discrepancy is attributable in part to economic necessity, and the likelihood that women will take lower-paid jobs or even unpaid positions in family businesses. Nevertheless, the 10 banks we studied have 58 percent women employees. They are typically centered around finance, operations, human resources and customer relationship positions, a clustering common throughout the region that banks attributed as a matter of personal choice, as opposed to institutional culture or bias.

Southeast Asia ranks higher than the international average in the number of women holding senior management or executive positions, a finding that has been linked to the region’s culture of family support around childcare and household chores, and to flexible policies stemming from the prevalence of family-run businesses in the region. While Southeast Asian countries may outperform most others globally in their proportion of high-ranking women employees, in the banks we examined women, are not as well-represented at the top—which the banks tend to explain as a function of women leaving for childcare and family reasons.

Based on the findings above, Women’s World Banking has the following recommendations for institutions, from banks to governments, throughout Southeast Asia to achieve greater gender equity and improve opportunities for women.

Allow flexible working conditions for employees, for instance shorter workdays, flex-time or the opportunity to work from home.

 Regulations that support women’s rights and equality are fundamental in promoting institutional policy and practices that enable women to create work and life balance.  However, the basic regulations are not enough. Therefore, all institutions visited had implemented internal policies that went beyond what the regulatory bylaws require—adding additional time to maternity leave, or offering flextime, nursing rooms, health insurance for spouses, and even in-house child care for children under the age of 6 years.  Women interviewed greatly valued the additional support and claim that this has contributed to a greater sense of loyalty to the institution.

Articulate specific institutional goals and targets for achieving gender equality and a diverse workforce 

Multinational banks with clear diversity and inclusion mandates find success when their policies are viewed as part of their DNA.  We engaged a number of leaders at one of the multinational banks and found that the message of supporting diversity and inclusion was articulated in a way that trickled down to the regional level.  At this bank, it was clear that the strategic goals of the bank were aligned from headquarters to the regional level—even though specific targets were not required.

Other key recommendations:

  • Ensure that an institution’s leadership remains committed to gender diversity
  • Set gender equality policies at the national level, to improve women’s involvement in the labor force as well as promote conditions that allow women to participate and succeed
  • Collect and share institutional data that measures gender diversity and equality, to help improve awareness and track progress toward goals

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For a more in-depth look at our research, download the report, “Women’s Workforce Participation and Advancement in Southeast Asia. Women’s World Banking continues to work with its network and partners to better understand the challenges and barriers that keep women from reaching parity in the workforce, a parity that is necessary if these institutions are to serve women—of all income levels—well.