KUALA LUMPUR: The pandemic-prompted change in working practices has brought about only slight progress for women in senior positions at corporate organisations in Malaysia, according to a recent report.

The Grant Thornton International Business Report: Women in Business 2023 states that only 40 per cent of senior management positions in this country are held by women, the percentage remaining the same as the previous year’s.

Grant Thornton is an international company that offers a comprehensive range of advisory services.

Silvia Tan who is a Grant Thornton partner of quality management said: “While progress on the overall number of women in senior leadership continues, it is slow in Malaysia, which is something to be concerned about. The research also reveals that our progress is at risk of regressing and businesses must push for parity, and quickly.”

On a global level, according to the Grant Thornton report, 32.4 per cent of senior management positions in mid-market businesses are now held by women, an increase of just half a percentage point (pp) since last year, and only 13pp since the research was first undertaken in 2004.

The report surveyed senior leaders from 5,000 businesses between Oct and Nov last year across 29 economies.

“At this rate, only 34 per cent of senior leadership positions (globally) will be held by women in 2025.

“Based on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, it will take another 132 years to address the global gender gap,“ Tan told Bernama recently.

Post-Pandemic flexibility working model

She also said that research has found that working models have a significant impact on the number of women in senior management.

In Malaysia, following the Covid-19 pandemic, 45 per cent of businesses are now purely office-based while 52 per cent have hybrid and flexible approaches and the remaining three percent home-based, she said.

“With close to half of businesses back to being office-based, this impacts our progress to promote female leadership as businesses without flexible working practices tend to be less attractive to senior women.

“If those businesses don’t embrace hybrid or flexible ways of working, women may drop out of their current positions and consider working part-time or even starting their own ventures,“ she said.

Tan said amid a global skills shortage and talent crisis, businesses that adopt flexible working models may also reap the benefits of improved cross-border working and access to a larger talent pool such as people with disabilities, those living in geographically remote locations or people seeking better work-life balance.

“For example, I might work in Kuala Lumpur but my headquarters is based in Pulau Pinang. We are not necessarily required to be based at the headquarters, but because of family commitments and the need to be closer to them, we choose to be based wherever we feel comfortable,“ she said.

“At Grant Thornton Malaysia, we have launched ‘Your Time Your Place’– a flexible working arrangement for our employees to empower them to find the work-life balance that works for them, giving them space and time to accommodate their responsibilities and needs.

“This has contributed to our positive result of having 45 per cent of our female staff holding senior leadership positions here.”

In order to attract more women on board, Tan recommended that businesses focus their attention on developing more transparent pathways to leadership across recruitment, promotions and performance.

“Providing clarity and equal opportunity in every aspect of leadership roles, from recruitment to performance reviews, are crucial to breaking the glass ceiling,“ she added.

ESG Performance

Tan also pointed out that companies that comply with their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals usually have higher female representation in the boardroom and are less likely to exaggerate their sustainability credentials.

“Women in senior leadership tend to be more open and honest about their companies’ ESG performance and are less prone to greenwashing as they are more likely than men to speak out against unethical behaviour as well as support environmentally-conscious decisions,“ she said, adding that companies that practice ESG principles are more likely to attract international investors and clients.

She said in Malaysia more companies are adopting ESG practices to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, which includes a growing focus on gender equality in senior leadership positions.

Tan also said the increasing focus on corporate responsibility and global standards is putting pressure on firms to create diverse leadership teams and failure to do so may result in difficulties in raising capital and attracting investors.

The government, meanwhile, is also increasing its emphasis on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies in businesses.

“It is crucial to accelerate DEI initiatives as Malaysian companies face stiff competition for talent and must address succession and key person risk,“ she said.

DEI is an essential element to measure an organisation’s good corporate governance. Beginning 2014, all public-listed companies [PLCs] were required by Bursa Malaysia to establish and disclose in their annual reports their DEI policies, covering both male and female employees regardless of their age, race, abilities and disabilities.

30 per cent Club Malaysia chairman, Datuk Ami Moris, said that any DEI-related target and policy should be contextual, meaning it should take into account the needs and strategic goals of the team and organisation.

“The gender gap will persist if DEI is merely seen as a box-ticking exercise. DEI requires the top leadership to take full accountability and be fully invested in driving its systematic execution,“ she told Bernama in an email interview.

Mental health issues

Ami, who is also Maybank’s Business and Sustainability advisor, said 30 per cent Club Malaysia is encouraging PLCs to go beyond their conventional channels and seek out those who can lend more diverse views.

“PLCs should also elevate the quality of strategic deliberations required to make companies resilient, sustainable and successful. Studies have shown there is a correlation between the financial performance of companies and the diversity of their boards,“ she said.

According to Ami, institutional investors like Khazanah Nasional Bhd and the Employees Provident Fund recognise this trend and are prioritising DEI in the boards of their investee companies, and may vote against any new appointment that does not add diversity.

Meanwhile, Aurelius Hospital Nilai psychiatrist Dr Malini Elangovan said women, especially those in leadership roles, may have a higher risk of facing mental health issues due to gender-based microaggression, difficulty in exercising authority and commitments, and the possibility of experiencing harassment or inequity at the workplace.

“Women commonly feel a constant pressure to perform and prove themselves at the workplace. They also have this persistent feeling of guilt in coping with the expectations of their families at home,“ she said.

According to Dr Malini, one in five women experience common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

She said to ensure their mental well-being, it is important to educate people in leadership roles on mental health and encourage them to go for regular health screenings.

“Organisations that are able to understand the systemic and societal issues affecting women’s mental health and well-being will be able to provide better mental health support.

“Thus, it is important for companies to adjust policies and practices at work including looking at long-standing regulations around remote work and the traditional work schedule with new eyes. This may actually help women strike a better work-home balance,“ she said. – Bernama