This post was contributed by Margaret Key, CEO, Asia-Pacific

While I may call myself an American, I feel a special connection to Asia because of the influence of my Korean mother and the more than 20 years I have lived in the world’s most dynamic and diverse region.

I have called a number of Asia’s larger cities home and traveled to many more. I have friends, family and colleagues across the region and with each new year, I find myself appreciating more about what makes the region so spectacular but also so complex. Asia’s proper definition includes a total of 48 different countries, and no two countries are alike.

A rising population (60 percent of the world’s population as I write now), a growing middle class, a highly educated work force and an unparalleled adoption and reliance on technology – the progress in this part of the world has been nothing short of remarkable.

And yet, despite this dramatic transformation, there is one area that has failed to play catch up to the rest of Asia’s collective progress – gender equality. Women in Asia continue to be overlooked for the top posts as men in the same ranks get promoted faster and paid more. Currently, women in Asia comprise only six percent of board membership, a figure which has not changed since 20121.

A McKinsey Global Institute report in 2015 found that US$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 purely by advancing women’s equality2. And yet, despite the business and economic rationale for greater inclusion, 70 percent of executives surveyed in Asia said greater gender diversity was not a strategic priority for their companies3.

So what is holding women back in Asia?

Unlike other parts of the world, the lack of education in Asia does not play a part as gender parity in elementary education has now been reached in most Asian countries. Public policy cannot be singled out either, as governments across Asia are working to find more ways to support women in the workplace.

While it is common for women across the developed world to feel pressured with the double burden of working while looking after families, in Asia it is more pronounced given the traditional mindset toward women and, specifically, the role of women in the family. In my view, this is one of the greatest challenges to the progress of working women in Asia.

As educational and job opportunities increase for women in Asia, the traditional thinking applied to marriage and childbearing remains the same. In developing countries across the region, the societal norms emphasize domestic work as the primary responsibility of women, which limits social activities and mobility. In more developed countries, women may work but many are expected to give up careers—sometimes after marriage, often after childbirth—and most do not return to the job market until their children are grown.

In another McKinsey & Company survey4, 30 percent of business leaders claimed that many or most women at mid-career or senior level left their jobs because of family commitments. In some countries like Japan and South Korea, the percentage is higher by half. In Taiwan, surprisingly, women will drop out of the labor market in their late twenties, never to return.

I have seen this career flight first-hand across the markets I have worked and with many of my closest friends. Under the Confucian philosophy, the three roles of obedience for a woman were in her duties ‘to her father as a daughter, her husband as a wife and her sons in widowhood.’ While this may seem outdated, it still remains very salient in many Asian cultures. A working wife and mother is expected to take on household duties including supervision of her children’s education while also managing a full-time professional career. And yet, in Asia, the corporate culture extols leadership that is ‘full-time’ meaning accessible at all times, anywhere. Where is the balance for a woman who is expected to be everywhere for everyone?

While I do recognize that Asian governments are doing more for women, especially in considering more effective ways to retain women after life milestones, much more needs to be done to enhance the childcare infrastructure as seen in the U.S. and Europe. Given how much Asian cultures vary, some are moving faster than others – usually those that see the value in the business rationale for gender diversity. In South Korea, for example, the government is giving loans to corporations that build child care facilities and paying subsidies to businesses that offer more than 30 days of child care leave a year.

The private sector also has a role to play by revamping retention programs and driving a more acute focus on the development of female leaders within the company. Retention programs should not mirror a bland corporate guideline adopted from the global headquarters but should be strategic and tailored for women, with the plight of the Asian working woman in consideration. Is there flexi-work time for a working mother? Can she work at-home if her child is sick?

I am fortunate to work in an industry where there is a very strong percentage of women in the workforce. I also happen to work here in Asia with a team that is comprised of some of the smartest, most ambitious women I have encountered in the span of professional career. Each and every one of them deserves the chance to make their mark. I make it my mission that they do.

We cannot change cultural norms or traditional values that have been in place for thousands of years. We can, however, change the future and that will start with a concerted effort from both the private and public sectors to build atop the current positive momentum and finally give Asian women the opportunity to fully thrive in and out of the workplace.

  1. Women Matter 2016: Reinventing the workplace to unlock the potential of gender diversity, McKinsey & Company, January 2017
  2. The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth, McKinsey Global Institute, Sept 2015
  3. Women Matter: An Asian Perspective, Harnessing female talent to raise corporate performance, McKinsey & Company, June 2012
  4. Women Matter: An Asian Perspective, Harnessing female talent to raise corporate performance, McKinsey & Company, June 2012