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Here’s How To Accelerate Progress toward Gender Equality in the Workplace

An interview with Partner and Global Career Practices Leader at Mercer Partner—Asia, Pacific and India Zone Leader—Career Products at Mercer

It will take 108 years to close the gender gap at the current pace that economies and organizations are moving to achieve gender parity. That is the reality check provided by the World Economic Forum’s most recent report on gender equality across the world. BRINK Asia spoke to Mercer’s Kate Bravery and Godelieve van Dooren to find out what Asian organizations can do to accelerate progress.

BRINK Asia: Companies have been talking about diversity for a long time. What is different this year?

Kate Bravery: We’ve been banging the drum for years about diversity. And this year, we’ve seen that it is starting to become the beat to which businesses also move. Executives in Asia shared that delivering on diversity was a top concern this year, and they ranked “advancing the diversity and inclusion agenda” as one of the top five areas of talent investment that would drive business performance, according to Mercer’s 2019 Global Talent Trends study.

Disruption is one reason why the C-suite is paying more attention to diversity. From traditional competitors to new challengers and artificial intelligence, executives need to seize every advantage to stay ahead, and equity brings real business value. We know diverse teams increase the likelihood of innovation, of empathizing with a broad customer base and of boosting employee morale.

BRINK Asia: What practical steps can organizations take to accelerate progress on gender balance?

Ms. Bravery: First start with pay and promotion. Thriving employees in Asia are seven times more likely to work for a company that ensures equitable pay and promotion, but just 12 percent of companies actively measure pay inequities, and even fewer (4 percent) deploy modeling techniques to help correct them. The outlier in our study this year was India, yet even here, only one in three companies say they use workforce analytics to track unequal pay.

Fixing the causes of wage inequality is just as vital as balancing pay itself. Mercer’s When Women Thrive research notes that the ranks of women thin out long before they reach the upper echelons: Women make up just 33 percent of managers and 26 percent of senior managers. And with only two in five companies in Asia concerned about getting more women in leadership roles (notably in Australia and Hong Kong), promotion parity deserves more focus this year.

A third priority for 2019 is to treat men and women differently. Part of diversity is recognizing that we are different, we have different priorities, and if we want equity we need to ensure our brand proposition is different, too. Mercer’s Global Talent Trends study shows that while job security is the main reason all employees globally stay with their employer, this is followed by medical insurance and flexible hours for women, but not for men—therefore, failing to make progress on flexibility impacts women more. In Asia, 30 percent of companies offer adaptive work schedules, but 40 percent of employees report being turned down when they asked for flexible schedules (rising to 53 percent in India).

We cannot thrive in the world of work without realizing that the human agenda—for both men and women—is the business agenda.

BRINK Asia: Many of Asia’s societies are aging rapidly. What is the impact of this demographic shift for women in particular?

Godelieve van Dooren: There is an increasing risk that retired women may end up in poverty or financial insecurity. Mercer looked at the retirement savings gap of low-income professionals in Asia,* and we found that women, on average, have 32 percent less retirement savings than men, with the problem most acute in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

The gap is largely due to greater wage inequality among paraprofessionals—particularly in the three countries I mentioned—with men earning around 25 percent more in base pay than women. A shorter working life span, either from taking a career break or switching to part-time work to care for family, also contributes to the shortfall. When you consider that women tend to live longer than men, you can see that women face a perfect storm financially.

If organizations are serious about helping women, then they have to think about retirement. This is imperative, given three-quarters of women globally in our Global Talent Trends study said they need to work past retirement. As the fastest-aging region in the world, now is the best time to understand this issue in Asia and make efforts to narrow the gap.

BRINK Asia: AI and automation are set to upend the workplace. What will be the impact on gender balance?

Ms. Van Dooren: It’s clear that automation will have a profound personal impact for each of us. Yet, the threat of displacement is disproportionately greater in certain job types, and many of them have high female participation rates. For example, Mercer data shows that the average automation risk for paraprofessionals in Asia is as high as 82 percent—a clear worry for women who dominate this job family.

The good news is that automation may also create new jobs. HR leaders believe future roles will require more empathy. That’s a bright future for women who can reskill and step into these relationship-focused roles. The challenge is that the current differences in men and women’s working lives make it harder for women to upskill. In Singapore, for instance, 42 percent of nonworking women leave work because of family responsibilities; meanwhile 41 percent of men who are outside the labor force are pursuing more education or training. Without intervention, women will not be able to grasp the new opportunities heralded by AI.

Ms. Bravery: We cannot thrive in the new world of work without realizing that the human agenda—for both men and women—is the business agenda. Individuals’ responses to change can be a major impediment to transformation efforts—and this year, Asia’s HR leaders are concerned about high attrition.

As the one function that touches every individual in an organization and appreciates the employee experience, HR has a unique opportunity to lead the way. Getting HR’s participation at the ground floor of transformation is essential to winning consent for that change—yet today only two in five HR leaders in Asia participate in the idea-generation stage of transformation. Women leaders may actually have the edge: Globally, more women in the C-suite say their HR team is involved in the ideation of major change than men (51 percent versus 37 percent), and more women see the imperative to address diversity, equity and equality. With the intersection of artificial and human intelligence infusing through the workplace, we have an unprecedented opportunity to achieve the balance and diversity that today’s workplace craves.

*The report covered Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

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