Women without borders

In Singapore for ANZ’s Finance and Treasury Forum, it was evident once again how multi-cultural the island nation is – both with its residents and its expatriates.

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Singapore has had challenges managing opportunity and living costs for its native population but overall it is one of the world’s most culturally diverse economies.

"As the world globalises, are senior executives and directors sufficiently mobile across borders? And are women in particular mobile in that cohort?"

Expats love it, the city regularly ranks highly on places to live and most recently was ranked first in the world in HSBC’s annual Expat Explorer Survey – for the fourth year in a row.

That’s particularly true in the financial services sector where Singapore vies with Hong Kong for the trophy of regional centre - but as the survey found “this unique city is far more than just a financial district”.

Singapore’s diversity is not just racial: gender diversity in the corporate world is also solid (albeit not world beating).

According to global consultancy Grant Thornton, Singapore is about average when it comes to women in senior positions. The firm’s annual survey found 78 per cent of Singapore businesses have at least one woman in a C-suite job, such as chief executive officer, managing director or partner.

Expat women fare better in global surveys: the Expat Explorer survey found Singapore had the highest number of expat women in Asia at 18 per cent, followed by 14 per cent in Hong Kong, 10 per cent in South Korea, 9 per cent each in Japan, China and India, and 7 per cent in Malaysia.

Perhaps surprisingly for some nations in Asia, where even advanced economies like Japan still struggle to improve female opportunity, data from global search firm Korn Ferry show female CEOs are placed faster in Asia.

“It currently takes 269 days on average to place a female CEO in the United States - 30 per cent longer than the 207 days to place a male CEO,” Korn Ferry said.

“There is no such delay in Europe-Middle East markets, where women are placed 14 per cent faster than men, or in Asia-Pacific, where they are placed 22 per cent more quickly.”

These are all interesting data, certainly worthy of action, but two deeper themes underlie them: as the world globalises, are senior executives and directors sufficiently mobile across borders? And are women in particular mobile in that cohort?

To stay

Despite Donald Trump and the resurgence of populist nationalism across many markets, globalisation is here to stay. Indeed the implementation of Trump’s neo-mercantile agenda has, if nothing else, highlighted how multinational supply chains are: iPhones for example are essentially constructed by a mini-United Nations despite Apple’s American home base (and so ordinary Americans would pay more for them if the tariff war is protracted).

One of the most interesting studies of the mobility of genders in senior ranks is from The Boston Consulting Group, Women on the Move: Shaping Leaders Through Overseas Postings.

“Among the women we surveyed, 55 per cent told us that they are willing to move abroad for a job assignment (including 44 per cent of women in relationships and with children),” the study found.

“Our research also shows that this percentage is not fixed: companies can take measures to increase it. However, only a small subset of women currently get the opportunity to take international postings.

“According to our data, fewer than 30 per cent of the women who were willing to move had actually done so, compared with nearly 40 per cent of the men in similar situations. In other words, there’s a gender gap that companies need to overcome.”

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On its own terms the report is comprehensive and the advice to companies and organisations cogent - but there’s an interesting twist.

“If companies continue to assign more men than women to international postings, they will unwittingly be putting their promising female managers and executives at a disadvantage, decreasing the diversity of their future leadership teams,” BCG said.

That sounds rational yet it touches on an issue which has been raised anecdotally for many years: actually, taking an overseas posting is not necessarily good for your career.

Japan was one country – and it is improving only slowly – where, despite the importance of exports and the multi-national nature of its most successful companies, promising leaders (usually male in this case) were forced to choose between foreign experience and career advancement.

Overwhelmingly, Japanese executives would report moving offshore would see their career stagnate or actually go backwards.

Out of mind

A study from PwC adds credence to this perspective.

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In its report Out of sight, out of mind? Australia’s diaspora as a pathway to innovation the firm argued collaboration in general and international collaboration in particular was a strong force for innovation – and collaboration was enhanced by international networks and experience.

PwC forecast the diaspora of Australian expats would number 1.35 million by 2030.

“We will see a shift in our diaspora over time as the economic centre of gravity moves even further to Asia,” PwC found. “In addition to the diasporas being a form of soft diplomacy and cultural marketing, they are also an innovation conduit.”

That is where Australia lags: “the real challenge is that Australian businesses do not have a strong track record of external collaboration”.

In Singapore, at least, there is a real recognition more action is needed on women in senior roles, international experience and, notably, women in senior roles with international experience.

Andrew Cornell is Managing Editor of bluenotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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