H.E. Satu SuikkariKleven, Ambassador of Finland to Thailand shares the family’s decision to move to the Land of Smiles.
The lack of women holding leadership positions at Nordic companies operating in Asia is evident. However, finding the causes and solutions requires a deeper look at the problem.
Before H.E. Satu Suikkari-Kleven accepted the role of Finnish Ambassador to Thailand, it was important to her that this was a decision supported by her family.
It was a great opportunity, but it would also mean her Norwegian partner would have to put his career on hold for their first year in Thailand to take care of their daughter and help the family settle.
“My husband has been amazing. He was supportive of the decision to take this position even if it meant he wouldn’t be working,” Ms Suikkari-Kleven explains. “He is an entrepreneur and a photographer, so it was a easier for him to do this. Still, it was important to have his support during this time.”
Family issues can play a key role in women declining to take leadership roles abroad. Many people hold the misconception that it is difficult to have or maintain a family when working outside of their home country. There are challenges, yet these can be overcome.
“Many women see taking a leadership position in Asia as an either/ or decision. They either need to choose family or career and this is not the case,” Ms Suikkari-Kleven points out. “When taking a job in a country like Thailand, you may worry about things like building a new network and how your children will adapt. When we first moved here, we had these worries. The first week was tough.”
Ms Suikkari-Kleven says the transition for her family in Bangkok was quite smooth overall after the first week. She found a number of networking opportunities to help build a support system. She also found an international school for her daughter where new friends were quickly made. And with her husband providing support at home, the family grew comfortable with their new life in Bangkok while Ms SuikkariKleven was able to pursue her duties as ambassador.
“Nordic countries are traditionally more inclusive when it comes to gender roles and the family dynamic. My husband didn’t see staying at home with our family as a negative,” Ms SuikkariKleven details. “He viewed it more as an opportunity. He was able to spend more time with our daughter and help our family establish itself in Bangkok. If women have this support and understand the transition isn’t as difficult as they may think, more may consider taking on leadership positions in Thailand.”
The disconnect Even if women from Nordic countries had the family support required to make the professional jump to Thailand, leadership opportunities seem to be lacking. Looking at the bigger picture, there is a disconnect between the hiring practices of Norwegian companies domestically and in Asia.
At home, Norway is lauded for its female workforce participation rates and inclusive environment. The government enacted quota legislation that requires 40 percent of a listed company’s board to consist of female directors. This number does drop slightly for non-listed companies, but the number of women in leadership positions is among the highest in the world. Ms Suikkari-Kleven adds the story is similar in Finland as well.
Meanwhile in the Asia Pacific
region, Thailand has the third-highest rate of women in senior leadership positions trailing only the Philippines and Indonesia. With businesses in Thailand and Norway both employing a large number of women in senior roles, it would make sense for that trend to carry over to Norwegian companies in Thailand.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Most women qualified for management positions run into another, much larger issue. Many Norwegian firms with operations in Thailand tend to be in what are considered male-dominated industries such as fishing, shipping and oil and gas.
There are a few women in Asia who were hired for management positions in some of these industries, but ultimately the numbers still lag. In some ways, the situation is similar to what Ms SuikkariKleven encountered when she first entered the Finnish foreign service back in 1998.
“I remember when I started, there were not that many female ambassadors. During the past 20 years, the number of women entering the foreign service has increased significantly and now you see a lot of female ambassadors,” Ms Suikkari-Kleven says. “Regardless of the profession, it is important for women to see a career ladder where they can reach the top. If there is a glass ceiling or lack of women in the industry’s workforce, it will be a lot harder to attract and retain qualified candidates.”
Thailand is currently facing a similar problem. While there are plenty of women in senior management and executive roles in certain industries, they remain severely underrepresented in others where there are limited female leaders.
“Accounting accessible to women in Thailand, and therefore they have been able to advance in this sector and are highly visible across several levels of jobs,” Ms Voravan Tarapoom, chairperson of BBL Asset Management Company, told Bloomberg in 2017. “The chances are better for women to advance to the highest levels.” Building new foundations
Family support and clearly-defined career ladders are important to encourage more women to apply for leadership positions in Asia at the present time even if this won’t solve the problem entirely. Ultimately, gender equality in management, both domestically and internationally, is only going to be accomplished by building better foundations.
Education will play the most important role in this change. There are many fields or professions that are seen as being either male or female. This causes significant imbalances of participants that eventually leads to gender dominance in the industry at the management level.
“In Finland, we are trying to incorporate more inclusive learning ideals. More women are being encouraged to study math, science and technology, disciplines that historically lack female participation,” Ms Suikkari-Kleven reports. “It is important to break the traditional male/female divide. The early results have been promising and you’re seeing more young women learning how to do things such as coding which will hopefully lead to them pursuing careers in technology.”
Norway is currently trying to find ways to end its own problem with uneven distribution of women’s education choices. The results of a study sponsored by the European Commission found the percentage of women studying in what were deemed to be “typical” female disciplines were high. For example, women composed 75.8 percent of the population studying teaching, training and education science while 81.8 percent of people studying health and welfare were women.
On the other hand, “typical” male fields of study had low female participation rates in Norway with only 26.3 percent of those studying engineering, manufacturing and construction being women. The percentage of women studying science, maths and computing was slightly better at 35 percent, but there is still significant room for improvement.
“If we are to have more women take leadership positions at Nordic companies that operate in Asia, we need to encourage them to study in the fields where they are currently underrepresented,” Ms Suikkari-Kleven notes.
In addition to improving education, inspiring women to either study abroad or apply for jobs outside of Norway earlier in their career could lead to them being more comfortable taking leadership positions in Asia later on in their careers. Ms Suikkari-Kleven cites her own life experience as to how this could be possible.
“When I was in school, I studied outside of Finland. I think when you live outside your home country, either when studying or earlier in your career, you gain a better understanding of what the experience is like,” Ms Suikkari-Kleven says. “When you reach the point in your career when you’re ready for a leadership role, the decision to take a job in Thailand won’t be as scary if you already have a similar experience.”
PHOTO: EMBASSY OF FINLAND