The Rise of Fe­male Se­nior Man­agers in Thai­land – Po­lit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness or a Sound Fo­cus on the Com­pany’s Bot­tom Line?

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Contents - Writ­ten by: Jes­per Dop­ping

It is hard to ig­nore the fact that Thai women have been a vi­tal part of the growth of the pri­vate sec­tor in Thai­land, not only at the shop floor level, but at the spe­cial­ist and man­age­ment level as well. The num­ber of Thai fe­male se­nior man­agers has in­creased to­gether with the ad­vent of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion in Thai­land and the growth of the pri­vate sec­tor, top­ping in 2011 when 45% of se­nior man­agers in Thai­land were fe­male ac­cord­ing to Grant Thorn­ton’s re­search, al­though the num­bers have gone sig­nif­i­cantly down since 2011 ( see Ta­ble 1).

The ma­jor­ity of western man­agers in Thai­land ex­pe­ri­enced this rise of the fe­male man­agers first- hand when they found them­selves re­cruit­ing far more women in man­ager and spe­cial­ist func­tions than they had done in their home coun­tries. The ques­tion is though, why does it hap­pen here in Thai­land where we have al­most no de­bate on equal rights, af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, or equal salary lev­els? And is it ac­tu­ally bet­ter to have a gen­der- di­verse se­nior man­age­ment team or Board?


The sim­ple an­swer to this ques­tion is YES! We have had sub­stan­tial sci­en­tific ev­i­dence con­firm­ing this in busi­ness and fi­nan­cial stud­ies for more than 20 years. Mckin­sey & Com­pany in 2007’ s “Women mat­ters” found that the 89 listed com­pa­nies with the high­est pro­por­tion of women in se­nior lead­er­ship po­si­tions and at least 2 women on their Board out­per­formed the in­dus­try av­er­age in their sec- tor for the Stoxx Europe 600 with 10% higher re­turn on eq­uity, 48% higher EBIT, and 1.7 times in the stock price growth ( see Ta­ble 2). Grant Thorn­ton just pub­lished a study claim­ing that the lack of gen­der di­ver­sity in the ex­ec­u­tive boards of U. S., UK and In­dian com­pa­nies cre­ated a to­tal op­por­tu­nity cost of USD 655 bil­lion. Mckin­sey & Com­pany in 2015 cal­cu­lated that if coun­tries matched its progress to­ward gen­der par­ity to just the level of its fastest im­prov­ing neigh­bor, the global GDP would grow up to USD 12 tril­lion in 2025.

The fi­nan­cial num­bers clearly in­di­cate that the end­less moral and at times re­li­gious de­bate on gen­der equal­ity side­tracks the dis­cus­sion from a much more ba­sic ar­gu­ment, the ar­gu­ment con­cern­ing our fu­ture pros­per­ity, from the in­creased suc­cess of your in­di­vid­ual busi­ness to the ac­tual re­turn on my pen­sion sav­ings. To put it in terms I usu­ally use with my stu­dents at Mahi­dol Univer­sity In­ter­na­tional Col­lege, the gen­der di­ver­sity and equal­ity dis­cus­sion in busi­ness is a dis­cus­sion about how poor we all want to be.


Women’s sta­tus in Thai so­ci­ety and the work­place went through some re­mark­able changes in the course of the coun­try’s history. Be­fore 1915 al­most all women were il­lit­er­ate and un­e­d­u­cated, both in Bangkok and up coun­try. The en­roll­ment of women in schools rose dra­mat­i­cally ( by 4730%) be­tween 1915 and 1925. How­ever, even well- ed­u­cated women ended up out­side of the la­bor mar­ket, a fact that in the 1920s Thai­land was dis­cussed in the pub­lic al­most ex­clu­sively by men, as doc­u­mented by Barmé in his 2002 book Woman, Man, Bangkok.

The early supporters of women’s ed­u­ca­tion and women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in busi­ness ar­gued that this was a mat­ter of de­vel­op­ing the na­tion and catching up

to the West in par­tic­u­lar. The dis­cus­sion was never about equal op­por­tu­ni­ties or rights for women. This is best il­lus­trated by a fa­mous Thai say­ing: “A man is like the front legs of an ele­phant, while the woman is like its hind legs. When the front legs move for­ward the hind legs most fol­low. If one takes a false step, both will suf­fer, but if they are both in step things will work well.” This maxim was used as a pro­gres­sive ar­gu­ment that women needed to be part of the la­bor mar­ket – at the same time as it ob­vi­ously stresses women’s sec­ondary po­si­tion. The proverb is of­fen­sive to most women, but it per­sists to this very day and you will even find it quoted by young fe­male busi­ness and MBA stu­dents.


De­spite his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural set­backs, Thai women have in­creas­ingly oc­cu­pied top man­age­ment po­si­tions in the pri­vate sec­tor, es­pe­cially in the past five years. How­ever, the num­ber of women in se­nior man­age­ment is very un­evenly dis­trib­uted among in­dus­tries and across dif­fer­ent man­age­ment struc­tures. In their re­search from 2005, Hos­sain and Kusak­abe show that women in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try in Thai­land are treated dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on whether they are work­ing for a Thai- owned and man­aged com­pany, a for­eign joint ven­ture, or a western- man­aged com­pany.

In Thai- run com­pa­nies, women en­gi­neers are al­most ex­clu­sively as­signed to desk work in po­si­tions in which they have no pos­si­bil­ity to show their tech­ni­cal skills or pro­fes­sional and lead­er­ship po­ten­tial. For­eign- run com­pa­nies are typ­i­cally or­ga­nized in cross- func­tional teams, which gives women an op­por­tu­nity to show their abil­i­ties and po­ten­tial. So al­though women in western- run com­pa­nies also start at lower po­si­tions in re­la­tion to men as in Thai- run com­pa­nies, they do get a chance to show­case their skill and abil­ity and build a pro­fes­sional ca­reer.

My pre­lim­i­nary re­search shows that women who do get pro­moted to se­nior man­age­ment po­si­tions are widely cel­e­brated in the me­dia, with in­ter­views and spe­cial fea­tures in mag­a­zines. How­ever, up un­til 2010, they were not be­ing cel­e­brated as suc­cess­ful per­sons in their own right as most man­ag­ing direc­tors are; they were cel­e­brated as a sign to Thais and the world of how de­vel­oped and pros­per­ous Thai­land was be­com­ing. This cel­e­bra­tion of the rise of fe­male se­nior man­agers as a sign of na­tional de­vel­op­ment, how­ever, starts to van­ish af­ter 2010.


Since 2011, when the per­cent­age of women in se­nior man­age­ment peaked at 45%, we see a rapid fall of this num­ber to 27% to­day. Ac­cord­ing to Grant Thorn­ton, the num­ber of women in se­nior man­age­ment has de­creased by 10%

The num­ber of Thai fe­male se­nior man­agers has in­creased to­gether with the ad­vent of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion in Thai­land and the growth of the pri­vate sec­tor, top­ping in 2011 when 45% of se­nior man­agers in Thai­land were fe­male.

in the last year only. The dif­fer­ence in gen­der di­ver­sity in se­nior man­age­ment over the last four to five years is a rad­i­cal change, and given our knowl­edge that gen­der di­ver­sity af­fects the growth and value of a com­pany, it needs ex­pla­na­tion.

My pre­lim­i­nary stud­ies show that the drop in the num­ber of fe­male se­nior man­agers is not a mat­ter of a de­creas­ing tal­ent pool. The highly ed­u­cated fe­male mid­dle man­agers are rep­re­sented in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers in the pri­vate sec­tor and they con­tinue to play a cru­cial role in busi­ness. What we are see­ing, how­ever, is that the dis­cus­sion on lead­er­ship in man­age­ment is tak­ing on a new form. What has changed is the de­pic­tion of lead­ers and se­nior man­agers in the busi­ness press, gen­eral news, and pop­u­lar cul­ture. The dis­course has shifted away from em­pha­siz­ing the value of the team, the im­por­tance of coach­ing employees, the shared re­spon­si­bil­ity and as­crib­ing suc­cess to the over­all team per­for­mance to­ward de­pict­ing lead­ers and man­agers in the frame­work of Thai na­tional he­roes. I have called this phe­nom­e­non of re­fram­ing the leader “the trend of Nare­suan”. The pop­u­lar story of Nare­suan de­picts the hero as a de­ter­mined leader with a will of steel, who is the only one who dares to speak and act upon what is right and true. Al­though the pop­u­lar fig­ure of Nare­suan might not have much to do with the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of Nare­suan, what the metaphor does is it in­creas­ingly re­shapes the im­age of a leader and man­ager as a great MAN, de­picts him as a war­rior, and stresses the Thai­ness of the suc­cess­ful nat­u­ral leader.

Hence, the na­tional progress sig­ni­fied by the fe­male se­nior man­ager is re­placed by mytho­log­i­cal Thai­ness as a sign of in­born su­pe­ri­or­ity in lead­er­ship and man­age­ment. From a prac­ti­cal man­age­ment per­spec­tive, how­ever, the most im­por­tant change is the shift in fo­cus from the ac­com­plish­ments and de­vel­op­ment of the team and or­ga­ni­za­tion to the uni­lat­eral de­ci­sions of “a great man.” This shift im­plies a change in the pre­ferred or­ga­ni­za­tional style – from the team- ori­ented, cross- func­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion to­wards a hi­er­ar­chi­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion with Kreng Jai and the Thai mythos as cor­ner­stones. In terms of lead­er­ship style, this change sig­nals a move from in­volve­ment and in­clu­sive­ness to­ward the pass­ing of or­ders, which takes us back to a male- gen­dered and male- dom­i­nated or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion that gen­der di­ver­sity in the man­age­ment struc­ture mat­ters for purely fi­nan­cial rea­sons as in­di­cated ear­lier, the ex­clu­sion of po­ten­tial fe­male lead­ers in Thai­land solely on the grounds of their bi­o­log­i­cal sex might have ad­verse ef­fects on the coun­try’s eco­nomic growth and the pros­per­ity of Thai­land in gen­eral.

Jes­per Dop­ping is lec­turer and re­searcher at Mahi­dol Univer­sity In­ter­na­tional Col­lege’s Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion Di­vi­sion. He can be con­tacted at jes­per. dop@ mahi­dol. ac. th.

Source: Jes­per Dop­ping

Ta­ble 1: Per­cent­age of women in se­nior man­age­ment in Thai­land

Source: Mckin­sey & Com­pany

Ta­ble 2: Eco­nomic per­for­mance of the com­pa­nies with most gen­der- di­verse man­age­ment teams com­pared to their in­dus­try av­er­age

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