The Rise of Female Senior Managers in Thailand – Political Correctness or a Sound Focus on the Company’s Bottom Line?
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?
DOES GENDER DIVERSITY in THE MANAGEMENT TEAM IMPROVE THE BOTTOM LINE?
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 in THE THAI WORKPLACE
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.
THE RISE OF WOMEN in SENIOR MANAGEMENT in THAILAND
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.
THE FALL OF WOMEN in SENIOR MANAGEMENT in THAILAND
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