Where are the Women? we ask in the article series on women in leadership. We start with Vibeke Lyssand Leirvåg who leads Felicia Design, a leading Thai jewellery manufacturer.
Norway is considered to be one of the most gender equal countries in the world, but looking at Norwegian businesses abroad, this is not the case;
The number of Norwegian companies in Asia have steadily increased over the last decade. Many countries in East- and Southeast Asia are now becoming middle-income countries, providing further incentives, and a greater need for foreign investment, technological innovation and skilled labour.
In addition, we see that countries that used to be isolated from international trade, are gradually opening up to the outside. We have for instance recently achieved the normalisation of political ties between Norway and Thailand. This normalisation will presumably lead to a resumption of Free Trade Agreement negotiations between EFTA and Thailand, which in turn should lead to an increase in trade between our two countries, meaning greater Norwegian investment in Thailand.
Although Norwegian companies are bringing their business to Asia, they are seemingly leaving female leadership behind. Amongst Norwegian companies in Asia, very few have women in leadership positions. In an attempt to understand the reasons behind this gender disparity in Norwegian Companies in Asia, we have conducted interviews ambassadors and business leaders across the region. Where are the Women? Norway is considered to be one of the most gender equal countries in the world. Participation of women in the labour force is amongst the highest in the world. Norway has one of the greatest shares of higher educated women in the world and boasts one of the highest percentage of women in ministerial positions. All this reflect the efforts and priorities of the Norwegian government to ensure equal opportunities for men and women. But in stark contrast to the strong emphasis on gender balance at home, Norwegian companies abroad are performing exceptionally poor.
Compare this with Thailand itself: Over the past 20 years, the share of women in senior level positions in Thailand have increased by 30%. According to the Grant Thornton Business Report, 45% of CEO positions in Thailand are now occupied by women. This is significantly greater than the global average and better than other ASEAN countries and China, where the numbers are just above 30%.
Why is it then, that virtually none of the registered Norwegian companies in Thailand have women in a CEO position? Why do Norwegian companies accept such a gender disparity, especially when they are operating in a country that has achieved gender balance in the business sector?
A study on the Fortune 500 companies conducted by Catalyst Inc., a non-profit organisation that promotes inclusive workplaces for women, pointed out the positive link between number of women directors and economic performance. Those companies with the highest number of women directors on their boards had a higher return on sales and equity than the rest. Although some critics claim that there are methodological flaws in the research, female representation in decision-making positions is necessary for expanding perspectives at a top level. In order to sustain performance in a rapidly changing business environment, having a vast pool of opinions and a broad perspective at a management level is undeniably a great advantage.
We have interviewed one clear example of strong female leadership in a Norwegian business in Thailand; founder and owner of the jewellery company Felicia Design, Vibeke Lyssand Leirvåg. Although, not belonging to one of the main sectors where Norway is strongly represented in Asia, Ms Leirvåg sets an important example that we can learn from.
Ms Leirvåg came to Thailand at the age of 19 to realise her dream of developing her own jewellery company. 28 years later she has established herself as a successful business leader in Thailand, owning a company with over 150 employees and designing jewellery
for world-renowned brands. “When I first was offered a job in Thailand I asked; where is Thailand?” Ms Leirvåg jokingly recalls. Having spent almost three decades in the country Ms Leirvåg has integrated well in her community, and although she hesitates to admit it she also speaks Thai very well, so well in fact that she was awarded the ‘Foreigners who speaks Thai like the Thais award’ this year.
In addition to running a highend business, Ms Leirvåg was recently elected as the first female Vice Chair of the Joint Foreign Chamber of Commerce (JFCCT). The Joint Foreign Chamber of Commerce is an umbrella body for 31 foreign Chambers of Commerce and business associations operating in Thailand. It is the primary vehicle for foreign businesses dialogue with the Thai government.
And it doesn’t stop there; The Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce is another example where Norway has taken the female lead; Ms Leirvåg as one of the two vice presidents of the chamber as well as the president, Ms Aina Eidsvik (Aibel), the executive director, Ms AnneKari Gulliksen and the treasurer, Ms Thitikul Opdal (WebOn) are all women.
The JFCCT is not new to Ms Leirvåg; through her presidency at the Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce she has been involved with the JFCCT for many years. “When I was the president of the Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce, I was mainly working to promote Norwegian Business interests. As the Vice Chair of the Joint Foreign Chamber of Commerce I promote the interests of all members”.
Throughout her time at the ThaiNorwegian Chamber of Commerce, Ms Leirvåg has also been particularly concerned with promoting the interests of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises, and encouraging female entrepreneurship and women in business.
Why was it important for you to encourage female entrepreneurship and women in business?
I think it is important to share of your knowledge and your experiences regardless. However, since Thailand has improved so much in terms of female leadership in the business sector the last few years, we need to make it a priority to encourage more female leadership amongst foreign companies as well.
You say that Thailand has improved over the years. How were you received as a female business leader when you first arrived in Thailand 28 years ago?
During my first years in Thailand, I undoubtedly received less respect than my male counterparts. This has changed tremendously. Today, I feel people admire that there is a woman in the driver seat.
In spite of the fact that there is a great improvement in the number of female leaders in the business sector in Thailand, there is a comparatively low number of female business leaders in foreign companies in Thailand. What do you think is the reason behind this?
In my experience Norway and Canada are already doing relatively well in encouraging female leadership in the region. However, it is true that overall the number of foreign female business leaders is low in Asia. One reason could be that women simply choose to stay in their home country out of comfort. Due to longer working days and less vacation, there is limited time with family, which might affect their decision of going abroad. The other evident reason is that many women are simply not given the opportunity to lead companies abroad. They experience the glass ceiling in their home country before they reach Asia. This is the major issue.
Do you think women are more suitable for leadership positions in Thailand compared with men in some cases?
I don’t think your leadership skills depends on your gender. Yet, I believe women possess certain qualities that are greatly appreciated in Thailand, such as humility and patience.
Is there any reason for women not to become business leaders in Thailand?
Absolutely not. Today foreign companies should send the one candidate that fits better, regardless of gender. I actually think that women in many cases integrate better than men. But again, integration is all about character. If you look at Norwegians in general, they are not similar to Thais, but they have a mentality that match well with Thais. Businesswise I would therefore claim that Norwegians have an advantage in Thailand.
How do Norwegian businesses have an advantage?
Our respect and our morals, the way we treat people and the way we treat our staff. At my company, Felicia Design, I don’t have a big turnover of staff because I respect my staff regardless of position, whether it is a manager position or a maid. Some people are simply more fortunate than others in the sense that we have received better education. A key focus point for me is therefore to give back to my community by educating my staff. I think as foreigners living in Thailand we shouldn’t just come here to take, we should come here to give back as well. In this regard, I think Norwegian companies are already doing a lot.
You have received several awards for your jewellery design. Your most recent award was the Swarovski GemVision Design 2018?
Swarovski had a new blue-grey stone at the time and it reminded me of the ocean. We were asked to make a sketch for a design based on a theme we selected ourselves. I chose nature and made a piece inspired by an iceberg. My sketch was one out of three that won, so I was asked to make the piece. The competition was a collaboration between Harpers Bazaar and Swarovski.
Throughout your 28 years in Thailand, you have developed a very successful business. Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs and companies that wants to develop their business in Asia?
Firstly, make sure you have a good product. Secondly, work hard and don’t expect results right away. Thirdly, manage your cash flows. It is also important to know that in Thailand everything is about relations. Without connections everything is difficult.
Above left: Felicia Design CEO Vibeke Lyssand Leirvåg with her team matching colours and materials for her conic bracelet line based on the Nordic aurora, an element of which has become the symbol of the brand. Above: One of Ms Leirvåg’s great-great-grandfathers was a rosemaling painter, drawing floral details on furniture; one of her early collections was inspired by that heritage.