Women against the odds

From the executive suite to the plantation, the road to fair treatment and empowerment remains a long and challenging one.

A worker harvests coffee cherries at a plantation near Pangalengan in West Java, Indonesia. Women working in agriculture are often considered as “additional” labour to complement their husbands’ work and lack access to labour protections and proper wages, say activists. Photo: DARREN WHITESIDE

It has been more than a century since International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1911, but the themes of women’s empowerment and gender equality remain as essential today as they did then.

Women in the Asia Pacific region, in particular, still face considerable gender bias as they strive to secure their places in the corporate structure. At the same time, others remain vulnerable to sexual violence and are still fighting for justice against discrimination, inequality, exploitation and lack of social protection.

Women supporting women in the workplace by having female mentors is seen as one way to improve gender diversity higher up in the corporate ranks, while having male allies can be useful in tackling gender bias, as data also shows that men prefer to work with women.

Mentorship is really important as it gives women an inspiration and some kind of role model that shows them it is possible to climb the corporate ladder, said Joy Jinghui Xu, chief human resources officer for Asia and head of global learning for Manulife Asia.

“I think that it’s very important to provide that supporting mechanism to help female leaders to raise their self-awareness and more importantly to gain confidence to lead at the next level,” Ms Xu told the “Women of Our Time 2022” virtual conference, organised by the South China Morning Post to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8.

Having women at the leadership level as mentors also offers other aspiring women leaders an avenue to share their anxieties and hopes, “with no pressure to be a Superwoman”, she said during a session on improving gender diversity on boards in Asia.

It would still, however, require a major change in attitudes and mindsets to move forward with empowerment and gender parity by accelerating societal change and social progress, said Grace Fu, Singapore’s Minister for Sustainability and the Environment.

“Policies and laws are tangible aspects of social infrastructure. Society must evolve,” says Grace Fu, Singapore Minister for Sustainability and the Environment. EDWIN KOO

Society needs to accelerate dismantling outdated attitudes and stereotyping that determine what women and men can do or must do, Ms Fu said in a keynote speech during the event.

“Policies and laws are tangible aspects of social infrastructure. Society must evolve,” she added.

Ines Gafsi, co-founder of Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide in Hong Kong, noted that the government of the United Kingdom since 2017 has required employers with a headcount of 250 or more people to report and publish specific figures about their gender pay gap.

To make compliance easier, the UK Equalities Office has created a website featuring clear guidelines showing organisations how to calculate their pay gap.

“It is actually showing all the big companies that the women in your organisation are being paid less than men — making this very clear to the rest of the world and to the organisation, but also providing tools to help organisations close that gap,” said Ms Gafsi.

“It should really be the role of governments to lead this and it’s wonderful to see that some countries are starting to implement that,” she pointed out.

The Women’s Empowerment Principles include “practical, concrete guidance … for addressing conscious and unconscious bias in our workplaces”, says Anita Bhatia, assistant secretary-general of UN Women. Supplied/UN Women


Panellists from various business backgrounds who took part in the two-day conference shared the same view that it requires a commitment at the highest levels of a business organisation if a company is to adopt the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), established by UN Women and the UN Global Compact.

“Each of the seven WEPs provides comprehensive guidance on how to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace, marketplace and community,” said Anita Bhatia, assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director for resource management with UN Women.

“Each Principle includes practical, concrete guidance and strategies for recognising and taking action to address conscious and unconscious bias in our workplaces.”

The Principles provide recommendations for business on how to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality, which include having a gender-responsive supply chain, zero tolerance against sexual harassment in the workplace, and equal pay for women and men doing work of equal value.

To put the latter into practice, one of the panellists suggested that there is a need for better overall education about the pay gap that exists between men and women.

Althea Lim, co-founder and group CEO of the digital media company Gushcloud in Singapore, said that having women corporate leaders can be beneficial for both sexes. There is data showing that men prefer to work for women as women bosses lead in a way that offers familiarity to men “in a way that their mothers would care for them”.

Female leaders need support to raise their self-awareness “and more importantly to gain confidence to lead”, says Joy Jinghui Xu, chief human resources officer of Manulife Asia. SUPPLIED

“Men prefer that because they feel empowered; because in the way [women] lead, they care for men. Men are allowed to grow a lot more and will be given that kind of opportunity to grow,” Ms Lim said.

As well, a workplace where men work for women bosses enables women to foster alliances with their male colleagues, notably to push ahead with women’s empowerment.

“As much as we women are strong, we definitely need support in any of the initiatives that we are going to embark on,” said Shereen Bong, vice-president for talent management in Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea with AccorHotels in Singapore.

“Any of the projects, you definitely need the support of the men. They have a voice out there and if they’re able to influence any projects or any initiatives at hand, you will be successful when you have that support,” she said during a session on tackling unconscious gender bias in the food and beverage and hospitality businesses.

“Any industry that you’re from, women can’t be strong as one. You can definitely have that network, but you definitely need the influence and support of all the male allyship around you.”

Osman Ershad Faiz, chief information and operating officer at Singapore-based AMTD Digital, shared his recommendations on how male colleagues can be allied with women in the workplace.

Men need to understand that women face different challenges from men and create opportunities for them to shine, publicly acknowledge women’s effort and celebrate their accomplishments, and create a safe environment and let them know you’ve got their back.

“At work, women often come in on time and go home on time to take care of their families. But after work, men go out for drinks, network and chat,” he said.

“These differences add up when it comes to visibility, and most women don’t get the chance to build social capital the way men do.”

“It should really be the role of governments to lead” efforts to close the pay gap, says Ines Gafsi, co-founder of Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide in Hong Kong. SUPPLIED


Further down the chain of business at the grassroots level, despite their significant roles in the production and plantation chains, women working in Indonesia’s oil palm and fisheries sectors remained overlooked, making the efforts to “break the bias” seem implausible for those most vulnerable.

There are more than 38 million working in the two sectors, accounting for almost 30% of the total workforce, said Lusiana Julia, a programme staff member at the International Labour Organization (ILO) office in Indonesia.

Out of those 38 million, women make up about 36% or 13.8 million, according to data from Statistics Indonesia. But according to Ms Julia, they are still denied their basic rights such as a work contract since women are considered as “additional” workers to complement their husbands’ work in the two sectors, consigning the women to invisibility.

“They do not have access to information about safety in the workplace and they really need labour protection since there is barely any supervision over the workforce,” Ms Julia said during a webinar organised by the Jakarta chapter of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the ILO to commemorate International Women’s Day 2022.

“Men are allowed to grow a lot more and will be given that kind of opportunity” under female leaders, says Althea Lim, CEO of the digital media company Gushcloud in Singapore. SUPPLIED

The two sectors get a lot of attention for issues such as low wages and unsafe working environments, but paying attention to gender empowerment issues is not something that is discussed much.

“The two sectors have very poor working conditions for women and they are discriminated against, while the government and the companies seem very slow to respond,” said Anis Hidayah, the founder of the advocacy group Migrant Care, likening working conditions in the two sectors to “modern slavery”.

Indrasari Tjandraningsih, a workforce researcher from Parahyangan University in Bandung, said it is odd that these female workers — aged anywhere from 6 to 60 — remain invisible given their significant number in the workforce, denying them the opportunity to be paid a proper wage.

Mutiara Ika, chairwoman of the women’s advocacy group Perempuan Mahardhika, said female labourers with all their vulnerabilities are already challenging bias simply by working to support their families.

“They still face discrimination or even worse treatment, have no social protection, and are vulnerable to sexual violence,” Ms Ika told Asia Focus.

But she said this year’s celebration in Indonesia was marked by a significant move that women’s rights activists have been advocating for years. Lawmakers have finally begun deliberating the sexual violence bill, which had been long-delayed and even pushed aside amid a long a list of other priorities due to the Covid-19 pandemic. When the bill is passed into law, it will provide legal protection for victims of sexual assault in Indonesia.

“The next challenge is to see if the lawmakers could exercise meaningful participation for all stakeholders during the deliberation,” said Ms Ika. “They will have to really listen and take our input into account, and provide justifiable reasons should our inputs are dismissed.

“We want to make sure that the law will be inclusive and enforceable to protect and ensure justice to victims of sexual violence.”

The oil palm and fishery industries in Indonesia employ 13.8 million women but have “very poor working conditions for women”, says Anis Hidayah, founder of Migrant Care. SUPPLIED