Lack of female leaders puts spotlight on Asian business schools

Course programmers will have to factor in women’s lifestyle patterns
Leading by example: student at a recruitment fair at Donghua University in Shanghai © Reuters

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

While dedicated initiatives to develop female talent are firmly entrenched at US and European business schools, they are only just getting off the ground at their Asian counterparts.

One outcome is that women are severely under-represented in leadership positions at finance companies in the region. Just 13 per cent of executives and 14 per cent of board members at Asia-Pacific finance companies are women, according to management consultancy Oliver Wyman. This compares to 21 per cent of executives and 23 per cent of board members at North American finance companies, and 16 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively, in Europe.

Sean Ferguson is associate dean of masters programmes at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which draws students from around the region. He contrasts Asian institutions with his previous experience at Texas-based Rice University’s MBA programme, which organises a recruitment weekend dedicated to bringing female potential students to campus for an introduction to the school, with partial subsidies for airfares and other expenses.

“In [Asia] there’s a sense that if you do something specifically for women you have to do something to help men as well,” says Mr Ferguson. “But if you look at the disparities for board directors and senior management, clearly there’s a specific issue we need to focus on.”

One element in serving women is to design programmes that fit their lifestyles. For MBA and executive MBA programmes, the typical student has between five and 15 years of work experience, a stage of life that for women often coincides with childbearing. Early-career masters programmes tend to draw a higher share of female students.

Despite cultural obstacles, some Asian business schools are setting an example. Gender diversity consultancy 20 First named Hong Kong university a “star performing school” because more than 40 per cent of its students and 30 per cent of its faculty are women. HKU and its Women in Leadership Club have teamed up with Women in Finance Asia, a volunteer group, to organise networking events and discussion forums.

Kritika Kumar spent four years at credit rating agency Moody’s before attending HKU, where she is president of the Women in Leadership Club. “Business schools in certain countries such as France and the US are doing a lot in this regard. Definitely, the push is required in Asia,” she says.

In mainland China, the Antai College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University has an impressive roster of female alumni. Liu Yao, who graduated in 2006, is vice-president of Shanghai Jiayin Financial Services, which operates the Ni Wo Dai peer-to-peer lending platform. Its Chinese name translates as “You and I lend”. Ms Liu helped Ni Wo Dai become one of the first online lending platforms to expand into offline branches.

Among more senior female financial executives in Asia, many attended business schools in the west. Teresita Sy-Coson, chair of BDO Unibank, the Philippines’ largest lender by assets, attended New York University before returning to her home country. Jeanette Wong, head of institutional banking at DBS Bank in Singapore, received her MBA from the University of Chicago. Today she mentors students there and at the National University of Singapore’s undergraduate business programme.

20 First notes that, in general, achieving relative balance among students is easier than among faculty. As a result, business schools often have higher percentages of female students than they do of academics. Ultimately, there are limits to what business schools can achieve without broader social change. At China Europe International Business School’s Chinese-language executive MBA programme, which is limited to students in upper management, only 27 per cent of the class is female, compared to 42 per cent for its financial MBA programme, which is geared at younger students.

Zhang Yuan, an MBA student at Renmin University in Beijing, has already experienced discrimination applying for financial internships. “Especially in the financial sector, recruiters will clearly state that they prefer male students,” she says. “Or in job announcements, some financial institutions will say things like ‘females must be at least 160cm tall . . . and elegant.’”

Women’s advocates want business schools to contribute to social change by addressing issues of gender in the workplace. “Business education has a tendency to be gender-blind, and to equate gender blindness with gender equality,” says Catherine Ng, a management and marketing professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “I think it’s a mistake to do that. By not recognising that women and men are not always treated equitably at work, business education perpetuates a work culture that continues to favour men over women.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.