Gender balance among female and male professionals in Asia Pacific

How changing gender norms have both challenged and reinforced the perceived differences between men and women while also pointing toward a way forward
Words by Sawyer J. Lahr, Tip Janvipas, Thanapong Yeekhun


Beginning the second quarter of 2018, Teak Research partnered with Bangkok-based community organization, AKIN ASIA, to study the gender equality landscape in Asia Pacific. Over the period of three months, our researchers conducted a total of 23 professionals working across industries in the Asia Pacific region, 14 in-depth interviews and 7 intercept interviews; eight females and five males. Our sample of research participants was made up a diverse set of nationalities including Thai, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Japanese, Spanish, Tanzanian, French-Belgian, and New Zealand.



Meaning of gender balance


Our research found that although some women in Asia Pacific have successfully entered the workforce and are pursuing similar professional goals as men, these female professionals feel they have to balance traditional roles and expectations of their gender while also fulfilling new progressive expectations of women. Women’s progress and feminist movements have lead both female and male professionals in our research sample to feel that a woman must work outside of the home in order to have value in their romantic partnership, in their social group, or in society at large.


Coincidentally, all of our male participants grew up with a very strong female figure – their mother or their female superiors. They consider their mothers or female superiors as their role models or mentors. Their mothers did not always fit into traditional gender roles, and, in some cases, took on roles in the private, domestic sphere and professional sphere that have been traditionally associated with men like physical labor or business management. Male participants told of how their mothers were capable of both taking care of children and pursuing a career.


Those men in our sample who have seen women’s progress in their families, their workplace, and their industry, question whether women and men are inherently different or not (other than biological differences). This upbringing has conditioned them to believe that women are as capable as men in every aspect and has led some men to expect their female partners and co-workers to be capable in both the domestic and public sphere.


While the female and male working professionals we interviewed were not born equal in terms of class, race, or opportunity, they are trying to achieve “gender balance” in their respective workplaces or industries. Gender balance can be defined as equitable and fair treatment of female and male professionals relative to each individual’s unique circumstances and abilities. This research shows that the word “equality” is a divisive word which implies that all women and men are the same or that we should all be the same. However, our participants would agree that equal rights are important. Rather, when talking about access to opportunity or capital, authority in government, or roles in society or family, we should reframe the concept of gender equality to instead focus on gender balance.



New gender norms


While the research participants in our sample still cite the existence of traditional gender norms, especially in rural societies, they have seen a change in major cities where women have entered the public sphere and began doing skilled labor. However, because the female professionals in our sample have taken on roles typically associated with the opposite sex, they have become subject to new gender norms.


Our research defines new gender norms as the double standard of women to fulfill two roles at once, both in the private and public spheres, the breadwinner and the householder. However, some male spouses/partners in our sample play the role of householder and have put their career pursuits on hold or have pursued a more flexible work schedule in order to care for their children while their wives further their careers. Both female and male participants with flexible work schedules were able to better balance traditional male and female roles, that of earning money and caring for children.


According to a French-Belgian man we interviewed who works as a partnership broker for NGOs in Southeast Asia, talked about how he took on a flexible schedule doing freelance consulting while his wife works full-time. He shuttles the kids back and forth to school and handles the household chores and cooking while his wife is at work. However, his wife will relieve him while he travels for a consulting gig.


While these female and male professionals have begun to play non-traditional roles, this does not mean that because a woman chooses to be a householder that she is wrongfully playing into female stereotypes. Or that if a father chooses to be a householder while his wife works, that he is wrongfully fulfilling a woman’s role. Rather, both partners are determining their roles regardless of social norms and gender constructs. In other words, if a woman or a man takes a traditional normative role in society, this doesn’t mean that he or she is submitting to a gender stereotype.


According to a Nepalese woman we interviewed who has been working in the field of gender equality in Nepal for almost 15 years, in her view, gender equality in Nepal has shown improvement. There are more women taking part in politics. The government gives women and social minority groups free education. But due to traditions and customs, there are still some harmful practices i.e. during menstruation women are forced to sleep in cow sheds. In workplaces, there are less job security for lesser skilled women. They are the last to be hired and the first to be fired.


As this research demonstrates, because traditional gender norms still exist in Asia Pacific workplaces, gender bias continues to persist, specifically regarding the definition of a woman’s work and a man’s work. Among the female and male professionals in our sample, gender bias is a belief conditioned by society that all women and all men share different inherent personality traits and physical abilities as a result of their biological sex.


Both female and male participants in our sample talked about women being better at nurturing, caregiving, and communication vs men being more outspoken, dominant, and decisive. Yet when speaking about specific women and men in their lives, they identified the same qualities in women as expressed by men. Interestingly dominance, while typically associated with men, is also inherent in women as some workplaces which are female dominated even if women don’t dominate their industry.


According to a French woman we interviewed who works in Bangkok as a environmental consultant for a woman-owned Thai hotel chain she said that it can be equally intimidating to be in a boardroom dominated by women as it is to be in a boardroom dominated by men. Similarly, a male professional from New Zealand, said that his first job out of college was for a female-owned, female-dominated law firm and the female head of that firm who didn’t seem to want to hire a male but ultimately chose him and she became one of his most important mentors.


According to a Bangladeshi woman we interviewed who worked as a television news reporter, she said there are still gender issues in rural areas where cultural practices do not allow women to work outside of the home. However, in urban areas of Bangladesh, there has been much more progress in education and professional advancement of women. Bangladeshi women are beginning to fight for their rights more than in the past, but at the same time her mother and father were still concerned about her physical safety as a woman working as a news reporter.


Through this research, we can conclude that gender biases arises from cognitive dissonance among men and women about whether or not people of the same sex are biologically predisposed to certain traits and abilities. Logically, because no single human being can be genetically identical, when people of the same gender share the same traits or abilities, there can be no immutable or unchanging difference between men and women in terms of inherent skill other than biological differences.


In the case of a Japanese woman we interviewed who works in events management, she sought higher education unlike other girls in her rural village with the support of her Japanese father and grandfather. She failed many national exams before finally passing the test and winning a scholarship to attend university. She told of other women her rural hometown in Japan for whom higher education is sometimes a means of gaining a better husband, not to advance professionally.


Because traditional gender norms and gender biases still exist, both consciously and subconsciously, some female professionals feel like they have to prove to themselves and to others that they are as capable as men in some fields of work, especially within industries which are male dominated such as science, engineering, or IT. As a result of male dominance, female professionals in our sample feel that they have to step up their performance in order to assert their dominance in the workplace.


This research shows that female and male professionals working in Asia Pacific associate so called “soft skills” with the archetypal woman and “hard skills” with the archetypal man despite themselves or others in their social gropus having the same skills they associate with the opposite sex. While these women and men have broken with traditional norms, both female and male professionals still hold on to gender biases as a result of the cognitive dissonance and persistent traditional gender norms.



Performance, ability, & appearance


For both men and women in our sample, personal grooming is considered to reflect a person’s performance in the workplace. Some of the women and men in our sample feel that women should avoid dressing sexily or because it causes them to appear unprofessional. While both the women and men we spoke to are self-conscious about their appearance, some women we spoke to even went to the extent of avoiding public appearances during pregnancy or speaking in a lower tone of voice to project seriousness in the workplace.


According to a woman we interviewed from Spain who has worked in the hospitality industry Europe and as coach in Southeast Asia, said that despite having support from many male colleagues over the years she was asked by a boss to wear a short skirt to a sales meeting, which she refused. In the case of the Bangladeshi reporter we interviewed, she told of how more women are being accepted into the workplace and are wearing a more Western style of dress because of the ease of use in everyday life. However, she was not confident about her appearance following giving birth and did not take an on-camera role after returning to work from maternity leave.


According to a woman we interviewed from Spain who has worked in the hospitality industry Europe and as coach in Southeast Asia, said that despite having support from many male colleagues over the years she was asked by a boss to wear a short skirt to a sales meeting, which she refused. In the case of the Bangladeshi reporter we interviewed, she told of how more women are being accepted into the workplace and are wearing a more Western style of dress because of the ease of use in everyday life. However, she was not confident about her appearance following giving birth and did not take an on-camera role after returning to work from maternity leave.


While dressing sexily does draw interest to women, it does not encourage men to take women seriously. In the case of a Japanese woman we interviewed who was managing an event where there were female presenters dressed in suits, she, the manager, dressed in a way that revealed her cleavage, which caused her to be misperceived as a presenter and not a manager.


Among women whose occupation is public-facing, women themselves or their bosses and managers have double standards of women in regard to public appearance. They tell themselves or others tell them they should not face the public while pregnant until they have regained a body shape that positively reflects both the women’s public image as well as the brand or organization they work for despite other male peers in their industry be accepted despite their figures.


This research shows that both men and women give importance to physical appearance in the workplace whether it be way of dress or grooming habits. While physical appearance does not directly reflect ability or quality of work, it does help to promote confidence, professionalism, and trust among co-workers, partners, clients, etc. In certain professions, personal image can represent a brand or organization and is especially important for people working in the service or entertainment sectors. However, self-consciousness and judgement from peers does affect a woman’s choice to take a more visible role when returning to the public-facing workplace after giving birth.



Career & family planning


The women in our sample all prioritized higher education and career pursuits before having children and, therefore, face a dilemma between having children and furthering their career or, for those who chose to have children while working, they struggle to balance work and family. Some women see having a child as an obstacle for women to having a career. These women fear they will lag behind others in their industry and that going back to work might be difficult in an industry which requires a high-level of accountability or for which they have to be physically present in the workplace.


After having a child and going back to work, female professionals in our sample face another crossroads which is whether to spend more time with their young children or continue to work full-time. The mothers we interviewed mentioned that during and after their pregnancy they struggled with self-image and self-confidence when returning to work because of the transformative nature of pregnancy. Eventually, however, they began returning back to work at the encouragement of their male spouses/partners and gaining back their desired appearance and building back their confidence.


While some women have created flexibility for themselves in their work schedules and workplaces and have supportive partners who share child rearing responsibilities, the physical and psychological transformation that women experience during pregnancy and after giving birth affects women’s reintegrating into the workforce. Depending on how each woman responds to that experience, they may choose to return to the same position, do other work, or leave work altogether. Having moral support from significant others and flexibility of workplace and work hours empowered these women to get back to work.



A way forward


In order to address new gender norms, persisting gender bias, and work/life balance for women and men in the workplace, professionals of all gender identities working at the lowest and highest orders of private and public sector organizations must first internalize the value of gender balance as a cause worth pursuing.


Professionals of all gender identities must believe that gender balance is their responsibility as a citizen of their respective country, a stakeholder in their business or employer’s business, and as a member of their family. Those professionals with influence must include gender balance as a strategic goal or Key Performance Indicator (KPI) in their organization.


For business owners or hiring managers, a small step may be increasing the number of qualified female hires or male hires and promoting females or males with high potential to higher ranks by implementing management trainee programs. These business owners should make themselves aware of their cognitive dissonance and gender bias, both conscious and unconscious bias, and focus on the skills and aptitudes they seek in an employee while being inclusive of all genders without setting gender quotas which may be prohibitive and unbalanced.


For female professional wishing to have children in the future or are currently pregnant and wondering about how to work while pregnant and after giving birth, make a plan with your partner and employer for how to support you through the transformation you will experience. Plan for uncertainty about whether to return to your previous employer or to change career paths altogether. But regardless, plan for some eventual reintegration into the workforce by joining events where you can meet other women who have gone through a similar experience.


For male professional who are doing family planning, help make this plan for your female partner’s transformation together including how parenting and financial responsibilities will be shared. Respect your partner’s wishes to stay at home longer before returning to work or change career paths after giving birth. If economically viable, volunteer yourself to stay home for some of the time to help ease your partner’s transition back to work.


Parents may consider their own gender biases and the gender norms they grew up with and recognize that those same norms may not necessarily apply to their children. Parents may acknowledge that they cannot shelter their children from gender norms in society at large nor can they prevent their children from witnessing or facing gender bias and discrimination. However, parents can set an example as role models by encouraging their children of any gender to pursue any career field of interest to them, including those which may be male dominated and help strengthen their skills in areas where they may not be naturally adept.


In conclusion, our research suggests that inclusiveness of all gender identities, rather than exclusivity, is the way forward for professionals of all genders in the workplace. To truly empower both female and male professionals, role models of all genders are needed in order to further career development for women and men. While women can benefit from the advice and support from their female peers with whom they may relate or feel solidarity with, it’s important to involve men in the professional development of women in order to avoid further polarity between genders and work together toward a common goal of gender balance in both public and private spheres.


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