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HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - For women striving for a seat at the top table, Asia is a depressing place. Hong Kong and Singapore lag Western peers in terms of number of females in the boardroom. Despite the known business benefits and an ample pool of talent, there has been glacial progress in promoting the gender. It is time for local authorities to ditch market forces and embrace quotas to fix the imbalance.
Asia is one of the world’s worst regions for female board representation, second only to Latin America and the Middle East, according to a new report by the Washington-based Corporate Women Directors International. Separate local studies show that women make up 12.4 percent of directors at the 50 biggest Hong Kong-listed companies and 10.8 percent for the top 108 firms listed in Singapore. This is short of the 25 percent or more mark in Western Europe, where "pink quotas" were earlier championed.
Graphic: Still a long way to go: tmsnrt.rs/2qRd1Ra
Change is happening too slowly despite high profile private initiatives to boost the female corporate contingent. Organisations like the 30% Club in Hong Kong mean there are fewer companies with an all-male board: technology giant Tencent and PetroChina are amongst those still guided by a single sex. Indeed, the 50 big Hong Kong firms took eight years to add 26 female directorships despite a pool of 700,000 women graduates in the territory.
At this speed, it would take a generation to catch up with Western peers. Worse, debate in Hong Kong and Singapore currently focuses on hitting a modest 20 percent goal for female directors by 2020, with parity not on the agenda.
Countries that have adopted a more prescriptive approach, like India or Malaysia, are making progress faster. Their experience suggests a larger mandatory quota reduces the risk of a company adding a token woman to the board. A big quota also makes it more likely the opposite gender will enter strategic roles, as well as the necessary but stereotypical functions like human resources chief or legal counsel.
It is time to change tack and be bolder. The hands-off approach has not worked. Quotas, or at least the threat of them, would be a faster way to ensure companies and people in Asia's financial hubs perform to their potential.
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