DE&I in Asia Pacific – real progress or just for show?

I’ve had the privilege of meeting many exceptional female leaders in the Asia-Pacific region, including as a judge on the AMCHAM Women of Influence Awards for the past seven years. When I reflect on their confidence, problem-solving agility and ability to push themselves out of their comfort zones, it makes Korn Ferry’s recent DE&I (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) research findings all the more surprising.

According to data collected from almost 1,200 APAC respondents, just 27% of APAC organisations think their DE&I efforts are effective.[1] Although 80% have accelerated their efforts in the last year, this is largely driven by CEO priorities. And there appears to be a gap between what leadership teams want and the funding to make it happen, with 27% also saying lack of budget is one of their biggest challenges to implementation.

While Korn Ferry’s global DE&I research encompassed all areas of diversity, including race, religious beliefs, age and ability, gender diversity is still very much the focus in the Asia-Pacific region. Almost three-quarters said their DE&I strategy focuses on prioritising women.

When I last wrote about this issue, I emphasised the importance of building a global pipeline of female leaders at an enterprise level. This is still clearly a work in progress that continues to promise great returns for those organisations that take it seriously.

Despite the inherent value of the traits female leaders share – including learning agility, empathetic communication skills and a collective purpose – we’re not seeing enough female leaders rise to take ownership for P&L functions and drive business results.

This will require a conscious and proactive effort at the recruitment stage. Just recently, when we were asked to support the search for a new Hong Kong CEO of a large financial services company, the short-list had 40 candidates. Not one was female. Including women in the leadership consideration set is a very important starting point.

While I believe it’s unlikely we will see gender quotas across the region, this does show you cannot assume rolling out unconscious bias training will be enough to make change happen. In fact, our research found just 29% of organisations have DE+I KPIs in place for people managers. Yet 60% agree that recruiting under-represented talent is a big challenge for them.

So what will shift the needle on the female leadership pipeline?

Getting the basics right

Asia-Pacific is certainly not a homogenous region – there are significant differences in diversity maturity between Australia, and Japan or Malaysia, for example. However, our research indicates the region is still at a relatively early stage in this journey.

The Korn Ferry DE&I Maturity Model measures how well organisations perform across five strategic dimensions: managing risk, awareness, talent integration, operations integration and market integration. Each has two components: structure (processes and practices to encourage equity and inclusion) and behaviours (mindsets, skillsets and relationships).

The recent APAC findings suggest most organisations are focusing their efforts on risk management, with 73% developing non-discrimination, bullying and harassment policies. In terms of awareness, 58% have a DE&I strategy and 54% run unconscious bias training.

The critical part of developing a leadership pipeline is talent integration. Here, just 28% have conducted inclusive leader assessments while one in two run mentorship programs. This could be a missed opportunity, as it’s one thing to attract talented women and another to keep and promote them.

The Korn Ferry DE&I Maturity Model

Across the region, 59% of respondents say one of their biggest challenges in implementing DE+I initiatives is turning good intentions into pragmatic initiatives, and 52% say it’s changing behaviours. Just 39% say they have increased engagement scores across demographic groups and hiring rates of under-represented talent. The others have not yet seen this improvement – and perhaps that’s because they aren’t measuring it.

Turning good intentions into impact

Current efforts may get the foundation in place to improve gender diversity outcomes, but it will take deeper transformational change to have a tangible impact. It will take a commitment to develop inclusive leaders throughout the organisation.

With operations in 14 APAC countries, Korn Ferry appreciates the complexity of diversity with all its cultural nuances. For example, in China women may be less likely to take a career break – over three decades of China’s one-child policy has created a generation of grandparents eager to help raise their only grandchild.

Yet 80% of senior management in China is still male. We see women taking on more functional leadership roles, such as Heads of HR, Marketing or Communications, yet they still aren’t progressing to enterprise leadership at the rate we should expect.

In the ASEAN countries, the gap between multinationals and local companies is more pronounced. Many multinationals based in Singapore are making steady progress with their DE&I efforts, but in local companies, it is still seen as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a business imperative with financial ROI. In India, younger employees are demanding change, but structural improvements have to take place first. And in Japan, which ranks 120 out of 156 on the World Economic Forum Global Gender Report and where just 14.7% of senior management is female, it will take government pressure to trigger behavioural change.

By contrast, New Zealand ranks fourth in the WEF Index – the only Asia-Pacific nation in the top ten. And even though Australia is relatively mature in its gender diversity targets and measurement, it still has work to do in its senior management mix.

Across the region, it’s time to focus intentional effort on building a strong female leadership pipeline. Great progress has been made in recent years, and we know DE&I is a valuable investment, with benefits for brand reputation, productivity, performance, and innovation. As we work towards post-pandemic economic recovery, these have never been more important.


[1] DE&I post 2020: Real progress or just for show? APAC findings, Korn Ferry March 2022