Chairman Mao is credited with popularising the credo that women hold up half the sky, but in Hong Kong’s boardrooms, that observation is certainly open to doubt.
Indeed, more than 40 per cent of Hang Seng Index-listed companies currently have no women at all serving at board level. And globally, even though women account for more than 45 per cent of the worldwide workforce, they hold under 10 per cent of the most senior corporate positions.
Recognising that, a joint initiative between the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and executive search firm Harvey Nash, hopes to re-address the issue of gender imbalance by offering a women's directorship programme.
Preparing for the April launch, Professor Amy Lau, director of executive education at HKU, says the main objective is to promote gender diversity in the boardroom.
“We want to encourage more women to take up the challenge and prepare them to become executive and non-executive board directors,” says Lau, adding that the course is the first of its kind in Asia.
Initially, there will be about 35 places for participants from Hong Kong and other parts of Asia who want to play a bigger role in the corporate world. The content is also relevant for individuals who are already directors, but want to expand their knowledge and further develop their expertise.
”This is a comprehensive programme designed to strengthen skill sets and prepare more women to take on [wider] responsibilities,” Lau says. "It is often the case that women leaders are less inclined to put themselves forward; they do not feel empowered or ready to take on a board role.”
In Asia, she notes, while the number of women executives is increasing, it is the tradition that men run companies. Also, many women reach a certain level on the career ladder, but may then want to spend more time with their families rather than moving into the boardroom.
Notably, the programme is being launched at a time when governments and regulators around the world are loudly calling for more women to become directors.
For example, Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that the lack of women in Britain's boardrooms is holding back the country's economic recovery. The push for change has the backing of Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson and other high-profile business leaders. Furthermore, a McKinsey study has found that companies with the highest proportion of female representation in top management positions achieved returns on equity 35 per cent higher than companies at the lowest end of that scale.
The six-day programme is divided into two three-day sessions and will cover areas like stock exchange rules and regulations, audit and remuneration essentials, and conflict resolution. It will also go into ethics and compliance, strategic leadership, and effective communication. The curriculum includes real-life case studies and will be led by HKU faculty members and invited professors from overseas. With a focus on interactive learning, there will also be presentations by international industry leaders keen to promote diversity in the boardroom.
“Even ahead of the launch, the programme is attracting attention regionally and internationally,” Lau says.
And while the key aim is to prepare individuals for a director’s role, there will also be opportunities to network and discuss developments in the broader business world.
Nick Marsh, Asia Pacific managing director for Harvey Nash, also notes the apparent positive evidence that companies with strong female representation at board and top management level perform better than those without such gender diversity.
“Our support for the programme is not simply about equal opportunity, it is about effectiveness,” says Marsh. “We have seen many reports indicating that it makes business sense. If boards are made up of men and women, it strengthens leadership capabilities and decision making.”
He adds that the launch of the women's directorship programme has gained the attention of the “30 per cent club”. This was formed by a group of British-based corporate chairmen whose aim to see women occupying at least 30 per cent of boardroom seats by 2015.
“Hong Kong is being looked at as a potential thought leader in the region - and internationally - in the effort to bring more women into the boardroom,” Marsh says.