There is much to do on gender equality in Asia. Many countries in the region slipped in their rankings in the 2017 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report. India fell almost 20 ranks in just a year; Japan dropped 3 spots; and Singapore slipped ten places to 65.

Studies have shown that diversity in leadership and decision-making roles are key to boosting economies. For instance, estimates show that with women contributing equally to men in the workplace, Singapore can add an additional US$28 trillijaon of incremental global gross domestic product by 2025.

So how can countries create environments for more women to succeed? GovInsider has gathered advice from women at the top in governments and businesses across Asia.

The numbers

But first, let’s look at where we currently are. As of June 2016, only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians were women, according to a report by UN Women, an UN organisation for gender equality and female empowerment. These women are twice as likely to hold a social portfolio as an economic one, according to the 2014 Worldwide Index of Women as Public Sector Leaders published by EY.

In Asia Pacific, even in the developed countries, women are woefully underrepresented in government. In Japan, women account for only 2.5% of public secdtor leaders, said the EY report. India fares little better at 7.7%. In comparison, women hold 45% of government roles in Canada – the top ranking country on the EY index.

And despite swearing in its first female President in 2017, Singapore has a long way to go towards gender parity in the public service. Last year, only two out of 22 Ministers, five out of 16 Permanent Secretaries, and 24 out of 77 Members of Parliament were women, according to government statistics.

Greater diversity is needed in the private sector too. In an analysis of 1,557 companies by Corporate Women Directors International, women hold just one in eight board seats in Asia’s largest public companies.

Advice from the top

Jacqueline Poh, Deputy Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office Strategy Group, hopes to see more women in STEM fields. She notes that three out of ten ICT professionals in Singapore are women. “We want to see the girl who grows up in the robotics club to become a female CIO,” Poh says.

“We want to see the girl who grows up in the robotics club to become a female CIO.”

The Singapore Government has been promoting STEM education and careers among women, and it is starting to pay off. In 2014, nearly three in ten research scientists in Singapore were women (29%), an improvement from 23.5% in 2004, the Straits Times reported. That same year, there were a total of 9,516 female university graduates working in the public and private sectors, more than double than in 2004 (4,438), according to the report.

Technology can help to bridge the gender divide – and other women leaders across Asia certainly think so. Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, Chief Executive of the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation, thinks that ICT provides opportunities for women to contribute economically “not only on an individual level, but also towards national development”.

In particular, it is work-life balance, instead of skills, that is the key challenge standing in the way of women climbing the ladder, she points out. “The internet serves as a market access enabler,” Datuk Yasmin believes, “and there is no reason corporates should not leverage this in order to tap into the female workforce, when traditional methods may instead isolate them.”

Vivi Yulaswati, Director for Social Protection and Welfare at the Ministry of National Development Planning of Indonesia, echoes Datuk Yasmin’s sentiments. “Technology nowadays really makes it easier for women to play many roles successfully”, helping them to balance job and family, she says.

What you can do

On an individual level, Stephanie Simonnet, Chief Partnerships Distribution Officer at Prudential Singapore, believes that it is necessary that women take risks – “daring to actually try, and not being fearful of failure and more importantly, knowing how to get up”. Simonnet herself took the leap when she left her native France to work and raise a family in Asia.

For women who aspire to rise up the ranks, she advises being single-minded in focus and not let “what looks like greener grass” distract them from their ultimate goals. “Some people hop around chasing money, but at the end of the day, we should be here because we want to make a difference – and that comes from caring and passion,” Simonnet says.

She notes how women with these qualities will indeed be noticed by their companies, and will also have opportunities along the way to shape their professional ‘voice’. “They will give you the opportunity to grow; they will give you the larger portfolio; they will trust you in your judgement; they will support you when you have a problem,” she says.

And on a macro level, more women in the workplace will only lead to more ideas, insights and innovation. “The diversity of our workforce and the inclusion of talented women from different backgrounds are the fuel that keeps our engines of innovation and growth running,” writes Michelle Simmons, Microsoft Asia Pacific’s General Manager of Southeast Asia New Markets.

Traditional workplace cultures need to change for businesses to remain competitive, Simmons stresses. To develop more inclusive work cultures, her company is investing in unconscious bias training for its employees, she adds.

A movement for more women in the top ranks is gaining momentum, slowly but surely. Governments must do their part to encourage little girls all over the world to dream of becoming a scientist, astronaut, inventor – or the President.

This article was produced in partnership with Prudential Singapore.

GovInsider Montage Images from BAPPENAS, GovTech, and Microsoft