Banks in Singapore and Hong Kong lead way in gender diversity but pay problems persist

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Singapore and Hong Kong are two of the best markets for women to advance their careers in financial services, although concerns about a senior glass ceiling and pay parity remain.

In a new eFinancialCareers global survey about employee diversity, 81% and 77% of female respondents in Singapore and Hong Kong respectively said that gender discrimination did not exist within their current employer – significantly higher percentages than in the US (54%) and UK (63%). These results follow banks’ recent efforts to bolster gender-diversity polices in Asia.

Banking-sector recruiters also say that the wide availability and affordability of live-in domestic workers in Singapore and Hong Kong makes it easier for professional women in those cities to continue their careers after they have children. The small geographical size of both markets compared with the US and UK means local mothers are more likely to live nearby their extended families, who are more likely to take on regular childcare responsibilities. “Stable social and family structures in Singapore also help make parenting a shared responsibility, which again helps gender diversity by helping mothers stay in work,” says Tanya Sinha, a vice president at recruiters Talent2 in Singapore.

Female finance professionals in Singapore get a head-start over their male counterparts at the start of their careers because young Singaporean men are required to carry out two years of National Service, points out Farida Charania, Asia Pacific CEO of search firm Nastrac Group in Singapore.

But while women in the Singapore and Hong Kong finance sectors enjoy some in-built societal advantages over their counterparts in Western markets, only comparatively recently have most banks in Asia begun to actively promote gender diversity via their own policies and programmes.

“Eight years ago it wasn’t uncommon for banks in Singapore to ask female candidates at interviews about their plans for starting a family,” says Craig Brewer a director at recruitment firm FiveTen Group in Singapore. “But gradually since then, as a result of government policies and the banking sector here generally becoming more mature, these discriminatory questions have disappeared.”

Sinha adds that gender diversity policies in Asia, such as flexi-hours arrangements, were at first restricted mainly to large global institutions. “But now diversity has a widespread focus; more firms have caught up.”

Gender diversity in Asia: it's about networking 

International banks aren’t simply applying their European or US gender-diversity strategies straight into Asia. Deutsche Bank, for example, has a regional diversity council, with sub-councils in its major Asian markets. “Our programmes are strongly supported by Asian managers and staff, which is key to tailoring them to the variety of cultural norms that characterise the region,” says Anu Sarkar, head of APAC diversity and inclusion at Deutsche Bank.

In relationship-driven markets like Hong Kong and Singapore, where banks are clamouring to hire client-facing staff to service emerging corporate and private wealth, networking is at the core of employers’ attempts to promote gender diversity. UBS’ women's network in Asia, for example, runs personal-development talks and mentoring and sponsorship programmes that link high-performing staff with senior leaders. “These provide a platform for networking and for discussing topics such as career planning, goals and challenges,” says Miranda Chan, head of human resources, UBS Hong Kong.

Flexible-working arrangements have also slowly started to become more acceptable in Asia. When asked which policies would be most effective to promote more women into senior positions, flexi-working was the top choice of female respondents to the eFinancialCareers survey in both Singapore and Hong Kong.

DBS, Southeast Asia’s largest bank, views its flexi-working programmes as key to helping female staff achieve a better work-life balance and to helping the bank retain them, says Theresa Phua, Singapore head of human resources a DBS. Women now make up 58% the workforce at DBS and more than a third of its leadership positions, including seven of its 19 most senior leaders.

Banks in Asia, as elsewhere, also have programmes to up their intake of female graduates. UBS, for example, runs an annual one-day coaching and networking event for female undergraduates in Singapore to equip them with skills to “define their personal brand” ahead of their job search, says Chan from UBS. In our survey 90% and 76% of female respondents in Singapore and Hong Kong respectively said women were already equally represented at junior levels at their employer.

Gender diversity in Asia: problems persist

By contrast, only 60% (in Singapore) and 49% (in Hong Kong) of respondents said their firm enjoyed equal representation at a senior level. While access to home-help may boost general female participation in the financial-sector workforce, it’s not a silver bullet to ensure women reach the upper echelons. “Even in Singapore, women still sacrifice more than men in terms of promotion during their mid-career since they still have more need to balance home and work commitments,” says Sinha from Talent2.

Across the seniority ranks, banks in Asia appear to have work to do to counter a perception that their female staff are underpaid. Only 54% of women in Singapore and 46% in Hong Kong think they are fairly paid, according to our survey, while and 68% and 57% respectively believe that men in equivalent positions are better compensated.

Banking recruiters contend that a lack of pay fairness is more perception than reality, however. “A few female finance professionals seem to have that perception, although I rarely come across gross differentiation in salary just on the basis of gender – it has much more to do with education, experience and skill sets,” says Sinha.

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