Leading Woman: Why Thailand puts us to shame

Yesterday a colleague flipped me an email with a remarkable fact: Thailand is the best place to be if you want to be a leading woman! (Thanks, Myriam)

In Thailand, 45% of senior managers are women – the highest rate in the world, according to an article in The Independent, published on this year’s International Women’s Day, the 101st.

The United Kingdom did not even rank in the top 20 – its rate is 23% of senior management – and Australia isn’t there. According to the latest Diversity Index, published by Women on Boards, just 10.9% of directors in the ASX Top 200 are women.

Interestingly, women are featuring more prominently in the appointments of new directors, according to John Colvin, the chief executive of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

He reckons about 30% of new director appointments are women, which is encouraging news. However, the WOB website notes that to reach the WOB target of 25% representation, ASX200 companies will need to double their rate of female appointment! And 87 of the ASX200 companies still do not have a woman on their board, despite the “if not why not” guidelines by the Australian Securities Exchange.

But, back to Thailand – why was I so surprised that this country leads the world? Perhaps because I know so little about it, in terms of its history, business and economy.

I found my stereotypes of the Thai woman disputed by an unlikely source: the inflight magazine, Thaiways. The article acknowledges that Western influences have brought about the fastest change in the status of women in Thailand, but points out that changes began centuries ago in the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868), who loosened up constraints on women participating in social activities.

The next king, Rava V (1868-1910), designated his queen (Queen Saovabhaphongsri) a regent. She lifted women’s status and improved their access to education and medicine.

Thai monarchs thereafter opened themselves to Western influences and began to advocate more change for women.

In 1932, a political revolution ended polygamy (and absolute monarchy) and enshrined gender equality in the constitution. Women were granted the right to vote. They make up 50% of the university population, and 47% of the working population. They can be seen in their hard hats on construction sites working alongside men.

Of course, it is not all beer and skittles in Thailand for women. Poorer women still struggle to free themselves from exploitation. Sex trafficking of women and children is rife. Sexual double standards – there is a high regard for maintaining virginity until marriage – are also reflected in some attitudes within the national religion, Buddhism: women are lower down the spiritual ranks and are prevented from access to the same spiritual opportunities as men.

But, not to end on a negative note, Thailand has a national women’s national handball team, rugby union team, football team, cricket team and volleyball team.

It took a revolution for Thai women to break through the glass ceiling in business (and sport).

By comparison, the WOB demand for a 25% quota of women directors is positively demure.

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