While the Asia Pacific region has improved significantly in gender diversity at the senior management level, thousands women in middle management feel unable to break into senior ranks and smash the glass ceiling, new research shows.
The apparent roadblock in their careers at the middle level is leading many to consider leaving and potentially joining the competition, posing a problem for talent retention and the pipeline of future senior managers, according to a report by Alexander Mann Solutions.
"There's a lot of talk all over the world including in the Asia Pacific about women's representation on company boards, and our view on this is that's great to look at that," says Martin Cerullo, managing director – development at Alexander Mann Solutions Asia Pacific. "But if you haven't got people coming through the pipeline basically from middle management upwards you're kind of missing the trick.
"It's the pipeline for future leadership and it's the area where there's the biggest dropout of women in the workforce."
The report, Engaging the Full Potential of Female Middle Managers, polled respondents in Australia, mainland China, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore over late 2013 and early 2014. It involved surveying around 210 Asia-Pacific-based female middle managers, and in-depth interviews with 15 HR leaders.
It found female middle managers were generally confident about being promoted in the near future – at least 50 per cent were either somewhat or very confident.
Australia fared well in terms of how female workers rated their roles, their relationships with their managers and their ability to make a difference to the company's success. A third felt they were likely to be promoted in the next 12 months, and another 31 per cent said they expected promotion in next 12 months to five years.
But almost a quarter of Australian female middle managers felt they were not likely to be promoted at all in the foreseeable future – well above the regional average of 17 per cent. Lack of management opportunities was the primary reason given.
Only 20 per cent of middle managers in the region felt their company culture and mindset supported the progression of women, and 31 per cent said they would ideally like to leave their current employer, many of them by joining a competitor.
Cerullo says the business case for diversity is clear, with research showing a correlation between diverse businesses and a better return on equity.
"There's another side of shortening the talent gap," he says. "A lot of companies are talking about there being a gap in the Asia Pacific for talent and ensuring a gender diverse workforce plays to that very nicely."
What HR can do about it
Based on the research, Alexander Mann Solutions has suggested organisations, and particularly their HR departments, should do six things to address the concerns of middle management women:
Ensure there is an effective diversity strategy. Establish a firm business case for diversity, and ensure there is a consensus on it throughout the organisation. The effort to build a representative talent profile must be led convincingly by the board, and senior managers must take ownership of diversity, lead by example and communicate effectively why diversity is important to business;
Align HR leaders' perceptions with female middle managers' ambitions. HR leaders vary widely in their perceptions of the views and concerns of female middle managers. Organisations should conduct a detailed analysis to ensure they understand the challenges and aspirations of these employees;
Ensure female middle managers have full access to training and development programs to put them on the senior management track. Commit to well-defined and transparent career paths that make clear what skills and attributes are needed to progress;
Encourage female middle managers to take more responsibility for their careers. HR leaders favour a proactive approach to career development, citing ambition, assertiveness, drive, confidence and focus as characteristics expected of female middle managers. These middle managers need to put themselves forward and take more personal responsibility for developing their careers;
Extend flexible working options further along the pipeline. Despite the availability of childcare options, there still exists a defined choice between work and family, and organisations should work to reduce it; and
Work on the relationship with senior women role models. Female middle managers would like to see more senior women role models, but many say senior women do not help other females progress in their organisation. HR leaders may be overestimating the contribution made by senior women as role models, the report says.
Click here to apply for vacancies from Alexander Mann Solutions.