This article was first published in the March 2018 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

If corporate Malaysia had such a thing as the ratio of the moment, it ought to be 30%. This magic number has been prominent in the government’s efforts to boost gender diversity.

It began in 2004 with a national policy that aimed to have women holding at least 30% of decision-making roles in the public sector. At the time, women accounted for 18.8% of the top managers in the civil service. The figure crossed the 30% mark in 2010. It is now around 36%.

Encouraged by this success, the government decided in 2011 to issue the same challenge to the private sector. The initial target was to see women in at least 30% of the listed companies’ decision-making positions by the end of 2016. 

Last July, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak declared a triumph of sorts. As of December 2016, listed companies in Malaysia had almost 5,000 people in top management, excluding CEOs. Of these, 1,446 (or 29%) were women.

There is still more to do, of course. The current campaign centres on placing women in 30% or more of the board seats of listed companies by 2020. The bellwether is Bursa Malaysia’s 100 largest companies, where women made up 16.6% of the total directors as of December 2016. 

One of the most visible responses to the corporate sector’s challenge was the setting up of the Malaysian chapter of the 30% Club in 2015, which aims to bring more women onto corporate boards. It promotes the benefits of gender diversity, inspiring debates and discussions, and supporting initiatives to build the pipeline of women in executive and non-executive roles.

Last July, for example, the club launched a mentorship programme with PwC Malaysia, in which women identified as board-ready are paired with experienced directors based on key criteria such as professional experience and interests. It aims to mentor 100 women by 2020. 

The club is also working with the Securities Commission (SC) after the government made it known last year that listed companies with no women directors would feel the heat. In January the regulator released the names of seven Top 100 companies that had all-male boards, adding that together with the 30% Club it had been talking to the companies about their plans.

It is apparent that the large listed companies have generally embraced gender diversity. Or, at least, they would rather not be singled out for ignoring government policy. Last year, 17 of the Top 100 companies had all-male boards. But 10 of them have since brought women onto their boards.

In addition, the percentage of women directors of the Top 100 companies has increased from 16.6% in 2016 to 19.2% at the end of last year.

With the SC promising that it will periodically publish reports that include the gender diversity practices of listed companies, it will be interesting to see how investors act upon such information. 

Errol Oh is executive editor of The Star