This article was first published in the May 2015 Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

A recent study has revealed that Malaysia is the standout performer in the Asia Pacific region in supporting gender diversity at senior levels in the workplace.

The report Making the business case for gender equity by Kelly Services shows Malaysia leading the region by having 28 per cent of female senior managers in the workforce. This put Malaysia ahead of Hong Kong at 23 per cent, Singapore (21.5 per cent), China (21 per cent), with Japan trailing at 8 per cent.

While it appears Malaysia is doing well in the area of gender diversity, at least at the senior management level, there is some cause for concern at the lower levels. According to the World Bank’s Malaysia Economic Monitor November 2012 report, the labour force participation rate among women in Malaysia falls short at 46 per cent compared to ASEAN countries such as Singapore (60 per cent) and Thailand (70 per cent).

Identifying the cause of this shortfall was what motivated ACCA to work with Talent Corporation Malaysia (TalentCorp) in 2012 on a survey of female ACCA members in Malaysia. Our report highlighted that while there were some within corporate Malaysia who were championing gender diversity and inclusion programmes, this was not widely practised among Malaysian employers.

However, we should not think that gender is the most important, or only, aspect of diversity.  Companies need to recruit and develop people from different ethnic groups, social and educational backgrounds, experiences and ages, among others. By tapping into the widest talent pool, employers can encourage innovative thinking, build relationships with a wider range of customers, and develop more resilient and global value chains. 

Regulators globally are increasingly taking action to encourage greater diversity within business and get more women on to the board of directors in the biggest and most successful companies. 

Thus, businesses need to take action in response, not just to meet regulatory requirements but because diversity is great for business. A September 2014 study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that companies where women accounted for over 15 per cent of senior management achieved an average return on equity of 14.7 per cent in 2013, compared with 9.7 per cent by those where women accounted for less than 10 per cent of senior managers. 

It is estimated that increasing the participation of women in the workforce could increase Malaysia’s GDP by between RM6bn and RM9bn.

Inequality is a genuine business risk and should be treated as such. Accountants are perfectly placed to shine the spotlight on gender inequality and promote diversity initiatives. CFOs can act as role models and use their ‘top table’ status to influence corporate diversity strategies. Analysing diversity data and establishing diversity initiatives as a permanent governance agenda are essential requirements for achieving real benefits. 

I am proud to say that ACCA is the world’s most diverse professional accountancy body. In fact, we were the first to admit a woman into the membership back in 1909. We’re proud that not only are 64 per cent of our employees female, but that the rate is the same at senior management level. In Malaysia, 57 per cent of our ACCA members are female. 

On International Women’s Day this year, ACCA called for several changes that would support workplace diversity around the world. This includes closing the gap between male and female pay; better management of reporting statistics to seek out gender inequality at its source and eradicate it; mentoring the next generation; and mirroring the best practices of Nordic nations which are considered the most gender-equal societies in the world.

Hopefully by the time 2020’s International Women’s Day comes around, we can celebrate more successes in these crucial areas.