It might have seemed like a small matter to many others but April Swando Hu was incensed when she had to submit a special request to retain her own name when she got married, instead of retaining it by default. “This just shows how endemic systems and cultures disempower and condition women to accept subservient roles in the family, society and workplace,” Hu says.
The educator and entrepreneur decided to do something about it. Together with Christine Fellowes, managing director of Global Networks and DTC International at NBCUniversal Asia-Pacific, she launched NINEby9. Its aim is to recommend nine actions businesses can take to achieve gender parity in the corporate world within nine years. It’s an ambitious goal, but Hu is confident.
The Peak speaks to the multi- hyphenate about the comprehensive survey it recently did together with Kadence International, Dynata and Yale-NUS College, and the next steps the organisation is planning to take.
What prompted you to start NINEBy9?
As a minority female tech entrepreneur, I felt the call to have female Asian voices heard on a global stage to address our complicated problems facing the world today. Business is better when women are in management, and it is even better when Eastern and Western cultures are balanced. These beliefs led Christine and me to co-found NINEby9 in 2021, which we saw as a year of regaining control in a post-pandemic world.
What surprised you most about the survey?
Women’s open-narrative responses on their commitment to personal and organisational growth while caring for their families and despite challenges are the most fascinating and inspiring. Although they are in the minority, my optimism and conviction are strengthened by their clear voice to catalyse behavioural shifts to achieve gender parity in Asia.
What are some of the unseen and unconscious gender barriers in the workforce that people are unaware of?
A key finding of our research was that unconscious bias remains our biggest hurdle to gender parity. First, there were disappointingly few stories of truly ‘positive’ experiences of gender parity, leaving much to be desired. Second, the number of contradictory statements paint a picture that doesn’t demonstrate equality. On one hand, women say they have equal opportunities and pay, yet they are concerned about professional repercussions if they push for gender parity in the workplace.
Our respondents also admit they’re uncomfortable being themselves around male colleagues. For example, when we asked if they need to hide who they are to be accepted by their male colleagues, over 50 per cent of those in Singapore said yes.
As part of our framework, one of the nine actions towards achieving gender parity is to speak up and raise important topics related to promotions, work-life balance, health needs and sexism in the workplace. People may not realise the extent to which these challenges exist if women do not speak up.
How can men help advance the interests of women and be gender allies?
In our research, we identified three stakeholders who influence gender parity: managers who stand up for the women who work for them, organisations that help women feel equal, and women who speak up and take action. Women hold only 20 per cent of management positions in Asia, so most of the people in these roles are men.
While male managers can make a significant difference to a woman’s experience of parity, men can also be important allies in the workplace. Our respondents across countries emphasised the importance of supportive male colleagues who actively push gender parity. From speaking up when they witness sexism to sharing housekeeping tasks in the workplace or to stepping up to ensure equal opportunities, male allies made a significant difference to a woman’s experience.