Shattering the glass ceiling in Thailand will take an all-of-society approach

Women in the workplace in Thailand have made significant strides. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2022 revealed that in terms of gender parity, Thailand ranks a respectable eighth in Asia and 79th in the world, which is about midway for both. It moves up the ranks to 15th place for economic participation and opportunity, 13th for wage equality for similar work, 8th for income disparity and shows total equality for the ability of both men and women to become professional and technical workers, and to enroll in tertiary education.1

In the corporate world, gender representation in Thailand also outperforms many countries. 24 percent of CEOs and managing directors in Thailand are women, compared to 20 percent worldwide and only 13 percent in Asia-Pacific. The same skew is seen in mid-market companies in Thailand, where 32 percent of senior leadership positions are held by women, more than the global average of 27 percent and the Asia-Pacific average of 26 percent. Interestingly, the senior position held most by women in Thailand is chief financial officer. A striking 43 percent of CFOs in Thailand are women, which puts this country ahead of the rest of the world in this area.2

Yet sentiment on the ground can beg to differ. While the statistics show that women can hold their own in the corporate world in Thailand, they remain subjected to a set of societal expectations because of their gender that can make it harder for them to advance. Several women whom McKinsey works with in Bangkok spoke candidly, saying that a female leader in a firm could be expected to also take on a large share of the responsibility of tending to her family and possibly be guilt-tripped into considering leaving her job, while it is very unlikely a man in a similar corporate role would face these pressures.

This uneven set of demands exists in other societies and is not unique to Thailand, but what exacerbates it here and quite likely in other Asian societies is that it can come from all sides. Because this attitude is entrenched in society, it can be internalized by both men and women, resulting in criticism and judgement not just from men towards women, but also women towards women. CEO and author Mikaela Kiner wrote, “This is known as internalized sexism. Women unconsciously absorb beliefs about their rightful place, and those messages show up in how women judge each other.”3 Being aware of internalized sexism plays a big part in not letting it rear its head.

Beyond the workplace, these attitudes can bubble to the surface in other areas. Feminism has been vilified in some arenas such as the ‘Femtwit’ phenomenon on social media. ‘Femtwit’ is a pejorative used to label women who are perceived to be angry and vocal, distinguishing between them and so-called ‘good’ feminists who are polite. Those who hurl the term ‘Femtwit’ are as likely to be women as men, if not more so.4

Changing this is tricky. Undoing attitudes that have been in place for generations starts at the individual level, requiring openness, curiosity, and a high degree of awareness. From there change can ripple through wider circles such as corporations and policy making bodies. As announced recently in Thailand, some companies have increased the amount of paid maternity leave a woman gets, which is a good move in the right direction. Women’s advocacy group TEAM scored a major victory by persuading companies in seven Thai provinces to increase the amount of paid maternity leave a woman gets from 90 to 120 or 180 days, and in addition provide 28 days of paid partner leave.5

While such inclusive and anti-discriminatory policies are necessary and should be lauded, these “hard” elements need to be complemented with intangible and culture-driven elements like community support and camaraderie. For this, society can learn from the LGBT community. Thailand’s open inclusivity and advancement in LGBT rights can be a source of pride and a model for community building. Consistent campaigning like Thailand’s Pride Parade, which has been received with rousing reception, can help transform mindsets and strengthen bonds. Another segment of society that can help undo internalized sexism, is men. If more men lean into this conversation, the needle can shift. This can take the form of having male—not only female—sponsors of women’s groups in the workplace. Male colleagues can openly hold up female leaders as role models, which will help affirm female colleagues who advance in their careers to counter any self-deprecation that can come from the misguided belief that “this is not a woman’s place”. Female mentorship though has undisputed power. Women actively mentoring other women creates a support network that is invaluable.

Lifting this veil of negativity will benefit everyone. To circle back to Kiner, “Seek out confident women who value you; women who want to be your mentor or sponsor. Find women who are not threatened by you, who appreciate you, and want you to succeed. I can guarantee you they’re out there.”