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Women at the top: boss under Allah

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There are several reasons why it's not easy to forget a meeting with Janet Yap. The surprisingly deep voice of the petite Malaysian, for example. Or the tattoo with the name of her daughter that winds in the form of a plant over the back of the management consultant's right hand. And it wasn't long ago that another characteristic caused a stir: her gender. Because Yap is the first woman to head the local branch of the international consulting company Accenture in Malaysia. “I work in an industry that has been dominated by men for a long time,” says the 52-year-old computer scientist. "I was often the only woman in the clients' conference rooms."

Recently, however, Yap has had this experience less and less. The gender balance in Malaysia's boardrooms is changing rapidly and fundamentally: Female executives are vehemently pushing to the top. In the corporate world of the Muslim state, the cliché of women oppressed in Islam now seems anything but appropriate. Instead, Malaysia's female leaders stand out for their startling ambition and optimism. “When I decided to pursue a career in technology in the 1980s, my parents were still shocked,” recalls Yap. They feared that their daughter would end up in a dead end professionally. “At that time there were hardly any women in this field. Today, many young women want to pursue a similar career. "

The new gender ratio is clearly noticeable in public life. When it comes to the professional advancement of women, studies attest the Southeast Asian country with around 30 million inhabitants a special position: Together with the Philippines, according to a survey by the consulting company PwC, Malaysia has the greatest gender equality in the workplace from the perspective of young women in international comparison. A study by the personnel service provider Hays, which analyzed Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, also showed at the beginning of 2016 that Malaysian companies have the highest proportion of female managers at 37 percent.

The ambition of the Malaysian women is evident

A few weeks ago, the company followed up with another global survey: 25 countries were examined, including Germany, France, China and the USA. The result: nowhere are the women surveyed as ambitious as in Malaysia as they are in Malaysia: 28 percent said they wanted to become a managing director.

In contrast, only 26 percent of Malaysian men named such top positions as a personal career goal. Compared with the global averages, the ambition of Malaysians is even more evident: in the countries examined by Hays, on average, only twelve percent of women aspire to the top position. For men it is 18 percent.

But what drives Malaysian women? An event promises answers in the conference room of a business hotel in Kuala Lumpur. The German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, together with a local management institute, invited to the “Female Leadership Forum” in the Malaysian capital. Around 100 female executives came. Many wear the headscarf and abaya, a traditional dress in Muslim culture.

In a dark trouser suit and pumps, on the other hand, there is a person on stage who knows what makes Malaysia's ambitious women tick - because she is one of them. Anne Abraham was managing director first of SAP and later of Cisco in Malaysia. Five years ago the Malaysian started her own business with a personnel consultancy. The headhunter brings employers who have vacant executive positions together with qualified candidates.

Abraham asks the ladies in the audience, in English of course, how many of them are already working in a management position. Well over half raise their hands. The experienced manager's PowerPoint slides also paint a positive picture: "If we compare ourselves with Singapore and other countries in the region, we are clearly at the top," she says of a graphic about the proportion of women in top management in Malaysian companies.

Role models contribute to social change

In fact, women are no longer uncommon at the top of Malaysia's corporations: the Islamic banks Hong Leong and Alliance, the national subsidiaries of the insurance company AIA and the airline Air Asia, as well as the multi-billion dollar media group Astro are all run by CEOs. The Malaysian central bank also had a woman at its head for years until April 2016. From Abraham's point of view, these role models contribute to social change. “Being ambitious used to be something only for men. Ambitious women were seen as dogged and selfish, ”she says in an interview with the Handelsblatt. "In the meantime I have noticed more and more that women in companies also raise their hands when new positions are filled."

The high self-confidence of Malaysian women in striving for leadership positions can also be explained by Abraham's growing political backing. “We are the only country in the region where the government has made its own budget available for promoting women in leadership positions,” she says. "The government initiatives acted like a catalyst that started development."

For example, the government encourages flexible working hours and the return of mothers to work after pregnancy. Hays advisors, who examined the Malaysians' ambitions, praised these initiatives. “Gender diversity is a hot topic in Malaysia,” they comment. "That could be the reason why women are more convinced that gender equality is possible."

There is no legally binding quota of women for management positions, as has been in place in Germany since 2016, in Malaysia. But five years ago the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the goal of filling at least 30 percent of executive and supervisory board positions with women. This goal should be achieved by the end of 2016.

It was only just missed: In November, the stock exchange operator in Kuala Lumpur put the proportion of women on the boardrooms of the listed companies at 26 percent. "It is of course disappointing that we did not achieve the goal," says Janet Yap, who, like Anne Abraham, is involved in the 30 Percent Club initiative. “But you shouldn't forget how much has changed in the past few years. The proportion of women has doubled. That is an enormous achievement. "

Big sister instead of boss

With the increasing number of women in management, the atmosphere in Malaysia's economy is expected to change fundamentally. Ai Ching Goh believes that more diversity also leads to more creativity and better decisions. Goh is 30 years old and runs the start-up Piktochart, which she founded together with her husband on the Malaysian island of Penang. The company offers an online tool that allows users to easily create sophisticated infographics. The idea has already taken Goh a long way: two years ago, she was able to present her concept to the then US President Barack Obama at a start-up event. She talked to him about her company for three minutes. “He's a good listener,” praised Goh. She herself would like to be assessed by her employees as well.

"We make important decisions on a grassroots basis," she says. “Every voice is heard.” She would not describe her leadership style as typically female. Nonetheless, she says: “I am sure that I manage the company differently than most men would.” She is less fixated on numbers and growth than other founders. “Results are important, but the people behind them are more important to me.” And she wants to be a role model for her employees: “Malaysian women have always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. “Now you see a lot of women managers in top positions. That encourages big dreams. "

But the rise of Malaysia's women is not going smoothly across the country. On the podium of the “Female Leadership” forum in Kuala Lumpur, Sarimah Sabudin also reports on her experiences. As the representative of a furniture association, she traveled to many Malaysian provinces, where life is much more conservative than in the cosmopolitan metropolitan areas. "In Islam only a man can be the leader - this view is still widespread there," says Sarimah. The Muslim nevertheless managed to become the head of her organization. “But I had to sell myself differently to my colleagues: not as a boss, but rather as a big sister,” she explains her recipe for success.

Accenture boss Yap also points out that many cultural barriers for women have not yet been overcome. In her opinion, however, this is not due to the Muslim religion, to which the majority of Malaysians belong - there are also difficulties in the country's ethnic groups of Chinese and Indian origin. “In many Asian cultures, the expectation that women primarily take care of the family is still firmly anchored,” she says.

Women with career ambitions are put under pressure - as in Germany: "They have to show a high level of performance at work and at the same time be fantastic mothers, daughters and wives." She considers herself lucky that her own family does not share her professional ambition the demands of the family collide: "My daughter and I are both convinced that one can be a good mother even with a career." It doesn't have to be that the daughter also develops into a top manager. Yap: "She can do what she wants - I just expect her to do her best."

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