Women with Ambition in Malaysia

Ambition opened its Malaysia operation in Kuala Lumpur at the tail end of 2013. Though up to that point we had done our due diligence, like all new ventures there were aspects to doing business here that were a shot in the dark. Of course this applies to front line commercial factors like client opportunities and availability of candidates, but perhaps more significantly, a host of cultural factors. 


Whilst we are a business that prides itself on cultural assimilation from office to office, there are aspects to Malaysia that do make it a more radical venture for an Australian ASX listed business that up until now had not ventured into developing world territory. Add to that the blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian populations and the fact that Malaysian is Muslim at a constitutional level and we get a sense of how new and unchartered this new business could be for us.

Ambition maintains a very keen interest in the topic of gender diversity as a key factor influencing the world of work. We are also very active as a proponent of gender balance both internally and in terms of the external markets in which we operate, particularly at the executive level where, in most of our global locations, the balance tends to dwindle at the top for a variety of much debated reasons. So given our track record of getting this topic on the table, we were a little apprehensive about the level of reception here in Malaysia. After all, considering the cultural factors referred to above, were we going to experience the intensely conservative influences often associated with traditional Asia?

We were very quick to discover that the viewpoint above was a misconception and not only is gender diversity a very open topic for discussion, but Malaysia has very encouraging signs in terms of progression in this area. The fact is, we are primarily referring to KL and the surrounding region in terms of our assessment, and KL itself is the 11th most international city globally, so perhaps this openness is as much a reflection of policies adopted by MNCs across all its operations internationally. That said, we definitely get a sense here that businesses here are looking to push boundaries in terms of promoting females to the highest ranking of roles. I would also add that Malaysia has an abundance of female talent to fulfill this objective. Furthermore, we don’t seem to be encountering any overbearing sense of females being held back due to expectations around fulfilling a more traditional, family oriented role.

Of course there is considerable work to be done as there is a clear gap at the highest levels between genders. In terms of the markets in which we operate, Technology, Finance & Accounting, and Banking, we see the balance is very good at a graduate level and we are seeing females progressing comfortably across the 1-10-years experience banding. As well as excelling at a technical hands-on level, encouragingly, we are seeing females taking up a number of posts requiring leadership and communication qualities such as project management, which bodes well in terms of honing skills that enable them to take up more senior posts later in their career. However, in Malaysia this balance does tail off as we get to board level. There are many examples of females excelling across a variety of fields here including managing very large workforces within shared-services, or setting up successful start-up businesses. But if there are so many good examples of this, then the critical question is why we are not seeing more of a balance at the top? We also see no overt cultural factors preventing this from becoming a reality as Malaysia seems comfortable with the notion of females in leadership from the outset.

Gender diversity as it relates to cultural setting is clearly a very complex topic and we are certainly not looking to summarize the full extent of the situation in one blog. What is certainly true, however, is that Malaysia is a country that needs every modicum of talent it can muster. When you consider the fact that 1 million Malaysians still live abroad and the gap between talent supply and demand to fuel its expansion is ever changing and widening, then the notion of ensuring senior management talent across genders is being nurtured becomes more critical. Malaysia is also becoming more of high value centre of excellence for global organisations, creating more jobs at a senior level, which presents great opportunities for senior management talent, but further highlights the practical need for gender equality to make best use of resources.

We look forward to continuing this debate at our forthcoming networking event, Women with Ambition and we very much hope this will offer an appropriate platform to share ideas and insights on this very important topic. On an ongoing basis, we also hope to assist clients as much as possible in their drive to meet diversity objectives, which we very much believe to be a key strategy for ensuring businesses achieve their commercial objectives for the long term.