By Calvin Yang
Asian universities are beginning to do what has long been practiced in the West: offer short courses specifically for women who are leaders in business and politics.
While the business schools at Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and others have established courses for female executives, such offerings are just starting to make their mark in Asia.
Last month, the University of Hong Kong held the first part of a course meant to prepare Asian women for the boardroom: The Women’s Directorship Program.
Offering a certificate upon completion, the program is sponsored in part by the executive search firm Harvey Nash and had the first of two three-day sessions in April. Another is planned for June. Participation costs $10,000, and the course covers strategic leadership, stock exchange regulations, conflict resolution and ethics.
Amy Lau, director of both the university’s business school and its executive education program, said there would be several short courses focused on potential board directors in Asia. “We have decided that this first one should focus on women because there is currently a shortage of women on the boards,” she said. “This program aims to address the imbalance in boardrooms.”
Dr. Lau said that women have often felt tied down by family commitments. “Even now,” she said, “some are not sure if they are suitable for directorships, even though they have served in senior executive positions. Often, they are less inclined to put themselves forward.”
Fifteen senior executives from various sectors, including finance, logistics and telecommunications, attended the course as students. Ruth Rowan, the marketing director for Asia, the Middle East and Africa for BT Group, described it as an eye-opener.
“There was a huge amount to learn from each other, as well as the speakers,” she said. “I have always worked in industries where men are definitely in the majority, so I was intrigued to see how a course solely for female executives would work,” she added.
“There is clearly still an issue in most organizations that women are not represented proportionally, particularly in more senior roles,” Ms. Rowan said.
The curriculum, which includes case studies, is taught by lecturers from the university’s faculty of business and economics, plus industry leaders like Rick Haythornthwaite, the chairman of MasterCard, and Umran Beba, the Asia-Pacific regional president of Pepsi.
But of the 21 professors and speakers listed on the Web site of the Women’s Directorship Program, only five are women, meaning that three-quarters of the instructors are male.
“Most of the directors invited are men but we would like to show that there are a few women serving in leadership positions in top corporations and that these positions are achievable for our students,” Dr. Lau said. “It is also a reflection of the situation now. There are not many women leaders in the boardrooms,” she added.
She is hopeful that “in the next few years,” the university can invite more women to speak.
Anne Parkin, a director at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong and a student in the program, said, “It is attractive to join a group of women executives from diverse backgrounds and exchange with them the various challenges facing executives of both genders.”
She added: “The community will certainly benefit from having access to a pool of female leaders who can easily move proactively into leadership roles.”
The University of Hong Kong is planning for the second installment of the corporate directorship program, which is expected to run early next year.
Women represent less than 6 percent of all boardrooms across Asia, according to a 2012 study by McKinsey, the management consulting firm. The proportion of seats on corporate boards occupied by women is 17 percent in Europe and 15 percent in the United States.
Other Asian universities have also started offering short courses for female leaders.
Madeleine K. Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state, will be the keynote speaker at a two-week program in Beijing from June 5 to June 15. She will also teach a master class for the “Empowering Women for Leadership: Challenges of an Urban Future” program, an initiative of the Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley College, a women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Participants will include undergraduates from both Yuanpei College at Peking University in Beijing and Wellesley.
In 2011, Ewha Womans University in Seoul began a program for female leaders currently working in nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. The next session, from July 3 to July 16, will include 26 women from 25 countries.
The Peking University program is free for enrolled students, while Ewha provides funding to cover some of the participants’ tuition fees.
The Indian Institute of Management Bangalore established the India- Women in Leadership program for aspiring politicians last year. The 10-week certificate course includes model Parliament simulations and field assignments. It cost 475,000 Indian rupees, or about $8,660.
M.V. Rajeev Gowda, program coordinator and head of the Center for Public Policy at the Indian institute, said that the institute hoped to offer the program again this year with 50 to 100 students.
The National University of Singapore is also bringing executives into the classroom by offering its first Women in Leadership program Nov. 18 to Nov. 22. The weeklong course will cost 7,680 Singaporean dollars, or about $6,140.
“We recognize the need to develop a pipeline of middle- to senior-level women business leaders,” said the program’s director, Vivien Lim.
The program will be taught by lecturers from the university’s business school, industry experts and leadership coaches. Besides teaching the usual business and management subjects, it will explore issues that affect women more in the workplace, like time management and achieving a work-life balance. And while the program’s focus is on women, it welcomes male professionals as well.
The growing scope of these programs in Asia reflect “the growth and challenges that Asia economies have faced in recent years,” Dr. Lim said. “Given the talent shortage, organizations have come to realize that women provide a ready pool of talent and more can be done to harness this reserve of talents.”
Win Bischoff, the chairman of Lloyds Banking Group who has just announced his retirement and who is one of the speakers at the University of Hong Kong program, said that companies were slowly recognizing the importance of having women in boardrooms. “In my experience, women bring a new perspective to issues in business,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions. “They bring a different skill set to the boardroom, which affects the decision-making of companies for the better.”
Teresa Ko, China chairman of the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, wrote in an e-mail that now was the time for change. “For too long we have struggled to promote gender diversity in the boardrooms,” she said.
Ms. Ko, one of the speakers at the University of Hong Kong program, said that these courses would encourage women to put themselves forward for board-level positions. “Over time, it will result in a pool of board-ready female leaders helping to alter the dynamics of boardrooms across the globe,” she said. (The New York Times)