This decade, women are expected to play a greater role in corporations around the world. The corporate sector in Cambodia must follow suit.
It’s a bold prediction to make after decades of a disappointment for women. Still, raising awareness about gender equality, improved enrolment of women at universities and increased flexibility to account for childcare at workplaces has meant this decade could mark more opportunities for women across societies in white-collar industries.
Back in 2018, Thailand and Cambodia were noted by the World Bank as the only two countries where the data showed more women were running companies than men. According to the 2019 Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey (CSES), the female labor force participation rate in Cambodia was 84 percent, higher than in neighboring countries.
However, garments and footwear manufacturing, which comprised nearly three-fourths of Cambodia’s total exports in 2019, is largely responsible for this finding. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the working environment in Cambodia outperforms the region.
Another report by the World Bank this year outlined that women in Cambodia generally face a fair legal environment when it comes to mobility, workplace, entrepreneurship, and assets. (It’s only when it comes to pensions and motherhood that more work needs to be done.)
However, that progress does not translate well up the ranks – the proportion of women in middle and senior managerial positions in the private sector is just 17 percent, according to the ASEAN Gender Outlook released by UN Women earlier in the year. In addition, women occupy only a fifth of all parliament seats.
What needs to change?
A need for flexibility
More corporations need to move to increase flexibility in work schedules. Meanwhile, replacing business travel and face-to-face meetings with video conferencing technologies must be seriously considered to make it easier for working parents to take on big corporate jobs.
Around the world, diversity has become a key goal for businesses. However, ensuring that more women rise the corporate ladder will require a re-look at talent retention policies. Just boosting the proportion of women in the workforce is a quick fix that may not lead to meaningful long-term progress.
Companies need to be flexible in their recruitment requirements. It is unreasonable to expect women candidates, many of whom quit their jobs to look after children due to the sudden need to home-school kids after the onset of the pandemic led to school shutdowns, to offer the same level of career continuity as male counterparts, especially in developing and patriarchal societies. The brunt of responsibility for childcare continues to weigh heavily on a woman’s shoulders. This phenomenon has been termed a “she-cession”.
Finally, companies need to show flexibility in how they go about recruitment as well. It won’t serve them well to place job postings and hope that the right female candidate applies.
Women apply to fewer jobs than men, as the work networking site LinkedIn found in the 2019 Gender Insights Report. In places like Cambodia, that hesitancy is likely to be more pronounced. Recruiters and managers looking for worthwhile candidates will need to go the extra mile and reach out to potential candidates alerting them of suitable work opportunities and coaching them on the job process.
Adopt a culture of female empowerment
So you’ve managed to hire a talented female employee? Perhaps, that person is a marketing executive or a business development manager. Even with good recruitment policies, the work is not done once they sign the contract and show up at work.
Female colleagues need to feel welcomed and championed. In both the private and the public sectors, it’s heartening to note the rise in various types of female empowerment programs that celebrate women at work.
Not just as part of an annual exercise during International Women’s Day, companies need to ensure internal communication efforts respect and validate their presence. Language is key and their colleagues need to undergo sensitivity training to ensure a safe and harmonious work environment.
It must be remembered that many working women in Cambodia have already come a long way. Not only have they dealt with unequal access to quality education, and a lack of adequate educational facilities and infrastructure, but they have also lived with outdated societal attitudes (a Cambodian saying states “a woman’s place is in the kitchen”) to carve out corporate careers or careers in male-dominated fields like engineering, architecture, banking, technology or corporate services.
In many ways, corporate departments at large companies have a key role in changing social attitudes. By employing a significant number of female staff in what was earlier the exclusive privy of men, often giving them supervisory or managerial positions, the message for female empowerment becomes loud and clear to the rest of society.
Role models for women
In Cambodia, there are several role models that women can look up to. More need to be nurtured and presented to young girls in schools and universities.
Perhaps, one of the most famous female leaders is Her Excellence Serey Chea, governor of the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) who also hails from the Cambodian royal family. Spearheading the Bakong project, a central bank digital currency that has now snapped up 5.9 million users, she has helped the country rapidly embrace financial technology. A regular speaker at conferences, Chea has transformed attitudes toward the financial services sector for women.
Meanwhile, singer Laura Mam, Cambodia’s first independent pop star and the founder of Baramey Production, has worked over a decade in the local music scene with her production house recently becoming the first Khmer outfit to sign with one of the big three major labels. Getting to a managerial level in an industry dominated by men has been nothing short of inspirational for many female musicians.
Among corporates, there are positive signs among the newer cohort. A number of them are actively looking to increase female participation at the board level. For example, more than a third of a 15-strong senior management team at Prince Bank, a member of Prince Holding Group (“Prince Group”), are women.
Prince Group, which is led by Cambodian-Chinese entrepreneur Neak Oknha Chen Zhi, counts female Cambodians (and international leaders) in its diverse workforce. Merve Karateke, a Turkish sales, and marketing executive at Prince Real Estate, and Anani Song, a public relations executive from Malaysia, are two executives highlighting how the fast-growing conglomerate is bringing skills, talent, and networks from different parts of the world by bringing in female ex-pats to Cambodia.
Only a decade old, Prince Group under the leadership of Chen Zhi Cambodia, which oversees more than 80 subsidiaries, is an example of how newer corporations, in particular, are eager to upend the script and diversify Cambodian workplaces at a faster rate than what many are used to.
Young girls in Cambodia looking for role models now have many more options. It will be equally important for female leaders to make themselves available and offer mentorship and talks to inspire peers.
More needs to be done
These improvements should not mask the fact that there’s a real divide between men and women in Cambodia. Earlier in the year, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) announced for the first time the gender wage gap in Cambodia. On average, the UNDP estimates the gender wage gap to be 19% suggesting women earn nearly a fifth less for the same work than men (but even that is likely a gross underestimate).
Marital status was found to be the most important determinant of women’s wage employment. On the other hand, an increase in family size and the education level of the head of the household increased the likelihood of women becoming wage earners.
However, as life returns to normal following comprehensive vaccination levels in Cambodia, we must not forget that progress has been made in recent years.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated revenues for businesses, investments in education, health, and female employment must be sustained as part of the economic recovery.
2030 is the deadline as the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 specifies gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls with the world promising to “leave no one behind” in the march towards progress.
“Gender equality makes development stronger and more sustainable,” states Pauline Tamesis, the UN Resident Coordinator for Cambodia. “It is a pressing moral and social issue and a critical economic challenge.”