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In Asia, the Workday Often Includes Late Nights, When Women Must Be at Home

Anyone who has ever done business in South Korea is likely familiar with the term hweshik. It means dinner with coworkers.

South Koreans work hard, and hweshiks are a part of corporate life. They usually go late into the evening, and they involve drinking a lot of soju, a potent liquor, served straight. Most importantly, hweshiks are where business gets done. They’ve been put on hold during the pandemic, but they will likely return.

The tradition is hard on women trying to make their way in business because they have dual responsibilities to work and home.

“To be successful, you are expected to build very close relationships with your business counterparts, which requires hanging out with them after work and dining and drinking,” says Jisung Won, a senior underwriter at the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA).

Unfortunately, Korean women are also expected to care for children, shop for groceries, cook, and clean the house. “It is not easy for women to juggle such intensive work and the needs of a family,” Won says.

The hweshik is just one tradition that works against women executives in Asia. There are many more, and the effects are real. In the Asia Pacific region, just 25 percent of leadership positions are held by women, compared with about 40 percent worldwide, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Finance is one of the hardest industries to crack. At the top banks in Singapore, women made up just 13 percent of the boards of directors in 2019, according to Bloomberg News. Neighboring Malaysia does better, with women holding 30 percent of all big-bank board seats, probably because governance codes there require that exact percentage must go to women.

But there is progress. In 2018, BlackRock, the money-manager with $8.7 trillion of assets, appointed Geraldine Buckingham as chair and head of BlackRock Asia Pacific in Hong Kong. That same year, BlackRock said that companies it owns in its funds should have at least two female directors. The firm wrote to 300 firms in the Russell 1000 Index who missed that mark to ask them to describe their diversity programs.

In another win for women, Singapore-based Clifford Capital last year named Audra Low Chief Executive Officer. Low joined the firm at its founding in 2012 as Head of Origination and Structuring. Clifford has committed more than $3.3 billion of financing to projects around the world, catalyzing an additional $11.7 billion from other lenders.

As a woman CEO in finance, Low is part of a very small club: Just 2 percent of banking CEOs worldwide were women as recently as 2017, according to the IMF, and they comprised fewer than 20 percent of board seats at banks.

Low knows something about being a woman in finance. She earned her bachelor’s in accounting from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and an MBA from the New York University Stern School of Business. Before joining Clifford Capital, she worked for 12 years in project finance at HSBC, the 7th-largest bank in the world.

For her achievements, Low is the recipient of MIGA’s 6th Annual Gender Leadership Award, to be presented on March 8 in Singapore. The theme this year is Women Financing a Resilient Asia.

Clifford Capital and MIGA worked together to finance a 414-megawatt gas-fired power plant in Sirajganj, Bangladesh in 2016, providing power to a nation accustomed to blackouts.

“Audra Low is an amazing leader,” says MIGA’s Won, who worked on the project with Low. “She’s very practical and approachable, and she supports the development of people in her company.”

Research shows that there are huge advantages to having women in the upper echelons of finance. A 2018 study of 2,800 investors by researchers at the University of Warwick in England found that women outperformed men by 1.8 percent over three years. Women traded less often, chose less-speculative stocks, and hewed to longer-term perspectives in crafting their portfolios.

Another study, by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, found that all firms, not just financial ones, had higher profits if they had more women in leadership positions. Going from zero women in the C-suite to 30 percent is associated with a 1-percentage-point increase in net margin. That may sound small, but it represents a 15 percent increase in profitability for the typical firm.

At a talk at the London School of Economics, bestselling author Michael Lewis, whose books include The Big Short about the 2008 financial crisis, was asked what single thing he would do to prevent another meltdown. He said: "I would take steps to have 50% of women in risk positions in banks."

Given the evidence, it would be wise for men in finance to welcome more women into their ranks. In South Korea, for one, that might mean promoting women, even if they don’t make it to every hweshik.

MIGA’s Won says there has been progress in South Korea, and across Asia. She and Audra, her partner in eliminating blackouts in Bangladesh, are evidence of that progress. More is necessary, for people, and profit.