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Women in Business 2021: A window of opportunity

For 17 years, Grant Thornton has been tracking the global progress of women in senior management. In the last 12 months, unprecedented events have had an unforeseen and unparalleled impact on that progress.

The coronavirus pandemic has driven a fundamental shift in global working practices. It has forced millions into a remote working model. It has exposed weaknesses in supply chains; caused businesses to assess the factors essential to survival; and underlined the mid-market as the beating heart of many sectors, central to keeping economies functioning.

These seismic shifts have, inevitably, had repercussions for women in business, their prospects and the challenges they face in the coming months and years. The business landscape appears to be undergoing permanent changes, not least due to the more flexible, hybrid working environments being adopted by many organisations.

Highest number of leadership positions for women recorded in Malaysia

The number of women holding senior leadership positions in Malaysia has hit 37%, the highest ever recorded despite the COVID-19 pandemic affecting economies around the world according to Grant Thornton’s annual Women in Business report. Globally, women in senior leadership positions has passed the critical 30% threshold, which research[1] shows is the minimum representation needed to change decision-making processes. The ASEAN region has also performed positively, from 35% last year to 38% this year. All regions surveyed except for APAC (28%) have now surpassed the crucial 30% milestone.

Ms Seah Siew Yun, National Tax Practice Leader at Grant Thornton Malaysia PLT says: “Seeing the proportion of women leaders in Malaysia rise from 31% last year to 37% this year is encouraging. This figure is also above the global figure of 31%. It also passes the important 30% threshold, which research shows is the minimum representation needed to change decision-making processes.

Another encouraging finding is the types of leadership roles women are occupying. Grant Thornton’s research reveals higher numbers of women across operational C-suite roles in Malaysia compared to last year, with the proportion of female Chief Finance Officers, up 12pp to 41%, female Chief Marketing Officers, up 14pp to 36% and female Chief Information Officers, up 3pp to 20%. However, the proportion of women holding Chief Executive Officer positions was down slightly at 10% (-5pp on 2020), and has trended downwards since 2019.

The research has shown that Malaysian businesses are taking positive actions and the top three actions taken to improve the gender balance of their leadership team were creating an inclusive culture (54%), ensuring equal access to developmental work opportunities (48%), and providing mentoring and coaching (47%).

“Recognising the importance of a gender-balanced leadership team, more businesses are now walking the talk. It is encouraging to see more businesses placing a priority in creating an inclusive culture in their workplace. The research has shown that the number of businesses taking this initiative has increased the highest, from 17% of businesses last year to 54% of businesses this year,” Siew Yun commented. 

In terms of ensuring employee engagement and inclusion, more than half of Malaysian businesses (56%) have shown to create an environment where employees can ‘speak up’ with ideas, issues and questions. They are also promoting work/life/balance and/or flexibility for employees (54%) and instilling new working practices to better engage all employees (50%).

A window of opportunity

At Grant Thornton, we believe there is now a window of opportunity during which mid-market leaders can accelerate the progress of their businesses into a more inclusive future – or choose to revert to previous models. The benefits of diversity at a senior level include improved financial performance, leveraging talent, reflecting the marketplace and customer perspectives, and increased innovation. All of which will help businesses successfully navigate these uncertain times.

The Women in Business 2021 report outlines the position of women in senior management around the world as we witness the emergence of a more diverse and inclusive leadership model, and highlights the actions leaders need to take to create a step change in the proportion of high-level roles held by women.


[1] Dahlerup, D. (2006). The Story of the Theory of Critical Mass. Politics & Gender, 2(4), 511-522. doi:10.1017/S1743923X0624114X