Graced by the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon of Myanmar, the 2012 World Economic Forum on East Asia had all eyes on Bangkok Friday 1 June. Telenor Group CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas talked about egalitarianism in international business.
Baksaas was the only non-Asian and the only man on the panel session on ‘Asian Women as the Way Forward’ on Friday 1 June. The panel featured Aung San Suu Kyi, along with WEF co-chair Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE USA and Rokia Afzal Rahman, Chairman of the Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs. The session was moderated by Andrew Stevens of CNN Asia.
As the panelists opened the plenary session by addressing the audience of corporate and governmental leaders of the entire region, it became clear that while much progress has been made, there is still a way to go both in East Asia and elsewhere.
Women may be admitted into politics, but lack influence in business
Aung San Suu Kyi opened by asking: “What can we not contribute? I think women can contribute in every way, but we are not always allowed to.” She highlighted the fact that the Asia-Pacific region has seen many powerful women in political top positions, but the female participation in economic activities is far lower.
“In Burma, women are poorly represented both in politics and in business. Before our recent by-elections, we had only 15 MPs (Member of Parlament) among the 600 in the national assembly. Afterwards, we added another 13, but how can 28 members convince the other 572 to change?” she said. Suu Kyi’s remarks followed the general position she conveyed about her home land and the attention Myanmar is attracting from entrepreneurs and businesses after the softening of trade sanctions against the South-East Asia country.
Empowering and stimulating entrepreneurship among women
Rokia Afzal Rahman offered her perspective from Bangladesh and its successful micro-financing projects that have enabled women in rural areas to acquire funds to start up their own small businesses. Helene Gayle, whose organization is involved in poverty alleviation projects across the world, emphasized the empowerment of women as a crucial step towards reducing poverty.
Equality means higher competitiveness
Baksaas had been invited to contribute on the panel as a representative of international business, and of a business headquartered in Scandinavia – a region renowned for its unmatched equality both socio-economically and gender wise.
“The Scandinavian countries have arrived at a rather sustainable economic model, and many – including the World Economic Forum – have aimed to explain why it is so. Egalitarianism is deeply ingrained in these societies with the aim of redistributing wealth and ensuring equal opportunities for all. Gender equality is an obvious and natural part of this. This is not to say we have solved this, but we have taken some steps in the right direction,” Baksaas said in his introductory address.
In his comments throughout the panel discussion, he explained the main reasons for the gender balance in Scandinavian economies: education, mindset and affirmative action.
“Equality is an enabler for competitiveness. Companies and societies depend on top talent to succeed – regardless of gender, nationality or religion. A key here is education. When women and men have equal access to education, you get a crop of highly skilled potential female leaders. You cannot exclude 50% of talents when looking to fill a position. Equality simply makes good business sense,” Baksaas said. Pioneering legislative and policy work to promote gender equality in all aspects of society was cited as another key reason for Scandinavia’s gender balance.
Suu Kyi to Norway in mid-June
Mrs Suu Kyi, who has been in house arrest in Myanmar for more than two decades, is scheduled to receive her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and hold her Nobel lecture on 16 June in Oslo.