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Not content to live in the shadow of men, Indonesian women are staking their claim to professional fulfillment. Motivated and educated, they are challenging their male counterparts and often outshining them.
Since the beginning of Indonesia’s industrialization in the 1970s, the number of working women in public and agricultural sectors and in labor-intensive industries has grown exponentially.
More recently, the productivity boom reverberating through the automotive, telecommunications, finance, arts, health and education fields has helped to encourage more Indonesian women to participate in work outside the home.
According to Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB) Professor Pudjiwati Sajogyo, there are two key reasons for this trend: industries such as cigarettes, food, beverages and garment manufacturing believe women are more skilled at the precise and patient work required, while their loyalty is a boon for businesses concerned about staff turnover.
But the University of Indonesia’s Professor Priyono Tjiptoherijanto has a different slant on the story. He believes the growth of women’s employment is more about the simple economic logic of supply and demand.
Modern women are better educated and have fewer children, while society now accepts their place in the workforce. At the same time, the rising cost of living means that women increasingly need to contribute to household budgets and support their families through paid employment.
Of 4.8 million Indonesian students registered with institutions of higher learning in March this year, nearly half were female. Psychologist Kasandra Putranto points out that they aren’t just killing time: They want to apply what they’ve learned in school and university to the real world – and be recognized and rewarded for their contribution.
“Women work to help their families, build self-confidence and enjoy a better quality of life,” she says.
Although they’ve been mixing it with the men for a relatively short period of time, research shows women outperform their male colleagues in a variety of fields.
Leading Goldman Sachs strategist Kathy Matsui, who is involved with the 10,000 Women Initiative which seeks to boost business and management education for women entrepreneurs, studied 115 Japanese companies and found that those with a concentration of female employees were growing quicker than those dominated by men.
The companies operated in industries as diverse as financial services, retail, textiles and hospitality, and Kathy says quality education and training for women made those findings possible.
Women are putting off marriage until later in life. Particularly in urban areas, they are increasingly opting to study and work before tying the knot – if they ever do get married.
Recently released research by the Asia Research Institute published in The Economist found that in the 1980s the average age of Indonesian brides was 17, in 2000 it was 22 and by 2005 it was 25. Right now, the average age of women getting married in Japan is 30.
There are many different reasons why Asian women are choosing to delay marriage or avoid it completely. Thirty years ago only 2% of the region’s females were single. Now, the proportion of unmarried women in their 30s from Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong has risen to least 18%. In Thailand, the number of females entering their 40s single has increased from 7% in 1980 to 12% in 2000.
Head of the University of Indonesia’s Demography Institute Sonny Harry Budiutomo Harmadi says that the reason women are marrying later in Indonesia is because of a national family planning campaign which succeeded in reducing the birth rate and gave women more of a chance to study and work before starting a family.
While women who choose this path will have a smaller window of opportunity to fall pregnant, it will also result in a higher quality of life for families with two working spouses.
Sonny warns there are moral dilemmas to having children later. For instance, by the time women are aged in their mid- to late-20s and feel ready to fall pregnant, they may have to weigh up whether to keep working and spend less time with their children, or step back from professional life and sacrifice a degree of independence.
“Happily, most modern women know that the quality of their business meetings is more important than how many they attend, and they are able to juggle work and family life well,” he says.
Milestone Pacific Group chief financial officer Denise Tjokrosaputro says she knows some women who have delayed marriage as a way of getting around the social pressure to procreate, but adds this is really only an option for the modern, highly-educated woman.
From a business perspective, the trend is driving growth in luxury goods as companies seek to cash in on a new generation of women with greater disposable incomes and fewer dependents.
“Cosmetic manufacturers, for example, will spend more money researching and developing new products for working women,” business commentator Rudy Budiawan says. “Meanwhile, manufacturers of infant-related paraphernalia will have to come up with alternate business plans that respond to lower birth rates, and therefore less demand.”
Rudy raises his own set of social issues likely to result from women choosing the boardroom over the bedroom: premarital sex, unwanted pregnancies, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases.
Agriculture still accounts for almost 70% of Indonesia’s female labor force. However, women are gradually infiltrating the ranks of middle and upper management.
Some organizations are determined to break the glass ceiling by propelling their female employees into high-profile leadership positions. The aim is to give women the same jobs as men and then let them work out the best ways to empower themselves and their female colleagues.
Former Indonesia IBM chief executive Betti Alisjahbana has been quoted as saying that female leadership is needed in businesses that require patience, precision, egalitarianism, teamwork and compassion. Women must, she says, lead companies focused on service.
“These traits come naturally to women,” says psychologist Kasandra, pointing to former finance minister Sri Mulyani’s leadership expertise in the field of taxation.
“Paying tax is detailed and complicated work,” she says. “People should want to give back to the nation and Sri encouraged them to do that.”
Still, research by SWA magazine in 2011 found that very few women in the public sector get to act as leaders. Lawmaker Rieke Diah Pitaloka says the House of Representatives is a perfect example, where only 61 of 550 members were women in 2009, down from 63 in 2004.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cabinet has just three women in it, while at the regency level, there are only 18 female heads of regencies out of 440.
The banking sector fares slightly better, with women making up 16% of all directors. In state-owned companies, there are only five women in directorship roles.
It is the creative businesses that are leading the way when it comes to working women. Fashion brand analyst Roy Suhadi estimates that Indonesian clothing labels manage around Rp90 trillion a year, or $10 billion. Of the hundreds of top fashion designers in Indonesia, half are women with national and international qualifications.
Farah Angsana, whose label is stocked by 16 specialty stores in cities including New York, Milan and Paris, and Anne Avantie, one of Indonesia’s top kebaya designers, are two shining examples. And there are plenty more female singers, actors, filmmakers, writers and composers making a mint by turning their passions into professions.
In the boardroom
Once the exclusive domain of men, boardrooms are now a cooperative space for both sexes. Karen Agustiawan, the first female CEO of the largest state-owned company, PT Pertamina, has proved her strong business acumen. During the financial crisis of the late 1990s, the largest private company in Indonesia, Astra International, was headed by Rini Soemarno Suwandi, who is credited with rescuing it from massive debt.
The largest pharmaceutical company in ASEAN, PT Kalbe Farma Tbk., is headed by Bernadette Ruth Irawati Setiady, Debora Herawati Sadrach has become director of home and personal care at PT Unilever Indonesia Tbk., while Atik Nur Wahyuni is the force behind Indonesian television giants Trans TV and Trans7.
Denise from Milestone Pacific says the trend towards female business leaders is normal in a democratic society like Indonesia and both men and women can learn from each other in the boardroom.
“Women leaders have to learn from their male counterparts, while men can get a lot out of observing the natural characteristics of successful women,” she says, adding that when it comes to the social and cultural acceptance of women in the workplace, Indonesia has in some ways been even more open to the idea than the US and other Asian nations.
It’s not all good news though. Data from the Women’s Empowerment Ministry shows that half of Indonesia’s population is female but on average they make only 65% of what their male counterparts do.
At the end of the day, Denise hopes women can be treated equally at work. “Whether male or female, the credentials required to be a leader are the same: understand what makes people tick and inspire them to work with their strengths and (bypass) their weaknesses,” she says.
Denise warns women not to make excuses if they want to climb the corporate ladder. Constantly learning more about your industry is one way to stay ahead of the game. “Be yourself and don’t make any excuses because you are a woman up against stiff competition,” she says.
Kasandra believes that given the number of women in top positions these days, gender politics is virtually non-existent at work. Astra International demonstrates its commitment to equal opportunity by giving all employees the same opportunities to develop their leadership skills through internal training sessions, job rotation and mentoring.
According to Astra vice president and chief of corporate human capital development FX Sri Martono, his company is not in favor of affirmative action. “Through human resource development programs, companies will find suitable female leaders, and it should be done in that natural way,” he says.
Astra’s annual Jardine Executive Training Scheme (JETS) is just one of the ways it looks for new leaders. In 2007, 2009 and 2010 there were at least three women with excellent results who have been promoted to higher positions within Astra International subsidiaries.
Kasandra Putranto reminds women that high-profile leadership positions are not the only way they can make a valuable contribution in business. “Being a leader is not just about holding certain positions, or being the public face of an organization,” she says. “Women can also motivate and inspire innovation and performance from behind the scenes.”
It’s clear that women have stepped out of the shadows. By increasing their own professional capital, they are in turn creating a more prosperous society. GA
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