Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Gender Parity

Leading lights in IT and marketing like to see themselves as the pioneers within the corporate world, but Peck Yeow Gan can also lay claim to that title, with equal if not greater justification.

As insurance giant AXA’s human resources director for Asia, she is spearheading a genuinely transformative initiative, which is setting an example for the broader business community and for society at large.

“Gender parity is of utmost importance for us,” Gan says. “As a company, we are committed to achieving it at senior leadership level by 2023, and we plan to ensure the removal of unjustified pay gaps by then as well.”

Making this a business priority, she explains, is not just a matter of fairness. It is also about encouraging more diverse perspectives, which helps in building a workforce which demonstrates creativity, innovation and resilience. Survey findings support this conclusion and show that, nowadays, a commitment to gender parity also improves the ability to attract talent and noticeably strengthens the employer brand.

“For such initiatives, the tone at the top is very important, but we make sure it is understood at every level in each of the business entities throughout the region,” Gan says. “When there are hiring decisions, we ensure equal representation of men and women, and we put everyone on an equal footing. Of course, it’s also about the merits of each and every candidate, but we measure the numbers — women currently hold 46 per cent of the executive positions in our Asia markets office — and without designating certain roles for males or females, we have put in place a healthy pipeline to be mindful of successors and our overall aims.”

The rate of progress varies from market to market. In Japan and South Korea, for example, the efforts to promote women are a bit more conscious, while in Hong Kong and the Philippines, the balance is already good.

“We look at the employee life cycle from ‘hire to retire’ and ensure our internal practices are sound for things like job mobility and parental leave.”

The youngest of four girls, Gan grew up in Singapore, where her mother, whose schooling was interrupted by the Second World War, made ends meet by renting out rooms in the family home. Gan had lost her father when just six months old, and with resources often stretched, she pitched in with her sisters from the age of 10, trimming loose threads from factory-made jeans to earn a few extra dollars.

“Later on, I went out to work in the school holidays to supplement the family income,” she says. “I did waitressing in an Indian restaurant, sold shoes in a shopping mall, tutored primary school students, and worked for a stock trading company doing data-entry of written orders passed on by the front-office. All these experiences were life lessons.”

From the start, though, she had always loved learning. And, in her teens, after winning a scholarship to study French, she would be up early to attend the extra classes and then head straight to the school library before the day’s regular lessons. There, she went “from book to book”, devouring English novels and biographies, a passion which led in due course to a four-year BA in English literature at the prestigious National University of Singapore (NUS).

“Business was something I considered, but I didn’t want a rigid programme, and there seemed to be much more flexibility in an arts degree,” Gan says. “I remember we were taught phonetics, so we could pronounce words properly. That clicked with me immediately and I could then help out fellow students.”

Before graduating in the early 1990s, she lined up a job doing HR for a bus company. It involved everything from industrial relations with drivers to medical issues, benefits, reviewing accident files, handling appeal cases — and a lot of on-the-job learning.

The HR field had initially been suggested by NUS friends who had graduated a year earlier and taken that route. And for Gan, there was obvious appeal in a role that meant working with people and finding answers to practical problems.

“For many drivers, it was not easy making a living,” she says. “You would see cases where, as sole breadwinner, they really needed help with day-to-day issues that also affected their families.”

When ready for a new challenge, she chose M1, a start-up recently awarded a licence to operate as Singapore’s second telco. The firm had big ambitions and was primed for rapid expansion, and that saw the HR team at the centre of hiring and retention strategies, training and development, and initiatives to shape the corporate culture.

Gan ultimately stayed for 15 years, by which time the organisation had evolved dramatically in terms of services and structure. And though remaining was the easy option, she sensed that things had become perhaps a bit too comfortable, which prompted her move to insurance company Prudential in 2011 as chief human resources officer.

“I had always been quite intrigued by the insurance business,” Gan says. “I’d often heard stories from my sister and her friends, who worked in the sector, about the products and how, for example, they could help people diagnosed with medical problems.”

That gave a real sense of mission, but also brought a renewed interest in testing herself, gaining broader experience, and improving those around her. To that end, she moved to AIA in Hong Kong in 2015, assuming HR responsibilities for the Asia region and, seeking further opportunities, switched to AXA in late 2018.

“Here, I really want to do my job well by attracting the best talent and creating a strong brand,” she says. “If you can bring in the right people, that is half the battle won. In general, I always want to challenge myself and do better. Coming up from a really humble background is not easy, but I’ve always tried hard to be fully committed to whatever I’m doing.”