A change is coming for Malaysian women, a government-backed change with the support of the upper echelons of the corporate world.

At the recent launch of the Malaysian chapter of the 30% Club, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak reaffirmed the government’s commitment to having 30% of women in key decision-making positions by 2016.

The policy was first outlined in 2011, focusing on greater female representation at the top of the public sector, on boards of public, listed and government-linked companies (GLCs), and at senior management level.

The figures for both the public sector and senior management are promising: 34% of management positions nationwide are occupied by women, 5% higher than the region’s average.

However, it’s on boards that the problem of gender diversity is most dire: a mere 10.3% of women sit on listed boards and a slightly higher 16% on public boards.

Gender diversity in the boardroom is an issue internationally, prompting several countries to enact strict legislation. Norway was the first country to mandate a 40% quota on boardroom seats, and it leads the rest of the world with 40.5% of women on boards in 2013.

This is where the 30% Club comes in. Instead of resorting to the law, it advocates a voluntary approach from within the corporate world, where directors and chief executives personally commit to change.

Founded in the UK in 2010, the organisation has eight chapters across the globe. By joining the club, senior corporate figures take the pledge to aim for 30% women on their boards.

The Malaysian chapter will be led by its founding chairs, Tan Sri Megat Zaharuddin, Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar and Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah. The three said that for the moment they will follow the model of the UK club, but vowed to set more concrete plans in the near future.

The heads of 250 public-listed companies attended the launch, with 93% signing the pledge to strive towards having 30% female representation on their boards by December 2016.

No tokenism here

Sceptics of voluntary targets or quotas for women believe that such efforts undermine meritocracy and amount to little more than tokenism. They contend that this kind of affirmative action could result in unqualified women sitting on boards while more qualified men languish on the sidelines.

UK 30 % Club Steering Committee member Elizabeth Passey is adamant that this is not the case. “I think if you look at the talent pool, there’s no shortage of women who can sit on boards. Don’t think about this as an issue of tokenism; just absolutely embrace the fact that there’s an imperative for change.When we’ve got proper gender parity, then women can be massive contributors to economic success.”

Passey stresses that there needs to be a correct understanding of a board’s role. A board’s function is to challenge company executives. If board members are no different in their composition than senior management, “it results in the psychology of groupthink.” When this occurs, “nobody challenges the status quo and sees the blind spots.” Consequently, this can be a source for critical errors that can lead to untold financial damage.

Moreover, the contention that setting voluntary targets for women in boardrooms is mere tokenism overlooks the educational qualifications of Malaysian women. As the Prime Minister pointed out, close to 63% of all students at public universities are women.