SINGAPORE is behind Malaysia, China and Hong Kong in the area of female representation in the workplace, a study of six Asian markets has found.

The Republic pipped only Japan and India in the study, the lead sponsor of which was the Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BoAML).

The sample size for the "Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2014" comprised 32 companies - which collectively employ more than 240,000 employees - in those six markets.

For each, the representation of women in the total sample workforce, as well as at junior, middle and senior levels, was calculated.

The companies sampled included the likes of AIG, BlackRock, Citi, Coca-Cola, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, National Australia Bank, Nomura, Shell and Thomson Reuters, as well as the study's sponsors, BoAML and Brown-Forman.

The study put the level of women in the Singapore workforce at 48.2 per cent. Malaysia came in at 58.1 per cent, China at 56.7 per cent and Hong Kong, 50.9 per cent. Japan had 42.6 per cent, and India, 26.6 per cent. Malaysia had the highest representation of women, but ranked below the regional average in terms of creating an enabling environment that supports the advancement of women. The study found, for example, that companies in Malaysia were below the norm when it came to having women's networks and professional development. They also offered the shortest paid maternity leave and paternity leave.

Fern Ngai, the CEO of Community Business, a Hong Kong-based non-profit corporate-responsibility advocacy group that conducted the study, said: "The mandatory measures introduced by the Malaysian government have been a key driver. "Despite the less favourable environment for women's advancement in Malaysia, the country performs well on all data points. These findings show that the existence of policies and programmes does not necessarily correlate to strong performance, and bringing about change requires multi-faceted efforts from different sectors and on different aspects."

On the other hand, companies in Singapore excel above the regional average in many respects. This is especially in paid maternity leave, with an average of 113.3 days (against the regional average of 101.1 days), and paternity leave being on average 5.5 days long, against the regional average of 5.2 days, the study noted. It added that flexible work arrangements are extremely well established in nearly all companies here.

In terms of seniority, women in Singapore made up 58.5 per cent of the sample workforce at the junior level, 40.6 per cent at the middle levels and 23.7 per cent at the senior levels.

This "leaking pipeline" - through which women drop out of the workforce as they advance through the levels - is an on-going challenge in all markets in Asia, the study said. The average rate of decrease across the region is 30.7 per cent from junior to middle levels and 37.8 per cent from middle to senior levels.

Bernhard Steiner, BoAML's Asia-Pacific chief risk officer, who chairs the company's regional diversity and inclusion council, said: "We recognise that getting more women into senior levels of corporate Asia requires efforts from both business and government. In countries like Singapore, women-friendly and pro-family policies are fostering an environment that helps companies build great places to work. "The involvement of champions at senior levels certainly helps to encourage further progress."

The full report can be purchased from the Community Business website (www.gdba2014.org).