Hong Kong-based Kirti Lad is the pioneer behind the Women’s Directorship Programme, a joint-venture with The University of Hong Kong, a corporate governance programme to help women prepare for board responsibilities. Executive Director of Meraki Executive Search and Consulting, Kirti is an active member of the Women in Business Committee at the British Chamber in Hong Kong and speaks regularly across APAC at conferences and events related to women in the workplace.

In this recent conversation with Collective for Equality, Kirti shared her insights on the challenges and triumphs of advocating for women’s representation in corporate leadership. Through her various initiatives, Kirti has dedicated her career to advancing female participation in the workforce.

Her work through Meraki and the Women’s Directorship Programme exemplifies the strides being made towards gender equality in corporate leadership. Her insights and experiences offer a roadmap for continuing this important work, highlighting the roles of advocacy, support, and resilience in breaking down barriers for women in the workplace.

Champion for Women in Leadership

Kirti Lad has spent the past 12 years in Hong Kong, having previously been based in the UK. With over 20 years of experience in executive search and leadership development, her focus has always been on advocating for more women in the workplace.

“When we created Meraki seven years ago, we had a clear strategy to increase female participation in the workforce,” Kirti explains. “This includes hiring women on boards, supporting women’s senior leadership, and helping clients create environments where women can thrive.”

Meraki is especially known for its work on women on boards. Twelve years ago, Kirti and her team partnered with Hong Kong University Business School to create the Women’s Directorship Programme. This initiative aims to prepare women for board responsibilities, and it has been incredibly successful.

“Approximately 70% of our graduates are now on corporate boards, and 30% hold senior executive positions. Our goal is to advance women to the top because their presence at the highest levels helps set a positive tone for others,” she says.

Women’s Directorship Programme

The Women’s Directorship Programme was born out of a need to address gender diversity in Hong Kong. When Kirti first arrived, she noticed a significant gap in gender diversity discussions and initiatives compared to Europe and the US.

“Many companies here had talented women but lacked the means to advance them to board positions,” Kirti recalls. “This prompted the creation of the Women’s Directorship Programme with Hong Kong University Business School.”

Initially, there were concerns about filling a class focused solely on women. However, with the support of Amy Lau, the female Dean at the time, the programme has thrived.

“We run one cohort a year with about 25 participants, many nominated by top companies like HSBC and Prudential,” Kirti notes. “The programme spans six days over two sessions, ending with a master’s level accreditation in corporate governance from Hong Kong University. It has become the go-to programme for women aspiring to board roles.”

Comparing Gender Representation: Europe vs. Asia

Over the past decade, advocacy in Asia has made significant strides, but there is still a long way to go compared to Europe.

“When I first arrived in Hong Kong, the business case for gender diversity was barely recognized,” Kirti says. “Now, the focus has shifted to implementation. In Europe, the conversation has moved beyond representation to achieving parity at the CEO level and fostering inclusive cultures.”

In the UK, women hold 44% of board positions, while in Hong Kong, it’s only 18%. Recent mandates by the Hong Kong Stock Exchange requiring at least one woman on every board are a step in the right direction.

“Our work over the past 12 years has positioned us well to support these initiatives, but there’s still a long way to go in creating truly equitable workplaces,” she adds.

Role of Male Allies

Male allies are crucial in advancing gender equality because men still dominate decision-making roles.

“Their support and advocacy are essential in addressing the barriers women face,” Kirti explains. “Men need to understand these challenges and actively participate in finding solutions. This includes sponsoring women, advocating for them in closed-door discussions, and ensuring they get high-stake opportunities that lead to senior roles.”

Kirti points to the McKinsey report, which highlights that the real issue is not the glass ceiling but the “broken rung”—women not getting early opportunities to advance.

“Sponsorship, especially by men, can help bridge this gap by advocating for women and giving them visibility,” she says. “Additionally, debunking myths about women’s ambitions and the impact of flexible working can also drive change.”

Changing men’s behaviours at home and work regarding caregiving responsibilities requires broader efforts.

“Companies must ensure that men and women are in the same conversations about the challenges women face,” Kirti says. “Empathy and understanding come from regular, honest discussions about balancing work and home responsibilities. Leadership plays a crucial role in creating an environment of psychological safety where such conversations can thrive.”

Women Supporting Women

Kirti believes that women who have reached senior positions have a responsibility to support others.

“Many women feel a responsibility to ‘send the elevator back down’ and support others,” she notes. “In my network, I’ve seen incredible support and advocacy among women. We also involve influential male and female leaders in our programs to share their experiences and pave the way for others. This collective effort is vital for creating a supportive environment for women’s advancement.”

Kirti offers valuable advice for young women entering the workforce.

“The best advice I received is to control what you can—yourself,” she shares. “Focus on being the best version of yourself, build self-awareness, and work on your relationships. Confidence is crucial; believe in yourself and be your own champion. Resilience is key—embrace failures as opportunities to grow stronger.”

She also emphasizes the importance of surrounding oneself with supportive people.

“Surround yourself with good people who will champion you and give you honest feedback. And most importantly, use your voice. Speak up, share your ideas, and don’t be afraid to express your views. Your voice matters, and it’s better to contribute than to stay silent.”