The situation is particularly extreme among Asia's biggest tech companies with billionaire founders. Masayoshi Son's SoftBank Group Corp., Takemitsu Takizaki's bar-code reader and sensor-making Keyence Corp., Pony Ma's Tencent Holdings Ltd., Robin Li's Baidu Inc., Lee Kun-hee's Samsung Electronics Co. and Chey Tae-won's chipmaker SK Hynix Inc. have all-male boards.
The richest man in China, Jack Ma of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., has one woman on the board.
While policy makers in Japan, India and elsewhere have sought to push for greater roles for women in corporate life, the world of clubby billionaires is slow to change. Asia is almost the worst region in the world, behind Latin America, when it comes to having women in the boardroom, with an average of 7.8 percent of directors, according to a study by Deloitte LLP. In Europe, 22.6 percent of directors are female, the study found.
"Guys often like to have their best friends, not the best people, on their boards," said Susan Stautberg, CEO of Women Corporate Directors Foundation, a Florida-based group with members who sit on more than 8,500 boards worldwide. WCD is hosting a conference in Hong Kong starting Wednesday, and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who in July became the first woman to lead the city government, will be the keynote speaker Thursday.
It's not just tech. Among the top five richest men in the three countries, according to Monday's Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Tadashi Yanai of Japan's Fast Retailing Co. and China's Wang Jianlin of Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties Co. have no women on their boards. Nor do Suh Kyung-bae's Korean cosmetics maker Amorepacific Group and subsidiary Amorepacific Corp. Chinese package delivery company SF Holding Co., founded by Wang Wei, has one.
Alone among China's top-five billionaires, Hui Ka Yan has two on his China Evergrande Group board.
While it would be difficult to argue that Asia's women-less boards are contributing to poor performance, numerous studies have shown that having the perspective of women can help promote further excellence.
"The research out there shows that gender diversity drives better discussion at the board," said Pru Bennett, head of investment stewardship in the Asia-Pacific region for asset management firm BlackRock Inc., who promotes the issue when she meets with executives at Asian companies, including those in which BlackRock invests. "This is a strategic issue. It is about getting the right people on the board and driving better decision making."
Several of the companies that responded said diversity is important to them and that they're committed to improving the role of women in management.
Many of Asia's billionaires are less likely to have women on their boards because they control their companies through their own shareholdings or those of family members and family-controlled entities, according to Suken Bhandari, Singapore-based head of advisory for the region for ISS Corporate Solutions, a U.S.-based consulting firm. That makes them less receptive to calls for greater diversity from institutional investors and other minority shareholders, he said.
"The more fragmented the ownership, the more diverse the board tends to be," said Bhandari.
The lack of progress in getting women into Asian boardrooms is frustrating for activists who see gender diversity improving in the U.S., Europe and Australia. In Asia, the worst performers are Japan, at 4 percent, and South Korea, at 2 percent, according to the most recent ISS data. While China far exceeds them at 9 percent, that's still less than half of the percentage of female directors on S&P 500 companies in the U.S.
Smaller Asian economies are doing better -- in part because of a desire to improve corporate governance in order to lure foreign investment, said Stautberg. In Thailand, women hold 14 percent of directorships, ISS data show. That makes Thailand the best performer in the region. The Philippines and Malaysia are tied at 12 percent.
Another leader is CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd., the flagship of Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, which has four women on its 20-person board.
India is also a better place to find women on corporate boards -- following a 2013 law requiring Indian companies to appoint at least one female director. HCL Technologies Ltd., run by Shiv Nadar, the fifth-wealthiest billionaire in India, is the standout. HCL has three women on its board, including Nadar's daughter, Roshni Nadar Malhotra.
At Alibaba, although one-third of the founders were women and women hold about a third of senior management roles, Nestle SA's chief executive officer for Asia, Wan Ling Martello, is the sole woman on the Hangzhou-based company's board. Yet board composition isn't the only way to measure Alibaba's commitment to diversity, Martello said in an emailed response to questions.
"Of course we all want more" women, she said. "But I'm pleased that both Jack and Alibaba are committed to gender diversity, so I know we will have more women over time."
Samsung, in an emailed statement, said the company is "constantly reinforcing systems and programs to better represent our female talent." A spokesman for Amorepacific said the company had previously had women directors, but that they resigned.
Spokesmen for SoftBank and Fast Retailing said they consider a candidate's qualifications and experience when appointing directors. A spokesman for Keyence said the company had no intention not to appoint women as directors and welcomes suitable women.
Tencent, Dalian Wanda, SK Hynix, SF Holding, China Evergrande and Wipro all declined to comment. CK Hutchison, Reliance and HCL didn't respond to questions.
Baidu is promoting gender equality and equal opportunity among the 45 percent of its employees and senior managers who are female, and the company is committed to doing better, said Whitney Yan, manager of international communications.
A 2017 report from Community Business, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit organization, found 71 percent of companies on the Hang Seng Index had no change or a decrease in the number of women on their boards compared with a year earlier. Among new appointments to boards of companies that are part of the index, 11.3 percent were women, down from 15.1 percent previously.
"It's important to have women on boards because boards are important decision-making committees in the companies in our economy," Anja Kirsch, a researcher at Free University Berlin who has studied corporate boards. "It's just not right for women to be excluded."