Thursday, December 30, 2010

Where East meets West

To ride global work opportunities, Asian women have to be more adaptive than their Western counterparts

by Deborah May

The latest Catalyst Census confirms what we all knew: Nothing much has changed for women in a decade.

According to the non-profit Catalyst's latest research, the number of women in the United States top Fortune 500 companies has barely budged. Women now hold 14.4 per cent of executive officer positions, up from 13.5 per cent in 2009, and female executive officers hold 7.6 per cent of the top earning positions, up from 6.3 per cent in 2009.

The same micro-movement has occurred for women in Australia, with women now holding 8.4 per cent representation on boards, up from 8.3 per cent in 2009; and 8 per cent women in key executive positions, up from 7 per cent in 2009.

Last month, I spoke at the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) Professional Development's Women's Leadership Forum where many diverse women shared their career experiences, challenges and successes. After listening to their stories and subsequently conducting additional research, it's clear that the position of women in Asia is no better than that of their Western sisters - and indeed, women in Asia may need to be more adaptive to succeed.

It's imperative that the challenges women face at work and in their careers are acknowledged and overcome. The business case is clear in Western and Asian contexts: Organisations with more women in senior positions outperform those with less. In March last year, the Indian Times reported nine Indian companies run by women managers outperformed the 30 leading listed firms.

However, it seems the business case is not sufficient motivation to address the barriers, because women are still under-represented on boards, in executive suites and in Parliaments across the world. (The exceptions, according to the 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, are Iceland and Scandinavia.)

In Norway, former Trade Minister Ansgar Gabrielsen was persuaded by the business case and introduced a 40 per cent quota for women on boards. At the time he said: "I am a conservative. I am practical, rational and I want Norway to flourish."

Interestingly, Asia has had some very strong and gifted women leading countries that include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Myanmar. Perhaps because they attained their positions through familial connections, revolutions or coups, this hasn't translated into political or economic empowerment for the majority of women, nor has it provided an advantage for women's career prospects at work.

So what are the barriers for Asian women and are they any different to those for women elsewhere?


First, meritocracy. Is it a strategy or a barrier?

High-profile women at the SIM conference were clear that meritocracy was the process by which women were promoted in public and corporate life. However, in my view, meritocracy is one of the most significant barriers to women's advancement.

Merit-based selection is strongly defended in Australia as the process to get the best and brightest to the top. However, it has not translated to equal representation of women in senior positions.

Merit is typically subjectively assessed by individuals on interview panels who compare candidates according to their own internal and often unconsciously held assumptions and biases. At the most senior levels in particular, merit-based selection processes favour men. Men are better at promoting themselves and their language and style are usually more direct and authoritative. Men are typically regarded as superior candidates because of how they present themselves, rather than what they can do.

Second, there are rigid cultural expectations of Asian women in their role as mother and wife.

The most significant barrier for women's career advancement across the world is the additional family and domestic responsibilities they carry. In Asia, this challenge is compounded because of the deeply entrenched cultural and familial expectations about the role and responsibilities of a wife and mother.

In the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) article, Reflections From Asia-Pacific Leaders, several women business leaders shared their perspectives about the barriers to success. CIMA's research found few differences in careers strategies between Asian men and women - however, the two significant barriers for women included balancing work with family demands and gender bias and stereotyping.

My own mini-poll of 25 Asian women at my Lead and Succeed workshop following the SIM conference provided further insights. Women shared how they felt isolated and faced open hostility because of their choice to pursue their career rather than remain at home. On the other hand, some women said having a supportive mother-in-law live with them provided additional childcare which made working and travelling easier.


Third, Asian women face different levels of discrimination and bias depending on where they work.

Many women at my workshop described a strong bias toward male authority and traditionally-entrenched cultural norms. This was compounded by their indirect and consultative communication style which created the perception that they were indecisive and not authoritative.

Women around the world dilute their credibility and authority by being too indirect or attempting to conform to stereotypical constructs of "femininity". In Western cultures and organisations, it is important for women to adapt their style for different audiences and be assertive, particularly with senior executives. In some Asian workplaces, this strategy may be perceived as insubordination.

A fourth barrier is women's own limiting self-beliefs and doubt about their ability.

This is one of the biggest obstacles to women's career advancement around the world, and often goes hand-in-hand with the very familiar antidote: An inclination for perfectionism and attempts to attain consistently high standards of work.

Perfectionism is a self-defeating strategy and requires women to work longer and harder when they should be working smarter. It is far better to delegate responsibility and be focused on the strategic priorities rather than perfection.

Fifth, Asian women face the additional challenge of Western values and expectations.

This is the cultural dissonance that may occur when working in a large multi-national corporation. Global expansion and the very strong and growing presence of many multi-national corporations in Asia provide increasing opportunities for women. However, the implicit career pre-requisite for extroverted behaviours and self promotion must also pose a challenge to many Asian women (and indeed, Asian men).

Most multi-nationals have diversity policies and practices to heighten the awareness and to accommodate cultural differences. But the organisational norms and values are still weighted towards Western, particularly American, behaviours and style.

As a practitioner with almost 15 years' experience in empowering women at the workplace, it's clear that while there is a cultural variance to the work and family burdens and expectations, the issues Asian women face are very similar to those of their Western sisters.

However, as Asian women take advantage of the increasing opportunities created by global expansion, they may need to be more flexible and adaptive than women in the West as they navigate not only the cultural norms and variances of the East, but also meet the expectations implicit in the West.

The writer is managing director of The May Group, ACT Australia, and founder of, a resource hub for women.

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