Research Paper By Valerie Lim
(Executive and Leadership Coach, SINGAPORE)
Women in Asia have made considerable strides in education and professional attainment, yet so few women are found in senior leadership roles. Studies have shown that organisations with greater gender diversity in management tend to perform better, yet few top jobs and corporate board positions across Asia are held by women. Do women in Asia face additional challenges in the workplace? Are their leadership skills and career progression strategies different from those of women in the west?
This Thought Leadership paper aims to explore ways in which coaching can support women in Asia. It will examine the factors that hold women back from achieving their goals and dreams in the corporate world.
The Changing Status of Women in Asia
Economic, social and political developments in Asia have brought profound changes to the status of women. Over the past 50 years, more women than ever before have completed their secondary school and gone on to attend university. In many countries, the traditional gender gap is gradually disappearing. Today there is no shortage of female graduates. In many of the markets studied by McKinsey & Company, around half of the graduates were women, with Malaysia and Indonesia showing a high figure of 57%.
Although women account for half of Asia’s graduate cohort, they become increasingly under-represented at the senior levels of corporations. Even with a larger number of graduates entering the workforce at entry-level, the rise of female graduates into the senior positions has not increased. So education is obviously not the primary issue.
With such highly educated women, one would think that a woman’s path to the Board Room would be a natural one. However the statistics are dismal. This paper looks at the women’s representation in organisations based on their leadership positions on the board of listed companies. While this low statistic of women in leadership is not unique to Asia – global statistic of board seats held by women is 16.9% – Asian statistics are well below averages in Europe and the United States of America.
Female Representations in Boardrooms Globally
The above table shows that the percentage of women in Asia who hold Board seats hover below the 12% mark, ranging from a dismal 2.0% (Japan) to 11.6% (Indonesia). Compare these figures with that of the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland, where the numbers more than double the highest Asian country, Indonesia. This is a situation that needs to change for Asian companies. It is a huge waste of talent, as half of Asian graduates are female – a waste that Asian companies cannot afford, given the severe shortage of senior managers in the region.
So what are these obstacles that influence women to drop behind their male counterparts despite the women desiring to reach the top positions as much as the men? What is holding women back?
The Situation in Asia
- China: Female labour participation rates are the highest in Asia, as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward movement in 1958 which radically improved the status of women. Today women do not leave the workforce when they have children as childcare is still affordable and readily available. Women account for more than half of all entry-level executive positions but there is a significant fall-off in female representation rates at senior levels as gender diversity is not a priority for the country yet at this moment.
- India: On the other end of the spectrum is India, with the lowest female labour participation rates in Asia. The lack of educational opportunities is the key issue for Indian women. Only 30% of the workforce at junior level is female and this number drops off significantly later due to the belief that it is the role of women to stay at home to take care of the family.
- Japan: Gender stereotyping is still common here and tradition has dictated that women should stay at home after marriage. Because of this, women themselves express lower levels of ambition, making Japan the country with the lowest level of female representation at board level in Asia.
- South Korea: Due to their deep-rooted cultural prejudices against working women, South Korea has one of the lowest levels of female representation in senior roles in Asia. However the government has put in place measures to create and sustain jobs for women. The full impact of these measures have yet to be realised.
- Thailand: Women were granted equal rights for the first time in the 1997 constitution. However, stereotypes and prejudice against women are still widespread. Even with female tertiary school enrolment ratios exceeding that of male by about 10%, the jobs the work and the wages that women earn are however still gender discriminated.
- Malaysia: Women account for a high 68% of public university enrolment in the 2013/2014 academic year and are well represented at junior corporate level in Malaysia. However this number dwindles at mid to senior management level as women stay home due to a shortage of good and affordable childcare facilities. The government has put in place quotas and measures to support gender diversity in the workplace.
- Indonesia: Women make up more than half of the country’s workforce, with many taking on casual work or employment in family businesses. Gender diversity is not yet a widely recognised issue here and many women stay home to take care of their families.
- Singapore: Women in Singapore still hold less board positions than their Asian counterparts. This is despite the high literacy rate of women (94%) and the almost equal number of women attending university as men. Many women cite the need for work/family balance as the reason for leaving their jobs. The one differentiating factor here compared with the other Asian countries is that this opting out of the workforce is not due to societal pressures or cultural norms. Many women leave their jobs voluntarily. The McKinsey survey found that there was a tendency for women to be self-limiting and reluctant to promote themselves, a mindset that needs to be systematically challenged.
The Reality of the Current Situation
The one thing I have learned as a CEO is that leadership at various levels is vastly different. When I was leading a function or a business, there were certain demands and requirements to be a leader. As you move up the organization, the requirements for leading that organization don’t grow vertically; they grow exponentially. Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo
These obstacles that women face have for some time been referred to as the `glass ceiling’. Recently this metaphor has been challenged. For one thing, it describes an absolute barrier at a specific high level in an organization. In so doing, the glass ceiling fails to consider the complexity and variety of challenges that women face in their leadership journeys. In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage. Alice Eagly and Linda Carli use the image of the “glass labyrinth” to better symbolise the range and variety of difficulties women may encounter in their careers.
If we can understand the various barriers that make up this labyrinth and how some women find their way around them, we can work more effectively to improve the situation. What are some of these obstructions that women run up against?
Asian values are very much inter-related. They all support the view of the individual as being a part of a much larger group or family, and place great importance on the well-being of the group, even at the expense of the individual. This is in contrast to modern Western values which focuses on the individual and stresses independence and individual initiative. It is important to understand the deep-rooted traditional Asian values which still underlie the modern behaviours of today’s Asian women.
In Asia, great importance is placed on child rearing and education is a key aspect of this. It is commonly believed that education is a means of perpetuating society and attaining position within a society. A study by psychologists proposes that Asian parents, especially those of Chinese descent, are more likely to associate their children’s performance, in school and in life, with their own worth. Chinese culture is more interdependent and is often considered a “face” culture. Therefore “parents may incorporate children’s accomplishments into their view of themselves,” wrote Florrie Fei-Yin Ng, a professor of psychology at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As a result of this expectation for their children to do well academically, much pressure is placed on Asian women to provide the nurturing and preparation of children to do well in life and to uphold the view that women are caregivers rather than breadwinners. Professional women are forced to prioritize because the expectation that they are responsible for the family unit is deep-rooted in most Asian societies. As such women carve out careers that allow them to `opt out’ earlier than they need to for reasons including raising a family or caring for ageing parents. A stereotypical view of this issue is that women do not get the promotion or salary increment that men do as “women do not want to work as hard as men; they are seen to want more time off to take care of their children and parents”, thus placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of women.
On average, 30% of business leaders surveyed by McKinsey and Company said many women at mid-career or senior level leave their jobs voluntarily because of family commitments. In certain markets, the level is even higher. In India, South Korea, and Japan, it is close to 50%, indicating the strength of the cultural views, held both by women and men that hinder women’s progress. In Australia, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, family obligations seem to exert less influence over women’s decisions about their working lives. This double burden of having to take care of family and balancing it with one’s work affects women in Europe and the United States too. But arguably, it is particularly heavy for Asian women – not only because cultural norms are different, but also because there seems to be a lack of government support in areas such as maternity leave and child care. In Europe, by contrast, it is not considered a major barrier.
I took a year of no-pay leave for each for my 3rd, 4th & 5th kids. I really did not have much of a choice as my employer did not offer paid maternity leave after the first 2 kids. At that time, my live-in helper also left to go back to the Philippines. It was only natural for me to be the parent to stay home since my husband was earning more and it was important for him to be seen as the one supporting the family. This in turn affected my promotional prospects when I returned to work. In fact a less qualified male colleague was promoted over me. When I asked my boss why I had been passed up, she said it was because I had taken time off to take care of my kids. Was it unfair? Yes, of course! But what choice did I have? shared Elizabeth W, Computer Analyst, Singapore.
Gender Bias in Organisations
Even in societies where it is felt that no formal gender discrimination in the organisation exists, some subtle forms of gender bias is seen to have affected women’s progress. Study after study has affirmed that people associate women and men with different personality traits. Men are linked more with traits that convey assertion and control. They include being aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self-confident, self-reliant and individualistic – all traits associated in most people’s minds with leadership. Women, on the other hand, are associated with communal qualities like being affectionate, helpful, friendly, kind, sympathetic, sensitive, gentle and soft-spoken.
Add to that the belief that great importance is placed on maintaining harmony for the well-being of the larger group in Asian culture, a role that is taken on by women, who are seen stereotypically to be less assertive, uncomplaining and cooperative. Conflict is to be avoided at all costs. Society is viewed as an extension of the family where relationships and obligations are to be preserved. Maintaining harmony also creates a bias against change and “rocking the boat”, as opposed to Western values which encourage change
Ask for a raise? You’ve got to be kidding, said Winnie V, Finance Director, Bangkok. It’s seen to be offensive for a woman executive to ask her boss for anything. We are taught to work hard, hope to get noticed and hope for the best.
Lack of a support network
At work, bosses and mentors play a big part in a woman’s career. They act as sounding boards when a woman is faced with career-related decisions. At home, husbands are a key supporter, along with parents, parents-in-law and domestic helpers who are key especially in the raising of children. For women without such a network, climbing up the corporate ladder is only an unrealistic dream.
I have no idea what I would have done without my parents and my domestic helper, Rose, who stepped in and looked after my 3 kids whenever I had to work late or travel on business. Without their support, I would not have been able to go as far as I have gone. My husband and I have done everything we can to ensure Rose stays on with us for as long as she is in Singapore. said Vivienne L, Regional Marketing Director, Kuala Lumpur.
The individual’s attitude & resilience
Another contributing factor is a woman’s recognition that to follow her passions and dreams in the corporate world, she needs time to rejuvenate and regenerate. The Western society favours those who can pause, “recharge their batteries” and then get on with their life. This is recognised as being necessary for a better “work-life balance” philosophy. In Asia, the society functions through dependency on other people. “Me” time is not a common practice, especially in the less developed Asian countries, where a collectivist family-oriented culture is preferred. Focusing on the self might come across as a sign of rebellion and can be viewed in a pretty negative light.
I don’t spend any time on myself. How can I? After taking care of the kids, my husband, our home and with my workload, I just don’t have the time to do so. Go to the spa or a short holiday on my own? What will my in-laws think of me? laughed Jennie J, Executive Assistant to CEO, Shanghai.
How then should women react to the external barriers erected by society? More importantly, what can women do about the internal barriers within themselves? When asked what it takes for a woman to excel in the workplace, Parwati Suriaudaja, the CEO of one of the Indonesia’s largest banks, Bank OCBC NISP, replied, “You have to manage everything well. ”
With such great Asian role models such as Olivia Lum, founder and CEO of Hyflux; Shenan Chuang, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Greater China; Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo and Noni Purnomo, President of Blue Bird Group Holding Indonesia, why are women are often reluctant to seek leadership roles? Meaningful empowerment of women requires educating families about the value of encouraging daughters to stay in school, to contribute to economic development and to take on leadership roles.
Overcoming Roadblocks: The Role of Coaching
We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative message we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet. Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.
When women try to achieve their goals, the negative images always cancel out their good intentions—no matter how hard they try. These limiting beliefs or `being stuck’ prevent them from reaching for the stars. A coach can help them move beyond their comfort zone by replacing their beliefs about themselves and changing their self-image. A coach can encourage them to release their brakes and instantly go faster.
A coach can use affirmations and positive self-talk to affirm the female executive who may be facing gender bias at the workplace and societal expectations of being the perfect wife & mother at home. By creating powerful and compelling new internal images of having, doing, and being what they want, the limiting thoughts that restrict our behaviours can be changed.
The value proposition that a coach brings is essentially about 3 things: awareness, choice and action. The coach allows clients to gain access to a wider range of perspectives, challenging their beliefs, perceptions, prejudices and assumptions of themselves and the world.
Coaching can help women overcome career barriers like:
- The double burden of managing work and home
- The difficulty in being promoted
- The effect of career breaks on career progression
- The prevalence of gender stereotyped roles
- The lack of role models of women in leadership roles, including support from other women
Leadership transitions can be tricky and often derail executives, both male and female. A coach can be a critical component for success, particularly with newly recruited Asian women managers. One of the biggest challenges women face is knowing how to navigate the politics of organizational life.
Many shy away from office politics and typically put their heads down to avoid getting entangled in complex relationships. A coach can often work with women executives to manoeuvre their way through this, adopting a different set of skills to enable them to move beyond their roles to build crucial relationships.
I’ve worked with a large MNC that is extremely successful in retaining Asian women leaders. They use executive coaches for each leadership transition. The coach guides the executive in examining the subtle side of organizations, understanding power networks, using firm language, and learning how to manage perception, said Lilian Beh, Executive Coach and co-founder of Innovative Formula.
For organisations committed to supporting the advancement of women in their workforce, coaching can offer powerful one-on-one sessions or group workshops to inspire, educate and empower women on effective strategies to achieve their highest potential. These may include:
- Setting clear priorities and goals - By understanding and exploring deeper, women will gain increased self-awareness, enabling her to prioritise her life vision and goals.
- Embracing change and challenges – As the saying goes, there is nothing more constant than change. A coach can better equip women through this journey of change by altering their perspectives or reinterpreting their feelings of anxiety. Even though it may occur as a negative event, change or challenges almost always lead to something positive and good.
- Developing confidence – Self-doubt is that familiar nagging feeling that make women feel they are not good enough, no matter how hard they try. They must learn to value and respect themselves, their thoughts and time. Only then will others respect them too.
- Checking one’s own beliefs, assumptions and prejudices - A coach can question and challenge those negative thoughts that come about from beliefs, assumptions and prejudices that limit their inner selves.
- Seeking support and building a network – A coach can teach women to connect with other colleagues, peers and mentors who can help support them on their career.
- Finding a balance between work and life – Women must learn to prioritise their time and always seek to simplify how they work, giving them time for socialising, family, play and most importantly, rest.
A coach can help the female executive deal with the voice in her head. Is the voice encouraging or critical; serving or holding one back? Whether the voice traces back to experiences from the past, a coach can bring awareness and help separate one’s true inner voice from the limiting beliefs and assumptions we’ve been taught.
Organizations need to understand the cultural differences among women and how these differences can drive results and innovation. Americans are taught to stand up and be accountable; Asian women are not. It is important for employers to understand that being modest is not to be equated with weak leadership. This quality, coupled with a concern for community can bring a new dimension to organizations.
There is no question that gender diversity is key for that competitive edge in the corporate world. After all 50% of the consumers are women so there is a need to connect to that market. People are realising that the voice of women is important because they bring a different perspective to the table.
In order for multinationals to retain senior Asian talent, they must now accept leadership differences of culture and gender, and better understand the needs of this highly educated, urban, professional group of female executives. In turn, these women must make small shifts in what they do and to live their own dreams and aspirations. With a coach by their side, they can be helped to be the very best version of themselves as executive, leader and person.
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