Real Challenges and Practical Solutions for Developing Asian Women Leaders

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

At our recent International Women’s Day webinar, our panelists suggested their solutions for navigating and leading inclusion efforts to develop women leaders in Asia. Here are some of the key insights and perspectives that were shared during the webinar.

What are some common barriers to leadership development for women in Asia that you have observed?

Setting the scene for some real challenges that feel very alive in the Asian fast-growth markets, Christie Caldwell shared, “There has been an unprecedented response to the #MeToo movement. Male managers admit they have so much fear that they are going to say something to female reports and be sent to HR, so they refrain from giving feedback. This of course is terrible for women, to not get feedback.”

She added, “The confluence of gender, culture, and well-being within this region exploded during the pandemic, and I have seen more women in high leadership levels for coaching.” Christie recalled a woman who said she was the first Asian woman in her role, and felt like she was planning an escape route, as her health had taken a dive with long working hours and lack of personal boundaries; she was often on 3:30am calls that  the role demanded. She noted other leaders, too, had no boundaries between work and home, how one leader said she fainted at work and another left because of a critical mental health concern. This is a fear women face: if they lead in a way that is sustainable for them, they will be the only one to do so.

What are characteristics of prospective women leaders in Asia that we may have been missing?

Preet Grewal shared, “To see women in leadership in Asia is not uncommon as we have had many inspiring women leaders around us. But it’s also a fact that countries across Asia have patriarchal issues that are prevalent today and we are part and product of our environment. Additionally, the leadership framework is still defined by a western, white, male lens and when we say leader, we need to question our definition and what the framework looks like.”

Preet shared her conviction that when women are in leadership roles, they create a better culture and positive outcomes around them, and the biggest opportunity is that more women in leadership can drive changes we want to see in society. She added, “Research shows that when there are women in leadership at venture capital firms, they invest more in products that impact issues like health outcomes. It is quite clear, we are going to see change not just for organizations but society at large when more women are in leadership positions. We will see industry norms change and we will see long-term sustainable gains.”

How can men contribute to the development of women leaders in Asia?

In addressing the threat and fear that often hold men back, Michael Roy challenged the men in the audience by sharing that from a statistical viewpoint, we are targeting only 30% of women by 2030, which means a whole 70% opportunity exists for men, so there is no need to feel threatened. He added, “Our targets are not even equal.”

He invited the men to take a moment to develop a deeper awareness and understanding of the key issues surrounding Asian women’s leadership development to help them become allies quite naturally. He added, “As an organization, when we embrace advancement based on merit (objective and competency-based) and capability rather than targets, we will be able to see change. At the same time we must continue to support female colleagues to break barriers and create greater equity.”


Here are some additional questions from participants and observations from our team:

How different are the notions of leadership between Asia and western countries? How do we overcome cultural differences?

Most women are being assessed by managers (male or female) according to their own subjective standards, with nearly all top leadership role models being male—sometimes non-Asian. Women who attempt to advance in their organizations according to standards defined by a different gender or culture may be judged as failing to achieve just the right degree of assertiveness, decisiveness, or risk-taking. This classic “no-win” situation, often described as a “tightrope,” makes it somewhat surprising that any women at all are able to attain top leadership positions. This systemic problem has been partially countered by training and coaching women in the required balancing act. However, women shouldn’t have to shoulder this burden on their own for further progress.

How do you strike the balance to promote women’s leadership but not at the expense of forgetting other diversity considerations?

There are of course many aspects of diversity to consider: national cultures, ethnic groups, generational differences, sexual orientation, disabilities, and so on. These need not be mutually exclusive; in fact, paying more attention to one group may help to shed greater light on the circumstances of others. For many companies that are competing for the best talent, being able to hire, retain, and develop high-potential women is one way to ensure organizational vitality going forward. Each organization needs to take into account its own business case for diversity and inclusion along with its commitment to social equity in order to set its own priorities.

Can you speak to what you mean by “blinkers” that are common in Asian leadership?

Common complaints about leadership in Asia are that it is overly hierarchical, male-dominated, and lacking in diversity. Yet there are numerous industries in which rapid technological changes, shifting consumer trends, or globalization mean that employees from other backgrounds have vital contributions to make, even to key strategic decisions. If the parameters for who advances into leadership roles are too narrow, the entire organization may be at risk because it is “blinkered,” or unable to see, absorb, and act upon critical new information. “Group-think” is a hazard for any executive team, especially if it operates primarily with a top-down style. Incorporating a more diverse mix of colleagues, along with real inclusion, provides a source of fresh perspectives and ideas. Women, younger employees, subsidiary managers, and members of socially marginalized groups can all offer significant contributions to executive decision-making.

Do you see issues around caregiving responsibilities and mental health impacting women in leadership especially in the Asian culture of not speaking up on such issues?

Women in Asia do face social expectations and infrastructure limitations that are sometimes different from those of their peers in other countries. Some women feel that they are simply not able to dedicate themselves to a demanding leadership career because this would mean sacrificing work/life balance, personal health, or obligations to family members. Companies seeking to take the lead in developing women leaders may find they gain competitive advantages through implementing measures such as flexible working hours, providing onsite childcare, offering access to coaching or counseling resources, and putting boundaries around acceptable meeting times for global teams. Carefully examining and investing in such steps to become an employer of choice in each country could provide major dividends down the road.

Can you share some references on how to communicate that members of the current workforce do not have to feel threatened with gender diverse KPIs that are set from top down?

The legal framework, regulations, and best practices regarding promotion to leadership roles differ from country to country. In general, it is best to position KPIs for women’s advancement as “targets” that take into account the available talent pool and current succession pipeline, while still providing opportunities to advance for anyone who performs well. KPIs that are either too ambitious or too conservative can become a source of frustration and actually demotivate employees—women or men—rather than encouraging them. It is important to calibrate targets at regular intervals while also ensuring that there is clear accountability for achieving reasonable goals. Additionally, it is important that gender KPIs not be achieved at the expense of clear and concrete competencies that are transparent and achievable for all.

Please contact us if you’d like to learn more about developing Asian women in leadership or our gender inclusion solutions. Aperian Global’s own Freeda Fernandes shares her personal insights on this topic: