#PressforProgress: How to Develop More Female Business Leaders in Asia

Categories: Aperian Global News, Diversity & Inclusion, Social Responsibility

Men occupy the majority of senior leadership positions in corporations across the globe1. This is a reality women in all countries face.

However, the gender imbalance is most heightened in Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, China, Singapore, and the Philippines2.

To help address this issue, our consulting team in Singapore held an event on developing female business leaders in Asian countries.

We can’t think of a better time than International Women’s Day to share the important insights our team found, and examine how men, women, and organizations alike can #PressforProgress to help close the existing gender gap.


What is holding females in Asia back from senior management positions?

Social Expectations

Gender stereotypes and expectations are still rampant, and they play a big part in stopping women from being able to fulfill senior management roles.

Keiko Sakurai, Aperian Global Director of Consulting in Japan notes, “In Japan, there is still a strong expectation of what women should do and what men should do. Many people still believe that men should ‘earn a living’ and women should stay at home, taking care of children and the household.

“This, however, is changing due to long-lasting deflation in Japan. Men can no longer support the family with one income alone, so more women are joining the workforce. And yet there is a strong expectation of what women should do, even in the office.

“Female employees serve tea for guests. Receptionists are almost all women. When employees go out for dinner and drinks, female employees serve food and pour for male colleagues. When I conduct leadership programs in Japan, the majority of the participants, in most cases, are men.”

Characteristics and behaviors traditionally expected of women can sometimes conflict with the traits necessary to be a strong business leader. Often, traditional female characteristics are assumed to be better suited in lower managerial roles.

Lynda Ibrahim, Aperian Global’s Senior Consultant in Indonesia states, In a culture that retains its ‘father-figure’ complex, female executives are expected to be firm and decisive while retaining their ‘motherlike’ understanding. Indonesian women are perceived to be better at managing human resources (because they’re expected to better at empathy) and money-related affairs (because they’re considered more diligent, prudent, and honest).”

Beyond demeanor, women are also expected to fulfill their traditional duties, even when they take on work outside of the home.

Freeda Fernandes, Director of Aperian Global APAC Sales, shares, “In India, women are expected to take care of family chores and care for extended family (in-laws, parents, etc.), while also working, as it is increasingly difficult for families to be sustained on a single income.

At home, it appears that women provide care as though they may not have a job, and at work, the expectation is that they excel in a way that might appear they have no family to care for.

“Women can feel this pressure unless supported extensively by both work and family. This way the societal expectation from women can be managed if one’s immediate circle of family and peers acknowledges and supports her in balancing both work and the home.”

Marisa Chuawiwat, Aperian Global’s Senior Consultant from Thailand, concedes, “It is socially accepted and expected for Thai women to work outside of the home, especially in urban areas. In rural settings, women work side by side with men and still run the household, look after the company, and manage household finances.

Women in China face comparable pressures.There is a Chinese saying, ‘Women hold up half of the sky.’ With this expectation, women need to put extra effort to strike a balance between work and home life.

“In the workplace, women need to be confident and handle multiple tasks to constantly prove themselves, while at home, they need to manage extended family and raise their kids. These not only bring challenges but a lot of fulfillment and joy in return,” notes Yi Min, Aperian Global’s Senior Consultant in China.

The double workload, level of energy, and the constant pressure of expectations is a tremendous burden for women to take on.

Organizational Biases

Just like human beings, organizations can hold unconscious bias. This has been a massive factor in the gender gap that exists in upper management today.

Myunghee Kim, Aperian Global’s Senior Consultant in South Korea, reflects, “The M-shaped employment curve of women’s workforce participation, due to the male-dominated industrial structure, has adhered in South Korea. The curve represents socially pervasive stereotypes and structural barriers to women’s competitiveness in the Korean workforce.”

Although organizations are starting to recognize the gender gap and acknowledge the negative consequences it has on business, little has been done to help correct it. Even when organizations try to implement policies around it, they are often superficial and fail to benefit women.

For example, a policy intended to encourage females to take on larger leadership roles is “flexi work.” This policy is meant to give women more freedom to work from home.

This seems like a logical policy to implement, but for some women living in Asia, it does nothing to help them. In highly condensed areas like Hong Kong, the homes are small and extended family members live under the same roof, so working from home is not much of an option.

Self-Limiting Beliefs

Many Asian women hold deep-seated fears and reservations about taking on roles of power.

Aperian Global Director of Consulting Asia Pacific, Mui Hwa Ng, notes, “As a Singaporean woman, I often hear:‘I don’t want to show my husband up and make him feel “less manly” if I am more senior or earn more.’”

While some women fear their roles could harm their husband’s egos, other women worry they won’t be able to properly fulfill other duties that are expected of them.

Mui Hwa notes many Singaporean women believe the education system is highly demanding, and it is their responsibility always to be there to support their children. She also adds many women believe that only women with no children or in-laws to care for having the time or ability to be successful in upper management roles.

These self-limiting thoughts are harmful and take up time and energy that could otherwise be used for larger purposes. Ultimately, these beliefs can be self-defeating and discourage strong female candidates from taking on senior management positions.

How do we #PressforProgress?

Men, women, and business organizations all have roles to play in closing the gender gap in upper management. Mui Hwa Ng shares what each party can do to #PressforProgress.

  • Understand the business case for gender diversity and advocate for it. Men need to make an effort to understand why it is important and beneficial for women to be in leadership roles. The more men understand the consequences of gender disparity, the better champions they can be for gender equality.
  • Continuously explore unconscious & unintended biases. Men and women alike need to reflect on their biases around what it means to be a man or a woman and challenge their beliefs.
  • Act as a role model as a parent and a partner. Men need to practice equality on a personal level, as well as support it on an organizational level.
  • Offer mentorship to women. Women are less likely than men to receive advice or mentorship when serving on a professional board3.
  • Make a point to call out gender disparity in their organizations. In order for things to change, people need to speak up. Men in leadership positions are situated the best to be heard on this topic.
  • Explore self-limiting beliefs and challenge them. This can be done on an individual basis, or with the help of a mentor or a coach.
  • Speak about the impact of exclusion and seek resolution. Personal stories are powerful. Women who are comfortable sharing their experiences can help others understand how harmful gender inequality is.
  • Create opportunities for other women to share experiences and support one another. This can be as informal as a group going for coffee, or a more structured, long-term approach, such as the development of a professional association.
  • Create and monitor a clear developmental career path. Developing career plans can help women (and men) clearly see what they need to do in order to achieve their professional goals.
  • Focus on demonstrating strengths with courage. Women should not shy away from showcasing their strengths.
  • Strive for gender balance at all levels of the company. Having women in all areas of the organization makes it easier for the next generation of women to move into various roles, as it provides them with relatable role models.
  • Set inclusion — not diversity — as a core value of the company. Diversity simply means individuals of different genders and backgrounds are present in an organization; inclusion means they are engaged and truly a part of the company.
  • Make gender inclusion a leadership key performance indicator (KPI). Prioritizing this as a leadership KPI makes it far more likely for changes to be made, and for women to be brought on in leadership roles.
  • Set a standard that leaders must walk the walk — not just talk the talk. Organizations should hold leaders accountable for executing company values and goals.
  • Encourage employees to speak out when they see gender exclusion. Employees need to know it is safe to call out gender disparity.
  • Communicate in a balanced manner. Balanced communication is critical during a push for gender parity. Communication should not alienate men, nor patronize women. Communication needs to resonate with both male and female audiences.
  • Present the benefits of gender parity as a business case. Business cases help keep things objective. A business case can be presented through posters, videos, internal communication letters, success stories, or a multitude of other media and channels. The main thing is to make the business case accessible and visible to members of the organization.
  • Develop a local success story. Local stories are more likely to resonate than fictional ones. A story from within the organization is more relevant and interesting for employees.
  • Employ job rotation. Rotating staff through jobs has many benefits, including exposing staff to different areas of the company, accelerating professional staff development, and strengthening succession planning.


Mitigating Gender Bias

For more inspiration, check out our latest Quick Guide, providing strategies for how men, women, and organizations can mitigate gender bias and accelerate career growth for female leaders.


1 Medland, D. (2016, March 7). Today’s Gender Reality In Statistics, Or Making Leadership Attractive To Women. Forbes. Retrieved here.
2 Credit Suisse 2016 Report, The CS Gender 3000: The Reward for Change.
3 Elmer, V. (2015, April 27). Women in Top Management. Sage Business Reader. Retrieved here.