In November, I spoke at the Singapore Institute of Management’s Women’s Leadership Forum where many diverse women shared their career experiences, challenges and successes. After listening to their stories it’s clear that women in Asia face similar but greater barriers and challenges at work as their western sisters.
High profile women at the forum proudly cited meritocracy as the definitive and fair process by which women were promoted in public and corporate life.
However merit is 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 is usually more direct and authoritative. Men are typically regarded as superior candidates because of how they present rather than what they can do.
2. Balancing work and family is often harder for women in Asia
Managing additional family and domestic responsibilities in Asian cultures is more complex because of the deeply entrenched cultural and familial expectations about the role and responsibilities of a wife and mother.
Women can face 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 child care which made working and travelling easier.
3. A strong bias towards male authority and entitlement
Many women at my workshop described a strong bias towards 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 women must assert their authority more boldly, particularly with senior executives. In some Asian workplaces this strategy may be perceived as insubordinate.
4. Women’s limiting self-beliefs and doubt about their ability
This is one of the biggest barriers 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.
5. Western values and expectations
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. However the organisational norms and values are still weighted towards western, particularly American, extroverted behaviours and style.
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.