Biz Sch News 22 October 2013

Lean In, Asia: Women in Leadership in Asia

A recent survey by the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore to measure attitudes of Singaporeans towards mandatory National Service (NS) showed that one woman in 10 is willing to volunteer for NS two years for National Service. The survey sparked some discussion about whether the playing field should be levelled and if women need to serve in the armed forces.

The news brought to the surface the issue of gender inequality and in a broader context, the relatively low rates of female representation at the top levels of business in Asia. Reports such as McKinsey’s Women Matter or the report (study) by our very own Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations (CGIO) report indicate that gender diversity is not a business imperative for many Asian companies today.

We spoke to Chung Yuen Kay, Adjunct Associate Professor at NUS Business School, who is also one of the instructors in our Women in Leadership Executive Education programme, to get her insights into issues related to women and leadership

What are your thoughts about the under-representation of women in leadership roles in Asia, as compared to the West?

In the West, gender diversity ratios are relatively higher than in Asia. But, even in the West, women are not proportionally represented in the higher echelons of management or in corporate boards.

In Asia, historically, women have always worked, be it in the fields, in the home, in factories, or now, in offices. But female labour force participation rates, overall, are still lower than in the West. When the numbers are low, it can be hard to feed the (organisational) talent pipeline. The numbers of women graduating and entering the workforce each year are significant, but the higher up the management hierarchy we go, the less visible women become.

We could argue that what we have currently, is a ‘mirroring’ of the experience of women in the West in decades past, and that with time, we’ll catch up. I am not that optimistic though – companies in Asia have quite some way to go to consider gender diversity an important business imperative.


How do gender differentiated roles in Asia hold back women from going further in organisations? How is this similar to/different from the Western experience? 

It is difficult to generalise about women’s experiences, without considering the context. What we can say, is that, as in the West, the majority of cultures are ‘gendered’ in Asia too (though not necessarily in the same manner, or to the same extent) and this includes organisational cultures. There can be strains of prejudice against women in organisations – some more ‘hidden’, others more visible; the gender wage gap continues to exist, and there could be resistance to women’s leadership, whether conscious or unconscious. Persistent stereotypes of management serve to ‘naturalise’ the identification of men and management. And let us not forget, of course, that women have to ‘manage’ the co-existence of their public/organisational and private/family lives much more than men. Taken together, it’s no wonder that researchers have said that it’s not just a ’glass ceiling’ that women face, it’s a ‘labyrinth’ that they have to navigate within organisations.

To really make an impactful difference to the advancement of women in organisations, however, we have to have action from, not just policy makers, but also employers, women themselves, and society at large.

Who do you think make better leaders – men or women?

Biology is not destiny. It would be essentialist to say that one category makes better leaders by virtue of their sex. Women are perceived to be more ‘communal’, men to be more ‘agentic’, though we are also dealing with stereotypes here. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, we concede that there is some truth (in this), if for no other reason than that women have been better socialised to be communal and consensus-seeking. In recent times, and particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, there has been some shifting away from the ‘leader’ as the lone star, the larger-than-life heroic figure, towards a sense of collaborative leadership, and generally, a more consensus-based leadership approach is what the times call for. Should such trends become entrenched, they should stand women in good stead to forge ahead in organisations.

What are some baby steps that companies can take, for better gender diversity?

Companies need to recognise the business case for gender diversity, and awaken to the realisation that they are underutilizing their social capital if they are not promoting and/or developing deserving women employees. Unfortunately, the current state in some companies could be an over-identification of men as leaders so that promising women who are fit for various leadership roles may not even be on top management’s radar.  So as a first step, companies need to take stock of their human capital; acknowledge the need for gender diversity and institutionalise necessary HR initiatives to advance and develop women within organisations. Companies need to start building a female talent pipeline.

What are some tips for women in Asia who want to achieve more senior leadership roles?

Some research suggests that women should learn to cultivate stronger ‘envisioning skills’ – the ability to sense opportunities and threats in the environment, to think strategically and make sense of the big picture. Women should also develop and learn to use ‘smart’ power. Build networks, gain visibility. Also, acquire ‘stretch’ experiences necessary for moving up the ladder. Find a mentor (to guide and support you) or a sponsor (to promote you) within your organisation. Seek, and be open to constructive feedback. Develop your own support system within your company and outside of it. Finally, I’d say take some chances; now is your time to shine!


Prof Yuen Kay

Dr Chung Yuen Kay is an adjunct associate professor at NUS Business School, and an independent consultant. She has previously worked in a global bank as well as a women’s NGO. She has researched, published, and been invited to speak on gender issues at various conferences, workshops and summits. She has also trained/coached/consulted for many global  organisations, including AP Moller-Maersk, Bank of China, Bouygues SA, Bridgestone, Citibank, DHL, Panasonic, Reckitt Benckiser, Sime Darby, The Conference Board (New York), and others, on leadership, diversity, team development and cross-cultural management. 

She is one of the instructors in the Women in Leadership Executive Education programme at NUS Business School