How do Asian women experience leadership? What challenges do they face?
More importantly, how can organizations recognize, nurture and celebrate Asian women leaders?
The answers to these and more can be found in “How Asian Women Lead” by career and organizational consultant Jane Horan. Developed from Horan’s doctoral dissertation, the book is structured as a “multicultural narrative inquiry” focusing on the leadership experiences of women in Asia.
Subtitled Lessons for Global Corporations, the book embraces cross-cultural storytelling in its approach. It weaves together academic insights from sociology, cultural and gender studies with perspectives culled from ethnographic interviews conducted by the author.
A Fable of Four Asian Women.
At its core, “How Asian Women Lead“ narrates the personal and professional stories of four Asian women selected from a list of 50 interviewees. The disguised identities of these female protagonists are:
1. Akiko Ito – a Japanese social entrepreneur who left her family in Japan to travel the world, was driven to contribute to charitable causes by founding a global NGO, and who adopted a “life is a game” philosophy.
2. Faria Ali – a questioning Muslim Bangladeshi academic whose formative years were spent in Thailand and Canada before settling down to teach, mentor and coach young women leaders back in her home country.
3. Judy Lee – a well coiffured Taiwanese lady with an “African soul”, who was more at home scaling the corporate ladder in Africa than navigating bureaucratic hurdles in China, and who found balance in Christianity.
4. Sara Chin – an athletic Singaporean managing director who spent almost two decades in a technology MNC by successfully integrating her “web of inclusion” comprising colleagues, family, work and play.
Beyond individual interviews, the book includes a fictitious tale featuring interviews with the four and another Asian lady named Amy passed off for promotion by a backstabbing boss. Through an intriguing imaginary dialogue between the personalities, Horan shared how the distaste and avoidance of organizational politics may have hampered the success of promising Asian career women.
Defeating Unconscious Bias.
Donning her multicultural lenses (American by birth, the author spent over 20 years working in East Asia), Horan surmises that unconscious bias has kept capable young Asian women from reaching the top echelons of MNCs. These entrenched beliefs include stereotypical views of culture and gender (eg Asian women should be demure and subservient), and blind adherence to a masculine-centric Western leadership framework. In such a context, direct and assertive Asian women are viewed as requiring an “executive coach for remedying”.
To ensure a better gender balanced and culturally diverse talent pool, it is suggested that a more objective “social contract” between organisations and employees should be adopted. This includes adopting a “blind veil” when conducting interviews and performance reviews so that physical attributes, perceptions and emotions are removed from the assessment.
Grounded in ethics, authenticity and legitimacy across all cultures, transformational leadership is touted to be suited to how “Asian women leaders build inclusive webs which integrate family and work while remaining true to their values”. The four components of transformational leadership – intellectual stimulation, consideration for the individual, inspirational motivation, and idealised influence (aka role modelling) – seem well-suited to the preferred leadership styles of Asian women.
Perceived to be communal and self-effacing, Asian women leaders prefer to influence rather than dominate. They value inclusiveness and community over individuality – an outcome of being steeped in Confucian (or comparable cultural) ethics.
Able to build an inclusive and integrated web of support from families, colleagues and friends, Asian women are also adherents to centered leadership. This non-hierarchical leadership model is one where the leader is placed in the middle of a circular organisational chart (as opposed to the top of a pyramid).
Beyond the above, the author further felt that character traits like authenticity, integrity and morality are strongly present in the Asian women leaders she interviewed. Personal and relational in their interactions with family, friends and colleagues, they possess a keen and unique sense of spirituality. This is seen through qualities like mindfulness, spiritual awareness, religiosity or self reflection.
Future Leadership Directions.
In the future, an increasingly globalized and technology driven world will see greater prominence by economic powerhouses China, India and other Asian nations. Demographic shifts will also see a greater proportion of women not only working but rising through the ranks to become senior leaders.
To thrive amidst these changes, organisations should consider the following:
1. Build reflexivity into the organisational mindset. Reflexivity is the “process of introspection to understand values and experiences that impact decision making, combined with awareness and insights based on an external perspective (ie how others view us).”
2. Learn courage as an important leadership competence equivalent to respect, integrity and self-awareness. Organizations must have the courage to take risks on people, challenge thinking, question outmoded beliefs and change perspectives.
3. Co-opt the inclusive network approach epitomized by Ms Chin’s ability to match work groups, family, sport teams, board activities and social groups. This “uniquely Asian” quality is well-suited to aligning the connected web with the increasingly collective cultures and collaborative communities seen in the next generation of multicultural and multi generational workgroups.
4. Move up Maslow’s hierarchy and progress from just managing exchanges/trade-offs with employees to actively engaging followers to achieve outcomes. In other words, to shift from a transactional to transformational leadership approach.
Unique Perspective of Leadership.
“How Asian Women Lead“ isn’t your regular business book with charts, templates, checklists and “how tos”. Filled with numerous academic citations and references, the book does require you to slow down and do a double-take before fully comprehending what they mean. The use of a more meandering narrative inquiry approach also compels readers to reflect upon the key lessons hidden in the text.
Having said that, I certainly enjoyed the unique insights provided by the author on Asian markets and female leaders. Through embedding key lessons in the form of vivid and memorable stories, the book conveyed a heightened realism to the professional and personal obstacles faced by my female counterparts in this part of the world. Having worked with many female bosses, colleagues and subordinates, I must say that much of what Horan depicted in her book was quite spot on.