Women Leaders in Asia

By Dana Sher

In the Western world we see more and more women filling senior positions. Sure, it is not perfect and the glass ceiling is not behind us yet, however one can definitely say this ship is going in the right direction. With that said, is Asia going in the same direction?

Looking at Asia’s country leaders in the past decade, one could argue women are doing pretty well, or at  least on par, with the Western world.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka was the first female elected head of state in 1960. Following her, women became leaders in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, and the list goes on. This may imply that women have accomplished great progress by being elected to lead those countries, however, a deep dive into the facts suggests otherwise.

The vast majority of these women have risen to power through family connections. This is no surprise when taking into account the traditional relationship-based systems in Asia (vs. Arm’s length systems in the Western world).

Why are there so many women leaders in Asia? Dr. Claudia Derichs and Prof. Mark R. Thompson in their report Dynasties and Female Leadership in Asia, list the reasons:

  1. Male relatives could not take over the leadership of a family-based political faction for some reason, and women were chosen because they seemed less threatening to potential rivals, who thus supported their leadership;
  2. Women’s traditional stereotype actually came in their favor when it came to politics, as they were perceived apolitical and best suited to lead a moral struggle against male rivals, being the wives, widows, or daughters of male martyrs;

These reasons draw the conclusion that as far as women leaders in the political field in Asia, it is mostly circumstantial. With that being the case, what can be said about women leaders in business?

In a recent study by McKinsey, 744 large companies were examined and 1,500 executives were surveyed in ten Asian countries.  The report shows the proportion of women represented in boards and executive committees is relatively low compared with the US and Europe. McKinsey makes a couple of notes regarding this gap:

  • Rates of female participation in the labor force is relatively low, which could be counted as a reason for the low proportion; however, there are still countries with high participation rates, for example China with the highest rate in the world, with low percent of seats in boards and executive committees (8-9%);
  • There is no shortage of female graduates, and, in general, around half of the graduates are women. Since there has been an increase in the number of women graduates and in entry level positions, some may argue that it is just a matter of time before the percentage of women in higher positions in Asia will increase as well.  Yet, McKinsey suggests that the experience elsewhere shows that this is not the case, and that companies will need to address organizational and cultural issues in order to see more women among their leadership teams.

According to McKinsey, 70% of the surveyed executives in Asia said greater gender diversity was not among the top strategic priorities for their company. It is also noted that firms with more women at the top perform better. Therefore the McKinsey report calls Asian companies to act on the subject, and to harness female talent as soon as possible.

In my opinion, as a young professional woman, expecting the change to come from an external source is fine, but a genuine change begins internally. Shiseido (Japanese cosmetic company) notes that many Asian women, influenced by cultural norms, tend to show little desire to become more senior. This trend is beginning to change with the younger generation.

I want to take this opportunity to call out to all the Asian women at all ages: the future of Asian women is up to you. Don’t wait for regulations and company policies to change. Believe in yourself as you are not less talented than your male peers, so don’t be afraid to dream your dream and make it happen.


  1. http://www.economist.com/node/21558321
  2. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2005455_2005458_2005459,00.html
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/world/asia/08iht-asiawomen.html?_r=0
  4. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303649504577499781983988886.html
  5. Women Matter: An Asian Perspective, McKinsey Company
  6. Dynasties and Female Leadership in Asia, Dr. Claudia Derichs (Duisburg) and Prof. Mark R. Thompson (Erlangen-Nürnberg), Project sponsored by the German Science Foundation (DFG), April 2003-May 2005
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