Why the plight of women managers in Asia matters to us

Author: Chris Rowley

Examining the social and cultural barriers they face and the steps needed for change can give us an insight into what is important in our own post-crisis chaos, argues Chris Rowley.
As we sit among the post-crisis wreckage and economic mess, several favoured phrases from the world of business and management seem to have lost their significance. The war for talent, work-life balance, managing diversity… some may argue that these are less important now. However, our ethnocentricity may blind us to a clearer view of the situation. I will use the case of women managers in Asia to illustrate this. After all, we can learn more about our own systems and practices by looking at those of others.
Asia's rapid economic growth has led to an increase in demand for managers and professionals. Indeed, in parts of Asia, women rank highly in the labour force, aided by better education and falling fertility rates. It would seem that as women became more educated and qualified for managerial positions, their numbers would rise. However, this is not an unalloyed picture of progress. Research on women managers often focuses on developed countries in the West. Far less is known about the situation in Asia and the specific barriers faced there. Yet we find evidence suggesting that women in Asia might encounter greater challenges because of the culture and traditions of local societies. The voice of women managers could be better heard, especially in Confucian and patriarchal societies, such as some of those in Asia. There is also often a lack of organisational and managerial case studies and vignettes presenting innovative perspectives to examine the constraints, opportunities and challenges. Of course we need to be careful as case studies often overstate the situation. For example, the few women at the top of business, such as Hyun Jeong-eun, of the South Korean Hyundia Group, Chua Sock Koong of Singapore Telecommunications, Olivia Lum of Hyflux, the Malaysian water company, and Dong Mingzhou, of China's Gree Electric, often receive disproportionate amounts of media attention. Nevertheless, real-life cases of management practitioners should not be overlooked.

Tackling the obstacles
In China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, management is changing as various forces, such as employees, employers and states, push for change. And there is a Janus face to management, combining shifts in approach with continuity (or even new constraints, such as the state's waning influence, as in Vietnam).There is further evidence in the following five areas:

  • Women worldwide experience similar facilitators and barriers to career advancement regardless of the stage of economic development
  • What appears to be unique to Asian economies is that women encounter greater challenges imposed by society's expectations and
    the cultural norms and social more
  • Legislative changes are not only needed, but must be strictly enforced and penalties applied for non-compliance
  • Governments, organisations and women themselves need to take more active roles to tackle obstacles to managerial careers
  • The influence of culture permeates organisations and shapes gendered practices, especially in Confucian societies which stress
    male dominance.

If cultural values and societal norms heavily influence gender role stereotyping in Asia, to what extent can social attitudes towards women be altered? Changes in politics and legislation have facilitated women's careers to some extent, but deeply entrenched cultural values and traditions appear to pose the greatest barriers. The future of the changing face of women in management in Asia will depend, to some extent, on how society's attitudes towards women shift over time with changes in legislative frameworks. These, and other ideas, are all detailed by experts in the field in a recent book by Chris Rowley and Vimolwan Yukongdi, The Changing Face of Women Managers in Asia (2009, Routledge).

Chris Rowley is Professor of Human Resource Management and Director of the Centre for Research in Asian Management at Cass.

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