Trapped in Regional Roles: Most Asian Female Senior Execs Aspire for Global Positions

As the shortage in the Asian executive talent pipeline continues to pose a major business challenge for many multinational companies, a majority of Asian women leaders at multinational corporations feel trapped in regional roles, according to a new study by Heidrick & Struggles.

The firm's study reminds leaders at headquarters to take notice of Asian women leaders as an untapped resource for global roles, said Steve Mullinjer, Regional Leader of Heidrick & Struggles, Asia Pacific.

"As leadership advisors, we recognize the pressing imperatives for companies to hire and promote the brightest and those with high potential in order to stay competitive and outperform others, regardless of their nationalities, age groups, gender and cultural backgrounds," Mullinjer said.

"Senior management or headquarters need to embed such diversity of thinking in their organizations' DNA to become truly diverse and inclusive organizations and drive better value to their stakeholders."

Aspiration for global roles

According to the study, 90% of Asian female senior leaders currently in regional roles in multinational companies with headquarters outside Asia aspire to be promoted to global roles.

However, only 36% are at least somewhat confident that they will be granted the opportunity. More than half (54%) believe these barriers are a response to their ethnic background, while nearly half (47%) feel that their gender is the main obstacle. Meanwhile, a staggering 85% are considering leaving their current companies in the next two years.

"Visionary corporations that recognize the increasing importance of Asia to their business are relocating their global headquarters to Asia,” said Karen Choy-Xavier, Partner of Heidrick & Struggles based in Singapore.

“This move by a handful of companies serves as a great opportunity for Asian female leaders to take on global responsibilities without juggling time zone differences or perceptions that they are below average performers just because of the foreign accent they display during midnight conference calls. This requires a shift in mentality for headquarters leaders and must align with performance appraisal systems that indicate the path to global roles.“

…but don’t want to relocate

The study also revealed that 43% are unwilling to take up global roles which would demand relocation, or participate in evening conference calls or other tasks that take away from time spent with their family.

Another finding is 19% feel that it is not culturally acceptable for women to be too ambitious, or that they would be regarded as culturally unfit by their colleagues at headquarters in terms of their communication styles.

Thirteen percent feel that it is their non-native English accent and lack of English language communication skills that hinder their progression.

Less than half (48%) agreed that a major barrier is that headquarters' leaders do not pay enough attention to developing Asian women. Meanwhile, only 4% cited lack of capabilities and skill sets as a barrier.

"Although there has been a focus on subjects such as women on boards and the development of the local female workforce, the research by Heidrick & Struggles reveals the difficulties of mid- to senior-level Asian female leaders who are limited to regional roles,” notes Alain Deniau, Partner of Heidrick & Struggles based in Hong Kong.

“This is the biggest glass ceiling issue that our successful female leaders are facing in this part of the world.” 


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