Women Leaders: Strategic Career Moves

In conducting the research for our report, Reflections from Asia Pacific leaders: Strategies for career progression, we asked about the use of certain strategies and approaches to help career development, such as having a mentor, networking, and seeking international experience. We found that, in the west, men deploy certain techniques much more than women, notably external networking, volunteering for special projects, and the more life-disrupting ones, such as seeking international experience and changing employers. However, in Asia, there are very few differences between the career strategies used by men and women (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Strategies for career development in Asia - % indicating use of strategies by gender



When comparing women from the east with those in the west, our survey shows that Asian women were more likely to have sought international experience (83%), compared with women in the west (43%). And 84% have regularly sought to change their employer to gain promotion or experience, compared with 60% in the west.


Barriers to success

The women we spoke to had faced two main challenges throughout their careers: the problem of achieving a satisfying work-life balance, and the difficulty of being taken seriously in a male-dominated business. 


All the women we spoke to who had children said it was a constant struggle to ensure that they devoted enough time to both their family and their job. This is what a study from McKinsey identifies as women’s ‘double burden’ – the combination of work and domestic responsibilities.


Maintaining a home life while also meeting the demands of their careers required huge dedication and organisation from the women we spoke to. ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m doing two to three full-time jobs,’ Theresa Chan told us. ‘You need to have very good time management, and good family support.’


For some women, the challenges are extreme, as Garris Chen describes. ‘I was a weekend mother for two years,’ she explains. ‘Every Friday I took a plane home, and every Sunday I flew off to my work. During that time I also took on a part-time MBA programme. Juggling all the commitments and being a good wife and a mother to two kids was my biggest challenge.’


Traditional stereotypes 

For women in cultures where traditional female stereotypes are more ingrained, the challenges can be even greater, as Sandhya Rajapakse explains, ‘In Sri Lanka, the responsibility to earn is shared among both partners, but the responsibility of taking care of the home, family and children still rests on the shoulders of the woman. Unless she has a good support system, the woman is left with no choice other than to compromise her career to tend to family needs.’


Lakmali Nanayakkara, also from Sri Lanka, describes a common scenario. ‘Lots of women in their mid career face conflicting responsibilities. They may have children and family dependants and the balancing act becomes stressful.’


On the other hand, some other Asian women told us they benefited from very close and extended family support networks, which enabled them to focus on their careers and take advantage of placements away from home. 


Jenny To from Hong Kong explains how family support helped her when she took a job in Shanghai. ‘My mother-in-law lives with us and this helped me get further in my career and feel comfortable when I was away from the children. I also needed to be very dedicated – to find time to talk to the children at night, and give them lots of attention at the weekends when I was home.’


Many other working mothers find it hard to pursue career opportunities that involve travel. ‘Mobility is an issue,’ Theresa Chan believes. ‘Travelling is a barrier for women especially in Asia; it’s difficult to find a job with good career prospects that doesn’t involve travelling.’ Boonsiri Somchit-Ong from Malaysia also sees lack of mobility as limiting. ‘A lot of good jobs are international and you have to make the decision about whether or not to go for them. Often I think, “If I was single I’d do this.”’


Working in a male-dominated industry 

Women’s struggle to reach the top isn’t entirely due to their role as wives and mothers. The study of MBA graduates, cited earlier, found that women lag behind men in advancement and compensation, regardless of whether they have children.


Most of the women we spoke to acknowledged that it was difficult for a woman to succeed and earn respect in a male-dominated industry, often due to entrenched attitudes and stereotypes.


While few women felt they‘d suffered direct discrimination, several had come face to face with prejudices. Karen O’Duil, for example, has less domestic responsibility than many women, as her husband’s primary career is in the home. However, she still faces barriers (in


the form of attitudes) about what women can achieve. ‘For challenging roles and jobs that involve travel, there’s an attitude that, if you’re a woman with young children, you can’t do it, that you wouldn’t be interested in new challenges.’


Boonsiri Somchit-Ong from Malaysia has had similar experiences. ‘Some Asian bosses view women in the workplace in a more traditional role, for example thinking you shouldn’t earn more than your husband, that you‘re just earning pocket money.’


Simply being in a minority can lead to a sense of isolation and make it harder for women to fit in and take part in corporate life.


Fortunately, many organisations are taking steps to support women and remove some of these barriers. Talking about her employer, Sandhya Rajapakse from Sri Lanka said, ‘Because it’s a multinational organisation, it has established structures and procedures which are transparent, and practices equal treatment at all levels. Therefore, the organisational internal climate did not provide a significant challenge. In fact it was a key factor for successful progression.’


Irelan Tam has had a similarly positive experience ‘My organisation focuses a lot on diversity, and there is a Global Women Leadership Initiative Council,’ she explains. ‘So, I don’t see any discrimination and we have a lot of women leaders in the organisation. Especially in Asia-Pacific (excluding Japan) we have approximately 50% of women on the management board.’


Working in Asia 

There are also some practical issues for women working in Asia. Many companies work internationally, across different time zones, which can mean working long, anti‑social hours that don‘t fit well with family life. Global organisations often require staff to speak other languages, as Amy Lam explains. ‘We have to get used to speaking, writing and listening in English. When I mentor university students I always encourage them to spend more time on learning languages.’


Our survey shows that there is little difference between the strategies used by women and men in the east to develop their careers. However, when comparing strategies used by women in the west and women in the east, there are some interesting differences.


For example, 83% told us they have sought international experience, compared with 43% in the west, and 84% have regularly sought to change their employer to gain promotion or experience, compared with 60% in the west.


The proportion of women leaders varies across the globe, as the following chart of female CIMA fellows shows. While the figures suggest that it’s easier for women to succeed in some Asian countries, many of the women we spoke to in this region felt they had had to struggle against outdated attitudes about the role of women. In total, CIMA have 65,000 female members and students across 168 counties.


Figure 2: The percentage of CIMA fellows that are women in selected countries



Several of the women we interviewed discussed the challenge of having to adapt their working style when working for multinational companies or working overseas.


One Chinese woman, for example, felt she’d had to break away from her ’inward-facing’ culture and become more outgoing when she worked in the USA and Europe.


Similarly, Garris Chen, who has worked for companies in four different countries, has found the culture in each very different. ‘Compared with Japanese firms, the U.S. company practices and believes in empowerment,’ she explains. ‘They have proper delegation of authority and enabled me to have the autonomy to perform my task within the delegation given. Now I am working for a German company and things are more structured and better planned. Processes are standardised and properly documented to facilitate compliance.’


All those women who had worked abroad stressed the value of this experience. One of the women we spoke to advised that, when working with people from different backgrounds, it’s vital to be ‘aware of your culture and how others view it, as well as open minded and accommodating of other cultures.’


About the Author
Sandra Rapacioli is responsible for producing and promoting thought leadership at CIMA. She has a special interest in leadership, particularly the progression of women into senior roles, and sustainability.


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