How do cultural differences influence the leadership styles of successful women, including female leaders in Asia?

I’m delighted to have been invited to “blog” for the gender agenda, but feel I must share that this is the first time I have ever blogged… hopefully it won’t be the last time!

Recently, I had the opportunity to return and work in my home country of Australia for two years. While I’ve always been a strong supporter of gender initiatives this experience which came after 17 years living and working in Singapore, really opened my eyes to the importance of having a broader focus on diversity and inclusion, especially cultural diversity.

I myself am a third (or Americans would say 4th) generation Australian born Chinese which means that whilst I am ethnically Chinese, I am culturally western. Unfortunately, I do find that people seem to misunderstand the “true me” depending on their background. After working in Asia for many years, having to readjust myself to working in Australia and looking at things through a different lens was very much an eye opening experience. An experience that has made me even more passionate about ensuring PwC is an inclusive place where people, no matter how different, can bring their whole self to work.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being invited to a networking event in Singapore where the guest speaker, Jane Horan spoke about her new book “How Asian Women Lead – Lessons for Global Corporations”. Jane has an interesting background herself – she left the United States over 25 years ago to study Chinese language, history and culture in Hunan Province in China. This was followed by a successful organisational development career with various MNCs in Asia.

After this event I was eager to read her book and better understand how the obstacles facing Asian women can differ from women in the West.

Horan covers a number of important areas from an Asian organisational perspective including unconscious bias and politics. In particular I found there were a couple of interesting nuggets that really resonated with me and warranted further reflection.

Family support – critical to success

The first, was that for many Asian women, family support is critical to success. In Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, Sandberg highlights the importance of having an equal partner. In Asia, however, the support of an extended family, beyond just ones partner, plays a pivotal role to the success of women.

Horan discusses the concept of Asian women leaders embracing the value of “harmony” – the idea of having inclusive networks which operate like an “integrated web”. This web emphasises harmony between the diverse communities which the leader may operate across – for example, team, church, sports, family and work. If any of the elements are out of sync, the entire web is impacted. This focus on harmony reflects the collectivist values adopted by many in Asia.

Ambition has a different connotation

The second piece I really connected with was that the word “ambition” may not resonate well in some cultures. In some parts of Asia the word ambition can be understood to mean evil and greed, this of course is not a label that anyone wants. When operating in Asia it is critical organisations appreciate the feelings underneath words.

Horan highlights that Sandberg encourages women to be more vocal and intentional about their career and ambition, and that she should be commended for increasing awareness of women as equal partners and formidable leaders in the workplace. However, she feels some of her messages will not easily work across Asia and the word “ambition” is often attributed to individualist cultures whereas “contribution” is more relevant to more multicultural environments. Asian female talent will be much more comfortable discussing contributions made rather than ambition.

Based on my experience in Asia I tend to agree with Horan. Asian female leaders value inclusiveness, community and contribution over individuality. They prefer to influence rather than dominate. I have come across many women in boardrooms and senior management who display these very traits. These women are firm, efficient and subtle in their approach yet are respected equally for their views. In Asia, being more vocal about one’s career might not always be part of the recipe for success.

Horan reflects “Rather than more programs for women to learn how to be ambitious, organisations need ways to address systematic issues and mental blueprints that hinder career success. Women usually know where they want to go, but organisations need to rethink attitudes toward female leaders and join in Sandberg’s dialogue. The goals are similar: it’s the how that is different”.

As the Diversity Leader for PwC Singapore and our Asia Pacific region reading Horan’s book has given me plenty to ponder. In particular, the understanding that while the challenges women face might be universal, attention to cultural nuance and differences when approaching gender diversity at the organisational level is critical.


First published on 28 August 2014 – The Gender Agender (PwC) blog