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How Women work: Fitting in and standing out in Asia?

Read Time:12 Minute

Ms Aarti Kelshikar, Intercultural Coach & Author Founder, 3A Consulting in coversation with Mr Ninad Gadgil, President-Abrasives, Carborundum Universal Ltd; Ms Devasena Ravisankar, Global Head- Innovation Ecosystem, Cognitive Business Operations, TCS and Ms Mythili Chandrasekar, Consumer Behaviour and Brand Strategy Enthusiast.

Aarti Kelshikar: For my research on how women work in leadership roles and succeed in Asia, I chose six countries: India, Singapore, Philippines, China, Japan, and Thailand, because they are reasonably diverse. Also, I had some familiarity and some access to people there.  I started in 2020 and interviewed 61 women across different industries and functions, largely in the corporate space; and some entrepreneurs. I also interviewed men. I asked people for their leadership inputs and cultural inputs and sometimes for both.

My basic premise or hypothesis is that leadership at a broad level is gender agnostic. But I do think that women have to encounter a second layer, which is navigating socio-cultural perceptions, biases, expectations of society, etc. I thought it would be interesting to see how they navigate the second layer and build trust and credibility. What’s their style of leadership? How do they communicate? How do they influence in organizations? What are their blind spots and pitfalls? What are some of the strategies to work effectively across Asia? I will share a few insights from the study. 

If you look at women in senior management positions in emerging Asia Pacific, the figure is about 37% whereas it is 30% in the developed countries of Asia Pacific. It is a bit interesting, because we would assume that developed countries would have more women in the workforce. One explanation for this divergence is that Japan is included in the developed Asia Pacific category. Japan is an outlier in terms of women’s participation and empowerment. As someone told me, they really came late to the DNI party and they have a long way to go.  

In Thailand, women lead with their head, heart and humility. In Singapore, it’s a very result driven approach. They focus on efficiency and bottom line and it’s not so much on relationships or the softer aspects. In China, women have to be visionaries to succeed. I don’t know whether it’s because of their legacy of having emperors and kings. It’s very important there for a leader to envision goals and to be agile, because things keep changing as they change in the rest of the world as well. In Japan, it is very, very nuanced. You have to read between the lines on what is said and what is not said. It’s very patriarchal and hierarchical.

In Philippines, they focus on relationships. When my husband was working there, he would share that sometimes women would start crying in the workplace and he didn’t know what was happening. It’s a very sensitive, emotional kind of a place. I’m not trying to say if it’s bad or good. It’s just the way it was.  

The other insight is that culture is an enabler for Leadership and Success. A lot of women prefer to work in MNCs because they felt that MNCs gave them the freedom and space to be, to think, to express themselves, to take decisions, to be supported and to be called for crucial conversations. I think when women are in less hierarchical and more inclusive setups, they really flourish. They thrive in a place where they are respected and there’s a lot of collaboration.

In some places, women are expected not to rock the boat. They shouldn’t make too much noise. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Disrupt, but disrupt gently. It is like, somebody’s asked to make an omelette without breaking eggs. Let me share an anecdote.  

There was this lady, one of my interviewees. She is incredibly talented and she used to work with Unilever seven years ago. She talked about her time when she was in a board meeting in London. All the top people from Unilever, across the world had come here for this meeting, to discuss strategies for haircare products. She said, “I was sitting at the table and looking at everybody around. All the men around me were older, white men with little or no hair and they were talking about strategies for Asian women’s hair. I just felt that as the only Asian woman there, I was perhaps the only person who had some real insight on the topic that they were discussing. Unilever’s top team at that time was a big boys club. Initially, I tried hard to fit in, as a Thai lady in London. But over time, my learning was that it is less about fitting in and being accepted and more about feeling confident and comfortable in my own skin.” It is interesting to learn about how people navigate the cultural expectations and yet retain their individuality.  

A lot of women I noticed didn’t make some bold splash or declaration. They came in quietly and observed the cultural cues. They didn’t try and act like a man. But they focused on adding value to themselves and to the teams. Once they built their cache of trust and credibility, they tried to make their presence felt and created impact through various ways—collaboration, communication and connection. They chose how they wanted to fit in and when they wanted to stand out. It’s an amazing, unique skill that women bring to the table. We don’t really talk much about it and it is seldom recognized as much and it needs to be showcased. We need to have more inclusiveness in conversations and cultures. It’s not us versus them but we must have a win-win.  

Devasena Ravisankar: I started my career eight years ago. I was an engineer back then. Unlike most women those days who did coding and application development, I chose to do hardware—assembling of PCs, networking and all of that. It was all men everywhere. I was the only one woman there. At that level, you need to have depth, passion and substance. But once you become a leader, people start expecting more. That is where you want to put in extra effort to say that you will be able to deliver it. The trust comes by leading from the front, by nurturing the team and ensuring that the team also trusts us. Trust is built by having empathy. I have had a lot of challenges in complex implementation of projects and technology implementations. We used to have customers across the globe. You must stand for your team and be transparent in whatever you are dealing with. This is how, I’ve thus far been successful in my career.

Ninad Gadgil: In hard core industrial sectors like manufacturing, there is a much higher percentage of men. But in fields like health care, banking, finance and R&D, we see a lot of successful women leaders. The situation is definitely changing rapidly. We have heard of Titan now coming up with an all women crew and plant. In our own company, we see a lot of women in functions like quality assurance and customer service, but it’s still very difficult in manufacturing, partly because of cultural issues and partly because of infrastructure issues. Sometimes, men do not want to take the extra effort to make women comfortable, like providing safe transportation when women work in second shift. In many of our industrial cluster areas, you do not have yet safe residential places for women. Those are areas that we definitely need to move the needle because we have all seen the great qualities and competency that women bring to the workforce, across all functions. I’ve seen that women not only succeed in areas where detail- orientation is required, but also in areas where you need a strategic mindset and out of the box thinking.

Aarti: There is a corporate leader based in Singapore who says that she operates with an 80-20 mindset. It means that if I have 80% of the correct data, I will go forward. Singapore is a country where you need to be 100% correct, before you commit. A waiter in a restaurant will not give you something if he’s not sure of what you want. She said that, in her experience, men tend to operate from the big picture or strategic level and many times, they don’t get into the details. Whereas women love to hang on to the details and they probably get lost in those.  The ideal formula is to be able to do the details, because that’s important and at the same time, zoom out and look at the macro bigger picture. It’s not about having one or the other, it’s having both and you must know when to zoom in and when to zoom out. Somebody told me that you must know when to be on the dance floor and when to be in the balcony. This combination of skills is important and women seem to be doing that well and better than most others.  

Devasena: We view that women coming to work is something great. But do women really aspire to become CXOs? Maybe not, because, there was no urge from a society perspective and nobody expected them. And second, they had to do the work life balance.  But of late, I’m seeing even within TCS, more women are willing to do big and aspire for senior management roles. We have more programs which enable and nurture women workforce and we ensure that they are given a platform. Of course, it’s all going to be performance based at the end of the day. The millennial women have this hunger to aspire for more.    

Aarti: My advice for the younger generation would be two things. One is, developing an authentic personal brand. Gone are the days when HR departments and companies were looking after their employees for the next 20 to 30 years. Everybody has to look after themselves. You have a world where AI is coming in and commoditizing jobs. So, it’s really important to hone and develop a personal brand. What do I mean by that? Identify your strengths and what you stand for. 

I was recently talking to somebody in Morgan Stanley in the US. She told me that when she started as a part of a team of 10 or 12 people, she told herself that she would do the best research for her team. Today, if they need macro- economic research, she’s the ‘go-to person,’ because she has consistently delivered and done a great job. That’s her strength. Today, you have social media and all the tools but building an authentic brand is important, because people can see through it. 

The other piece would be related to thinking strategically or thinking big. Women want their child to do well, have a great education, etc. But they don’t really think big when it comes to themselves. It’s important to start doing that, not in a very aggressive, competitive way but in your own way. A lot of women think about their job and they don’t think about their career. Also, they must think wider and broader in what they want to aspire, to be ahead of the curve. Networking is important but it has to be done strategically.  

Ninad Gadgil:  We have to create platforms for women to speak up. Some of them have very challenging assignments where the intensity of competition is very high. They are not going to get all the answers on their own and they need to seek out help. People say that that it’s okay to be vulnerable. You can’t take it at its face value and show your vulnerability at the wrong moments. Showing vulnerability in the right context is important. Once you show your competence and warmth, you’re getting that credibility. Then you become a confident leader that is accepted by many. With that level of confidence, perhaps it’s okay to show vulnerability. This is equally true for men and for women.  

Mythili: There is data that the country’s productivity will go up with more women in the workforce. Is there any study or data on a company’s actual results coming from women employment, both at leadership levels and at workforce levels? 

Ninad Gadgil: I think it’s a very straight correlation, because you can clearly see that a lot of users and customers are women. That’s why a lot of food companies and cosmetic companies have hired women in marketing roles and they’ve clearly seen business success. In the industrial sector, we now see women in purchasing, commercial and supply chain roles. I see a strong need for industrial companies to have women in the sales force and in customer service and definitely in product management because, women can see patterns that are missed out by men.   

Mythili: Between the East and the West, do you see differences in how women work?

Devasena: Women here are committed and are ready to go beyond the call of duty to deliver anything. But if they want to show and exhibit and become that leader, then that is where an extra bit of pushing is required. This comes naturally to those in the Western world. 

Aarti: Women are different in Europe and Asia. There are some broad cultural differences in leadership and management. For example, hierarchy tends to be a bigger value in Asia. It comes in the use of titles, a sense of identity and the respect that you have for the boss. Second is the confidence and control. In much of Asia or in Singapore, people don’t have that confidence unless they have all the data. Whereas in the west, they can take decisions, without getting bogged down by some of the cultural aspects. In the West, assertiveness looks different because people are more vocal. Here, we are slightly more nuanced and we have a different way of exhibiting it. People say that we are not aggressive enough or assertive enough. These are very real value judgments that are made about people and situations.  

Devasena: I don’t think there is anything that stops women from claiming their rightful position, if they actually performed and they are fit for that. We need to coach our women and give them the platform where they can voice out.  

Aarti: It’s one thing to have more women and to tick the diversity box. But it’s very important as an organization to have that culture in place. And culture takes a long time and it is led from the top. People have to create that culture where everybody would like to work. 

Devasena: Women should not shy away from taking help, especially from husbands and their in-laws. Definitely, you need a mentor in the workplace. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who really cared to know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure each one of us, when we get into a workplace, should be able to find a suitable mentor. It can be a male or female, but get that person right. That is the one who’s going to push you and pull you through your career.