TUM Management Insights

Women leaders in Asia vs. the West: Time to re-think stereotypes

Since Asian economies are having an increasingly significant impact on the global economy, we need to learn more about the way business works in Asia. Although around the world women are being promoted into management positions, we know little about women in developing markets. What drives their careers and how do they exercise leadership?

Professor Claudia Peus, Dr. Susanne Braun and Dr. Kristin Knipfer from TUM School of Management surveyed 76 mid- and upper-level female managers from three different Asian countries – China, India, Singapore – as well as the U.S. asking them questions such as: What are their success factors? What prevents them from advancing in their careers?

Is there an “Asian” way to lead that is clearly distinguishable from a Western way and are there substantial differences between Asian countries? In-depth interviews with women managers revealed, first, that in the East as well as in the West, the key success factors for the advancement to leadership positions, such as achievement and learning orientation, are the same. Basically, hard work and close relations advance the women’s careers. For example, one Chinese manager notes, “We believe in the saying ‘no pain no gains’. (…) I devoted myself to the work.” Second, taking a closer look, apparently similar factors sometimes mean quite different things in reality. While U.S. managers generally refer to role models from their professional lives, in China and India role models are usually taken from the private sphere. In fact, every second Chinese manager emphasizes her mother’s role: “My mother was a professional woman. (…) She gave me such great impact and taught me to be an independent woman.”

Third, culture offers important insights into how women exercise their leadership. There were no clear distinctions between Western and Eastern leadership in general, but rather between specific countries. Women from the U.S. and Singapore tend to lead through authenticity and value-orientation. A U.S. manager says an important factor is a “Sense of who you are, to be centered, and what your values are. And what you want to be and what you’re about.” . Meanwhile, Chinese managers emphasize task-orientation, adding “In my opinion, manager is like that: You lead people to do the tasks.” Relational-orientation was most characteristic of women’s leadership in Singapore and India. For instance, an Indian manager argues, “The best leader is the one who creates more leaders. (…) I have already started delegations, creating leaders, or instead of saying leaders, at this stage even if they become good managers, their next step will be a good leader.”

Facing the global shift of economic power toward Asia, it is time to re-think stereotypes about women and leadership. Leadership takes place in a cultural context and is shaped by the person directing. A key take away would be that what leadership means and what is expected from women in management depends on the cultural setting. Women who are expatriates in these countries need to keep the differences in mind. For example, they must reflect and express their values clearly, especially when working in the U.S. or Singapore, or emphasize task vs. relational orientation depending on the cultural context. The lessons also apply to organizations. When selecting and training managers, they need to apply this deeper understanding of approaches of women managers in Asian and Western cultures.


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