Women’s presence is still rare in some Asian business circles such as those in male-dominated Japan, but women are rapidly moving into business leadership positions elsewhere.
For example, in the Islamic countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, a significant proportion of women exist in the higher echelons of business. A recent survey revealed that almost 50 per cent of the senior executives in China are women, and that in Asia as a whole 29 per cent of the senior executive positions are held by women as compared to 24 per cent in Europe.
So Western businesswomen and men should not automatically assume that the Asian woman in the conference room is a junior manager or is about to pour the tea! If she does pour the tea it may well be that she is the Chairman’s daughter and occasional chief adviser!
A report by HSBC Private Bank suggests that the highly educated daughters of the boss in many of Asia’s patriarchal and family-run companies are often expected to juggle the tradition bound roles of daughter, wife and mother with those of corporate trouble-shooter for their fathers.
There is no doubt that Asians do direct some resistance to women in business. However, this is mainly at local women, not at Westerners. This is possibly because Asians have slowly begun to see women, at least those from outside their own society, as equal to men because of their emotional intelligence.
Women are increasingly perceived as smart negotiators, softly spoken and persuasive, good at instinctive reactions and listening, more able than men to seek out common ground and explore client’s needs, more patient and curious about other people and their lifestyles.
In other words, Western women have an increased chance of business success in many Asian countries (not all) because they rely more on the ‘feel’ and ‘context’ of a business situation, rather than on immediate gains and direct outcomes.
They are perceived as consensus builders rather than as aggressive and impatient ‘agenda-pushers’. The male heads of family-run businesses take them into their confidence as better and more flexible allies than their competitive sons.
These qualities are precisely the core elements of building business relationships in Asia, and stand at the heart of the business culture. Even if they find the reasoning rather condescending, Western businesswomen might well take profit from such perceptions by playing up their ‘softer’ side.
That said, it is advisable that they (and their male colleagues) research local customs towards women and respect them even if they find them hard to accept.
Here is a 7-point checklist to avoid embarrassment or misunderstandings for women new to Asian business culture and etiquette:
- Define your role and seniority clearly and establish your credentials immediately before your first visit or meeting prospective Asian clients/partners.
- Have a mutually respected person introduce you
- Offer your hand first upon meeting or greeting a man, but don’t show surprise if it’s not accepted.
- If somebody treats you in a sexist manner, remain calm and gracious.
- Dress femininely but conservatively even if younger Asian women are dressed in more provocative fashions.
- Don’t be afraid to accessorize with silk scarf, elegant jewellery, stylish purse etc. Asians are intensely visual.
- Walk tall and with confident body language.
Western businesswomen whose behaviour accords with Asian male preconceptions can be and often are readily accepted. As usual, it’s the sensitivity that counts and that can turn your company into a winner rather than an also-ran.