Work-Life Issues Major Barriers to Women in Asia

By Pamela Babcock Jun 25, 2013

Asian-Pacific women face myriad barriers in corporate environments in Asia, but the most challenging are work-life issues. In Japan, for example, married women are not expected to stay in the workforce. Gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment also persist in the Asia-Pacific region.

Organizations should take steps to break down these barriers and boost women’s workforce participation, experts said.

“There are not enough corporations setting good examples in the region,” and those that are tend to be multinationals, Wenchi Yu, a former senior advisor on global women’s issues at the State Department and an associate fellow at the Asia Society, said recently to SHRM Online.

Restrictions on women’s job opportunities have significant socioeconomic costs. The Asia-Pacific region loses $42 billion to $47 billion annually in domestic product growth because of women’s lack of access to employment, according to the most recent figures available from the United Nations’ 2007 Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific report.

Yu said addressing the work/life balance could change the market substantially. But in traditional Japanese corporate culture, she observed, “it is almost impossible for ambitious women to succeed.” Even though in China and India many women—thanks to parents—are able to balance child care and their career, gender-based discrimination and harassment continue to be problems.

Potential Solutions

Yu said national governments should adopt a policy framework that encourages women to stay at work and corporations to hire and promote them. Leaders, too, should foster environments that encourage male and female employees to discuss issues to help bridge the gap.

More women are also needed on boards and in management. Some countries are considering mandating a gender-based quota system for diversity and representation, others require companies to report on board diversity, and still others do nothing in this area.

Factor in Regional Issues

Closing the gender gap was the theme of a June 10, 2013, panel discussion at the Asia Society Diversity Leadership Forum in New York. Speakers said solutions should factor in differences and issues specific to each group and region.

Deepali Bagati, Ph.D., senior director of Catalyst’s inclusive-leadership initiative, noted that in India, most multinational corporations offer a flexible work schedule and a work-from-home policy, but many women don’t want to work remotely because their homes are too small and they actually enjoy working in an office.

Safety is a “very real concern,” as is infrastructure, since congestion can mean commutes of up to four hours, Bagati added.

Mary D. Byron, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, spent six years supervising technology teams in Asia. She said that Japan and Korea had the strictest and most gender-normed work expectations. Most women were expected to be subservient. So if a female sales leader was visiting a client, the male colleague was expected to lead the discussion and the woman would be “a supporting player,” Byron explained.

Companies should encourage Asian women in those environments to “be comfortable doing things that make you uncomfortable,” Byron suggested. That means asserting themselves in simple but positive ways.

Norms Changing Slowly

Bagati said the key isn’t just for organizations to hire Asian women but to retain and promote them, as well. Panelists agreed that norms are slowly changing, in part because of a younger workforce.

“More company leaders are recognizing the economic imperative of women’s workforce participation and the talent management aspects of that, and I think that there is now more appreciation for the skills that those women bring to the table,” Byron noted.

Bagati said one problem in India is “maternal-manager syndrome.” A male manager may say, “I’m not going to ask that woman to work late because, clearly, she’s someone’s wife and mother and sister, and she probably needs to get home,” Bagati said. But the decision lies with the woman. Managers should ask, rather than make assumptions about, the person’s gender role, she added.

“I think it largely stems from lack of awareness,” she said. “Once you start communicating the business case across the organization … that’s when it starts to shift.”

‘Returnship’ Program Helping

Goldman Sachs finds it much more difficult to recruit experienced female talent in Asia because the percentage of women in the talent pool thins out at the more experienced level due to many women leaving the workforce to raise children, Byron said.

The company’s Returnship program, which has been offered in Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian cities, allows former employees who want to restart their careers to return for 10-week internships. Originally designed to draw women back to the workforce, the initiative has also helped recruit experienced men.

Bagati said some companies are starting to track how many women plan to return—and, if not, why not—and whether they were even given the option of doing so.

“We’re seeing that the conversation is happening at the time that it should, versus when the woman has already decided ‘I’m leaving,’ ” Bagati observed.

Other Takeaways

Panelists offered these other keys to building an inclusive organization:

Culture is paramount. Organizations can have an impressive lineup of programs, but if nobody uses them and there are still retention and attrition issues, “clearly, the culture or the health of the organization needs to be examined,” Bagati said.

Accountability is critical. Determine goals and who’s responsible for accomplishing them. According to Catalyst’s 2010 India Benchmarking Report, 68 percent of companies in India have formal programs for women’s advancement, but they lack critical elements, including metrics and indicators to measure impact, to hold managers accountable and to engage men.

Encourage employees to find cross-cultural and cross-gender mentors and sponsors. “If [my sponsors] all look like me, I’m not going to get very far because the leadership at the top does not look like me,” Bagati noted.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Global HR page

Keep up with the latest Global HR news


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job

Earn a SHRM Talent Acquisition Specialty Credential.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect