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90% of female leaders in Asia aspire to be in global roles

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Despite the Malaysian government’s efforts to increase female participation in the workplace, almost half of women in Malaysia believe the glass ceiling is impeding women’s careers.

While some progress has been made locally, Asian women leaders at multinational corporations still feel trapped in regional roles, according to a new study by Heidrick & Struggles.

The study found that while a majority of Asian female senior leaders (90%) currently in regional roles aspire to be promoted to global roles, only 36% are at least somewhat confident that they will be granted the opportunity. Meanwhile, a staggering 85% are considering leaving their current companies in the next two years.

When asked about the barriers to their advancement, only 4% cited lack of capabilities and skill sets as a barrier.

Sadly, more than half (54%) believe these barriers are a response to their ethnic background, while nearly half (47%) feel that their gender is the main obstacle.

More than one in 10 (13%) felt their non-native English accent and lack of English language communication skills hinder their progression. While 19% felt that it is not culturally acceptable for women to be too ambitious, or that they would be regarded as culturally unfit by their colleagues at headquarters in terms of their communication styles.

At the same time, 48% felt that a major barrier is that headquarters’ leaders do not pay enough attention to developing Asian women.

“Although there has been a focus on subjects such as women on boards and the development of the local female workforce, the research by Heidrick & Struggles reveals the difficulties of mid- to senior-level Asian female leaders who are limited to regional roles. This is the biggest glass ceiling issue that our successful female leaders are facing in this part of the world,” noted Alain Deniau, partner of Heidrick & Struggles based in Hong Kong.

ALSO READ: More than half of Malaysian women feel under-represented in leadership roles

Additionally, the survey pointed out that 43% were unwilling to take up global roles which would demand relocation, or participate in evening conference calls or other tasks that take away from time spent with their family.

Commenting on this finding, Karen Choy-Xavier, partner of Heidrick & Struggles based in Singapore, said: “Visionary corporations that recognize the increasing importance of Asia to their business are relocating their global headquarters to Asia. This move by a handful of companies serves as a great opportunity for Asian female leaders to take on global responsibilities without juggling time zone differences or perceptions that they are below average performers just because of the foreign accent they display during midnight conference calls.

“This requires a shift in mentality for headquarters leaders and must align with performance appraisal systems that indicate the path to global roles,” she added.

Steve Mullinjer, regional leader of Heidrick & Struggles, Asia Pacific, added: “Senior management or headquarters need to embed such diversity of thinking in their organisations’ DNA to become truly diverse and inclusive organisations and drive better value to their stakeholders.”

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