Malaysian Women on the Rise
Last week in Kuala Lumpur, 34 women across all industries and functions gathered at the LeadWomen program to share experiences, explore strengths, and learn about savvy career navigation. An air of conviviality enveloped the room, laughter and selfies filled the afternoon. Is it possible to admire great leadership when you’re in the midst of working with a group of inclusive leaders? I did just that, taking time to listen to their stories.
Now in its third year, LeadWomen has built a connected community of diverse and supportive leaders for the next generation of talent. Much has changed for women in leadership in Malaysia. According to The Economist’s Women in Leadership in Asia research, in 2016, Malaysian women were more active than ever before, in commercial and political positions and comprising 10.2% of board positions on Malaysia’s top 100 companies. That’s been a positive shift, although not everything is rosy. Malaysia ranks 106th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Anne Abraham, the CEO of LeadWomen, and her team are working to reduce this gap by developing women in careers, leadership and on boards.
We began last week’s savvy career session with strengths. Using character strengths, I’ve noticed a pattern in every session. What starts with a discussion on strengths reverts back to an analysis of what needs fixing. Not only in my workshops, I’ve seen this same pattern within global organisations during talent reviews; a narrow focus on how to enable women to fit within a preconceived leadership framework.
It’s now time to refresh, reframe or redefine those leadership frameworks. I’ve worked with Asian women in leadership for some time, and have met many savvy, determined, purpose driven leaders.
At this particular LeadWomen session, I heard stories of perseverance, honesty, and humility. Two women told me their boss recommended they jointly lead a project in East Malaysia. “Go there and see what you can do,” he said. What started as a work project turned into revitalising neighbourhoods, building schools and improving roads for indigenous communities. When faced with the blight of poverty, these women forged a bond, and continue to work together. A half-hour discussion evolved into shared leadership experiences of humility, humanity, perseverance and purpose. These women had the right combination of self awareness and impact on others, driving change with a committed group of followers.
It’s not only in Malaysia, but the world needs leaders with these strengths. More than ever, today. Those willing to tackle persistent social issues, the perseverance to carry on, and humility to serve others equally.
At our lunch, the conversation revolved around ‘’humility’’, which morphed to took the form of ‘my achievements speak for themselves’- and the awkwardness of talking about one’s self.’ Anne Abraham mentioned that Malaysia ranks highest in Asia for power distance, which means how power and authority are embedded into the organization. This power distance defines how employees view others across levels. At meetings, those at higher levels are treated with respect and deference, making it difficult to speak up while simultaneously acknowledging the power balance in the room. Taking this one step further, more emphasis may be placed on humility, respect, empathy and understanding hierarchical positions. Consequently, conversations focused entirely on one’s self feels disingenuous, uncomfortable and often boring. Self-promotion can be a double edge sword for women, not just in Malaysia, but globally.
Viewing the world through a single leadership lens make it difficult to appreciate cultural influences.
Too often, talent discussions undervalue perseverance while overvaluing presence, or overlook humility and overemphasize speaking forcefully. The Economist’s Women in Leadership in Asia Pacific Research report reinforces the notion of ‘leaning in’, speaking up and the triple burden of family, work and life.
Both at this latest workshop and my earlier research, I’ve seen how women navigate these obstacles. For the most part, they’re responsible for the family, child care, elder care, and more. But many also were equipped with strong organisational skills, a light-hearted view of life, and a supportive, inclusive network to sustain success. Family was just part of that network, which helped- rather than hindered- their success.
I’ve seen how women lead differently; some on their own terms, others fit easier into the corporate culture.
What I’ve learnt from my three years with LeadWomen is this:
If organisations really want an inclusive gender balanced leadership team, it’s best to maintain a sense of wonderment, remove cultural filters, listen [intently] to women’s stories and use the awareness as a primary guide to leadership and talent selection.
Now, more than ever, we need those stories.