From Darkness Into Light: Hope for Leadership for Asian Women - Yonjoo Cho and Gary N. McLean

Current Perspectives on Asian Women in Leadership BookcoverFrom Darkness Into Light: Hope for Leadership for Asian Women

by Yonjoo Cho and Gary N. McLean

Yonjoo ChoYonjoo Cho, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Instructional Systems Technology focusing on human resource development at Indiana University. Before joining IU, she worked in diverse organizations for more than ten years. Her research interests reflect her diverse work experience, including action learning, HRD, and women in leadership. She has published three books on action learning (Cho & Bong, 2013), Asian women in leadership (Cho, Ghosh, Sun, & McLean, 2017), and Korean women in leadership (Cho & McLean, 2018). She serves as an associate editor of Human Resource Development Review and also serves on AHRD’s Board. She received her Ph.D. in instructional technology from the University of Texas at Austin and can be reached at

Gary N. McLeanGary N. McLean, Ed.D., Ph.D. hon., is president of McLean Global Consulting, Inc., a family business, and works extensively globally, especially in Asia. He recently worked in the Graduate School of Management, International Islamic University, Malaysia, as “Renowned Scholar.” He teaches in the PhD program in HRD, NIDA (National Institute for Development Administration), Thailand, and at the Autonomous University of Baja California, Mexico. He was Senior Professor, Texas A&M University, and is professor emeritus and co-founder, HRD, University of Minnesota. He was President, Academy of Human Resource Development, and International Management Development Association. His research interests focus primarily on gender, organization development, and national and international HRD. He can be reached at

Diwali Candle Circle

Figure 1. Diwali Candle Circle

As we write this in mid-November, 2017, we have just returned from the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD) Asian conference, co-sponsored by AHRD-India, in Ahmedabad, India. We were approaching the end of the Diwali celebration, a Hindu festival commemorating the victory of good over evil through enlightenment. During the inaugural session, the honored guests lit candles in a circle (see Figure 1), symbolizing, according to the session emcee, the emergence of light from darkness. Many world religions use candles in a similar way. In this article, we use candles as a symbol to represent our hope, and the hope of many, that societies across Asia (and, indeed, across the world) will make the necessary changes in processes, culture, and opportunities to support women in employment and promotion to top levels of organizations. In this article, we briefly outline the status of Asian women in leadership and, drawing on our recent work (Cho, Ghosh, Sun, & McLean, 2017; Cho et al., 2015; and McLean, 2017), offer a foundation for our hope.

Status of Asian Women in Leadership

While Asia has made enormous economic strides in the past few decades, the role of women has not gained sufficient attention. Gender inequality and underutilization of women’s talent are deeply rooted and widely spread across Asian cultures. Why has Asia’s rapid economic development not translated into a corresponding development of women’s status? This driving question was the force behind our recent book, Current Perspectives on Asian Women in Leadership, co-edited by us with Rajashi Ghosh and Judy Sun.

The recent World Economic Forum’s (2017) Gender Gap Report ranked China 100th, India 108th, Indonesia 84th, Japan 114th, Korea 118th, Malaysia 104th, Sri Lanka 109th, and Thailand 75th of 144 countries in the combined evaluation of economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment in terms of women’s status compared with that of male counterparts. Interestingly, though, the one shining star in terms of women’s status is the Philippines, ranking 10th. According to this report, Asia has improved its political empowerment performance since 2014 but ranks second from the bottom after Africa on the overall index and economic participation of women compared to other regions. Asia’s gender gap indices are alarming given the region’s economic development. In Korea, there has been a near halving of women in ministerial positions in recent years, though the newly elected administration has placed a number of women leaders in key governmental positions.

Asia as a research context (e.g., Barkema, Chen, George, Luo, & Tsui, 2015) is significantly different, in many ways, from Western countries where a majority of studies on women in leadership have been conducted (e.g., Madsen & Scribner, 2017). Women’s appointment to high-ranking leadership roles in Asia is extremely challenging because traditional culture (e.g., Confucianism) and religious beliefs (e.g., among some groups in Buddhism, Islam, Christianity) dictate the status of women in their daily lives, keeping them out of the workplace and leadership roles, and the status of men, restricting their roles in the home and childcare and burdening them with the primary breadwinner role. Although women are a great reservoir of quality work, they have been an underutilized and underdeveloped human potential in Asia. In recent decades, women’s participation in economic and political activities has resulted in promoting their social status and leadership in Asia, but some cultural traditions remain unchanged, especially in family structures and interactions, as do some social norms. Women’s roles as mothers and wives are still strongly upheld as the fundamental duty for women in many parts of Asia.

The context of each country or region, including its historical, political, economic, and cultural backgrounds, helps explain the status of country-specific situations of women leaders in the past, present, and future. Because of this, there are commonalities across the Asian region (convergence) but also differences among the countries (divergence), as described below.

Convergence. There is much commonality across countries that have such different religious foundations, languages, cultures, traditions, rituals, and age demographics. While each context is different, the countries in Asia share common themes, including: (a) traditional values that assign women to domestic responsibilities; (b) the resulting gender gap and subsequent efforts by women to achieve gender equality in the workplace; and (c) the need to develop and sustain more women leaders.

Traditional gender roles continue to dominate, and this is not just reflected in the workplace, but also in personal and family life. Women are first and foremost seen as nurturers and caretakers of the family. Such deeply engrained traditional values and their resulting stereotypes have discouraged women from taking more active roles in the workforce, much less leadership positions. Even when women are employed outside of the home, they still carry traditional family responsibilities. In Asia, more and more families are finding themselves requiring dual incomes for economic survival. When this happens, however, women find themselves struggling with issues related to work and family balance.

Gender inequality creates barriers for women moving into leadership roles. Even with government actions focused on overcoming these inequalities, and company policies and practices designed to create equal opportunities, women remain under-represented in senior leadership positions in almost all Asian countries. Individual challenges and issues differ significantly by each country depending on their historical and social contexts, such as the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism. There is wide agreement about the current state of gender inequality in the workforce in Asia and the need to narrow the gap.

Change toward equality in leadership opportunities is occurring, though that change appears to be very slow. While women have education that equals (or exceeds) that of men, men continue to be preferred in recruitment and selection for senior leadership positions. However, over time, women’s educational attainment, along with demographics, such as low birthrates leading to declining workforce availability, are likely to result in more women gradually moving into leadership roles. Efforts to overcome gender discrimination through company policies and practices, government legislation, educational efforts, and global influences have still not succeeded in creating gender equality resulting in women having equal opportunities for leadership positions.

Divergence. In some Asian countries, women have opportunities when they move out of organized business sectors to establish their own companies. Entrepreneurship in some countries seems to be a way to escape from gender discrimination. However, in other countries, based on traditional roles that expect women to emphasize their role in the family, even entrepreneurship opportunities may not be an option for women. In some countries, but not all, religious values and practices play an important role in fostering gender discrimination. In other countries, traditional culture, not associated with religion, is the primary inhibitor of gender equality. Some countries have succeeded in having high visibility women in leadership roles at the top of companies and government roles. Others have not yet had this experience. In spite of such individual country examples, however, women have not fostered success for other women to follow similar paths partially because women’s leading roles are often given by their family backgrounds and not by their own leadership excellence.

Foundation for Our Hope

Despite difficulties that Asian women and women leaders face, there are a few good examples emerging in all countries that can serve as models for the next generation of women. The existing trajectory suggests that women will, eventually, achieve equal opportunity in leadership. Countries cannot continue to ignore the human potential represented by half of their population. For economic reasons alone, countries need to recognize the expertise possessed by women and the need for open and equal opportunities for their leadership — in business, in government, in non-profit organizations, in education, and in every aspect of life.

Culture has a strong influence on country behaviors, including gender discrimination. There is an urgent need to develop, promote, and sustain more women in leadership positions. Specific examples of governmental policies and organizational support have been offered that provide for improved practices and research for the future. Cultural contexts are important in understanding and improving women for leadership and in highlighting issues that call for an in-depth investigation.

Our vision is simple: Men and women will be given the same opportunities for training and development; they will be given equal opportunities for mentoring and promotion; and they will receive equal pay for equal work. Men and women will be offered paternity and maternity leaves to allow both genders time for at-home childcare during the first few weeks of the new baby’s life. Personal leaves will be available to both genders for elder-care and for addressing issues related to a child’s well-being, such as illness, medical visits, and school-related activities. Both genders will have available onsite company-sponsored daycare. Women will have easy access to onsite nursing facilities. Both genders, in other words, will have everything made available, equally, to allow them to take on the dual responsibilities of job and family. Companies will no longer discriminate, as they currently do by assuming that women will carry the burden of childcare and eldercare, as both genders will have equal access to whatever is needed to care for the family.

The point of sharing this vision is to offer hope to the sometimes-pessimistic messages of those who see thousands of years of the subservience of women to men and find it difficult to envision a promising future of gender equality. And, while those in what is colloquially referred to as the West have made progress, the world still has a long way to go for full gender equality.


Gender inequality and underutilization of women’s talent in Asia remain. Each Asian country and region has unique characteristics, cultures, beliefs, and socioeconomic contexts that influence women’s status in leadership roles. It is critical that development of women leaders in Asia provide opportunities for developing the potential of highly qualified women leaders in organizations in both developed and rapidly developing Asian countries in which traditional cultural expectations and modernized values coexist. Our discussion in Current Perspectives on Asian Women in Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Analysis opens the possibility of seeing what has not been exposed from a dominant Western perspective and identifies lessons learned from a uniquely Asian perspective.

A powerful story of unknown source comes from South Asia: Two village youngsters, who were known as troublemakers who had been admonished several times by the village elder, wanted to get back at the elder. They caught a young bird and approached the elder with the bird in their hands, hiding the bird. They asked, “Elder, is the bird dead or alive?” If the answer was dead, then they would release the bird and let it fly away. If the answer was alive, they would crush the bird, killing it. In either case, they thought that they would show up the elder. The elder pondered for a few minutes and answered: “The answer, my children, is in your hands.” That conclusion applies to us. Will women in Asia have greater opportunities for leadership? Will men in Asia have greater opportunities for childcare and in the home? The answer is in our hands.


Barkema, H. G., Chen, X.-P., George, G., Luo, Y., & Tsui, A. S. (2015). West Meets East: New Concepts and Theories. Academy of Management Journal, 58(2), 460-479. doi: 10.5465/amj.2015.4021

Cho, Y., Ghosh, R., Sun, J., & McLean, G. N. (Eds.) (2017). Current Perspectives on Asian Women in Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cho, Y., McLean, G. N., Amornpipat, I., Chang, W.-W., Hewapathirana, G. I., Horimoto, M., Lee, M. M., Li, J., Manikoth, N. N., Othman, J., & Hamzah, S. R. (2015). Asian Women in Top Management: Eight Country Cases. Human Resource Development International. 18(4), 407-428. doi:10.1080/13678868.2015.1020717

Madsen, S. R., & Scribner, R. T. (2017). A Perspective on Gender in Management: The Need for Strategic Cross-Cultural Scholarship on Women in Management and Leadership. Cross Cultural & Strategic Management, 24(2), 231-250. doi:10.1108/CCSM-05-2016-0101

McLean, G. N. (2017). We Have Come This Far. Now, What Is Next? In Y. Cho, R. Ghosh, J. Sun, & G. N. McLean (eds.), Current Perspectives on Women in Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (pp. 203-216). New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

World Economic Forum. (2017). The Global Gender Gap Report 2017. Retrieved from

Field Reports

The ILA newsletter's Field Reports column dives into the work of ILA members, sharing new knowledge and actionable nuggets of wisdom. Have an idea for a column? Contact Debra DeRuyver at

Want to Read More Articles Like This?

Please log in using your ILA member credentials. If you are not currently a member or you need to renew, please visit to select your membership level. Need additional assistance? Contact our membership team at or 1.202.470.4818.