Shaping Future Female Leaders in Asia-Pacific

Participants at the 2015 edition of the AWLP in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Participants at the 2015 edition of the AWLP in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

By Irene Laviña

The ADB-supported Asia Women Leaders Program works to build women “pipeline” leaders in public administration in the region.

In the run-up to next month’s presidential elections in the US, we have watched fascinated at how an experienced and skilled female public figure continues to position herself as a national and, some would say, world leader. Globally, it’s true – we now have women as heads of state, major political parties, international financial organizations, and multinational corporations. But these women leaders are still, unfortunately, exceptions – particularly in Asia and the Pacific. While Asia, more than any region, has had the highest number of female heads of state, this is largely due to family or dynastic connections rather than gender equality.

Why, then, do we have so few women among leaders in the region? What would it take to foster a critical mass of Asian women leaders?

Take a look at the public administration sector, for example. In many Asian countries, more than 30% of public sector employees are women. But the proportion of women at decision-making levels in the sector is only in the range of 5-18%, according to a UNDP report.

Across all education levels, women are less likely than men to have the relevant contacts, networks, and resources needed to become more effective leaders. The perception of women as unfit leaders is still unfortunately prevalent, as women are often considered too weak to make difficult decisions, or seen unable to fully commit themselves due to responsibilities at home.  

So how can women rise to these challenges and pave the way not only for themselves but also for other women to follow?

The Asia Women Leaders Program (AWLP) supported by ADB has been working to build women “pipeline” leaders in public administration since 2014. Now in its third year, this program targets 26 women from ministries of finance, planning, and infrastructure from 18 Asia-Pacific countries. The goal is to harness their strengths, increase their confidence and capacity to lead, and motivate them to mentor other women and support gender equality and women’s empowerment in their area of work.  

To do that we focus on the following areas of skills and capacities for these future leaders:

  • Understanding their potential as women leaders in government ministries to catalyze public resources for gender equality and to make public services more responsive to women’s needs. The women will learn from senior leaders’ personal journeys, exchange experiences with peers, and understand the value of encouraging mentorship.
  • Getting their voices heard by building alliances, networks, and coalitions both among women and men. Understanding the some of the advantages of being part of women’s networks—pooling resources, raising a collective voice, influencing policy preparation, increasing community-based awareness, and having greater visibility—will help the participants develop more gender equitable systems.
  • Mastering negotiation skills to attain their objectives, establish credibility as leaders, and help mitigate gender biases. This includes learning key strategies and steps in the negotiation process as well as understanding how factors such as self-imposed barriers can affect negotiation outcomes.
  • Effective communication skills, such as speaking with authority, assertiveness, and clarity, as well as capacity to deal with the media by mastering the art of interviews and answering journalists’ tough questions. This includes learning to avoid body language, voice inflections, and word patterns that may diminish a leader’s natural authority. The difference between assertive and aggressive communications for women in an Asian cultural context will also be explored.

Sharing the personal journeys of prominent women leaders like Myanmar MP Thet Thet Khine; Oyun Sanjaasuren, former Minister of Environment and Green Development in Mongolia; Indonesia’s Erna Witoelar, former UN Special Ambassador for the Millennium Development Goals in Asia-Pacific; or Roshaneh Zafar, Founder and Managing Director of Kashf Foundation (Pakistan) will help women leaders of the future to better understand the challenges—and rewards—that lie ahead.

And hopefully in the future, the sight of a woman candidate asking for our vote or pitching for a top corporate job will be much more common – not only in the US but across the whole Asia Pacific.