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Vishakha N. Desai

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Asia Needs More Women Leaders

Posted: 04/01/11 03:37 PM ET

As the center of gravity of the global economy moves east, Asia needs to recruit more women for leadership positions across the public and private sectors.

But how can they break through more glass ceilings and climb corporate ladders? And, once there, what will they bring to the table?

Some of the region's most influential women are confronting these challenges as they share their experiences and wisdom at Asia Society's "Women Leaders of New Asia" summit in Singapore this week.

There are real moral imperatives for making sure more women reach the very top. But there is also a bottom line: It's simply makes good business sense.

Women often make the majority of financial and consumer decisions in Asian families. They work out what to buy for the home, what school to send their children to, where to go for vacation and so on.

This alone behooves companies to have women in senior positions to understand better the purchasing habits and financial power of women.

But there are deeper reasons for women to assume more leadership responsibilities. And, much of it comes from unexpected quarters, namely culture and tradition.

The Western concept that reason should operate above all else dates back to the Age of the Enlightenment. Now some modern research suggests that this runs counter to how our brains actually function.

For instance, in his new book, the New York Times' David Brooks points to the importance of emotions, intuitions, perceptions, genetic dispositions and unconscious longings in all sorts of decision-making -- momentous, inconsequential and in between.

I contend that the holistic traditions of Asia -- from India to Indonesia and China to Korea -- are based on strong mind/body and reason/intuition relationships.

We can thank those deep cultural values for much of the success Asian societies have had building their economies and chasing the materialistic dream of wealth and better lifestyles.

This is where Asian women can do more. They are, more often than not, the keepers of age-old traditions in families and communities. So, now is the time for more women to take on the mantle of leadership and infuse these cultural nuances into the broader narrative of the geo-economic power shift to Asia. To do so would build a valuable legacy for future generations.

It must be said that there has been much progress in the advancement of women. The female talent pool is growing fast as women graduate from universities in large numbers in many Asian countries. Singapore has an impressive record. Elsewhere, around 47% of graduates in China are women and the figure is 50% in India. Of those female graduates in China, 65% say they have high ambitions and expect to follow professional careers. In India the figure is 85%.

It would be an enormous waste of human talent if one-half of the population was under-utilized, particularly as governments and businesses try to modernize and boost their competitiveness.

But, alas, women are still a rarity on corporate boards, in senior management teams and top government positions in Asia. While more well-educated women are entering the workforce than ever before, social taboos and family pressures mean many are leaving in droves after reaching mid-level management positions.

There are many other hurdles to female advancement. Younger women have few opportunities to be mentored by senior women in a strategic way. And, it's also hard for some to get back into the workforce after a hiatus during their childbearing years. It's no surprise, for instance, that some women in Singapore and elsewhere are delaying marriage and even opting not to have children.

We hope to bridge some of these gaps at this week's summit. We are building a strong network of women leaders and learning about best practices in the public and private sectors.

This is not simply a nice idea whose time has come. This is something we can ill-afford to ignore.