For women to succeed in Asia, the entire family needs to “lean in”

Not a solo act.
Not a solo act.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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Ambition is no longer the kiss of death for women’s careers.

Just ask Sheryl Sandberg and the 1 million people who bought her book, “Lean In.” Sandberg should be roundly applauded for creating greater awareness of women’s work challenges, and for encouraging more conversation to emerge. But it’s important to realize the limitations of her message, which doesn’t translate in China, as Quartz recently reported, and in other Asian cultures as well.

Here’s why:

Words, often the simplest ones, across cultures create confusion. For the Lean In movement, “ambition” and “family” are at the root of the cultural disconnect.

Having facilitated many (predominantly female) workshops for multicultural and multi-generational teams across Asia, I can tell you that when the question of ambition comes up, which it often does, most participants felt the word and subsequent definitions to be blunt, boorish, and not reflective of their professional aspirations.

To ask, “How ambitious are you?” in Asia is fascinating. In China, women are more comfortable speaking about their ambitions than women in Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore, where the question is often met with silence or a detached shrug. For many women I encountered in Korea and Vietnam, ambition does not square with leadership, and instead has more negative than positive connotations. Being seen as “ambitious” still conjures a pejorative image for women.

A group of highly competent women who all worked for a consulting firm were labelled “too ambitious,” which stymied their promotions. Some global organizations, particularly those in Asia, are not ready for women to lean in.

For the next generation of Asia’s female leaders, “ambition” seems out of sync with recognizable social values and simply doing good. Instead of “ambition,” a group of young Singaporean leaders said to me, ‘’we prefer ‘contribution.’” The word contribution more easily resonates with multicultural groups in Asia, who are part of the new global faces of leadership.

The other puzzling word is “family.” Sandberg is emphatic on equal responsibility in the home, stating that success without the right partner is elusive. In North America, family represents a nuclear unit of parents and children. But in Asia, family is in the center of a maze-like mix of extended relationships, clearly—and not so clearly—defined roles. Family in Asia can be mother, father, in-laws, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, children and often hired help. It is the glue holding everything together—and this connectivity has pros and cons.  Vastly different from North American family, there is an existing support network in place, as well as familial obligation. Paradoxically, finding “equality’’ at home can be almost impossible, given the definition of family as well as deep-seated Asian values.

As progressive as things are becoming in Asia, success for women is not only about finding the right partner and creating equality at home.

Asian women also grapple with governmental missteps. Last year, Leta Hong Fincher, chided China’s Ministry of Education for using the term “leftover women” and China’s Women’s Federation for stigmatizing single career women. According to Fincher, there are variations on this theme, depending on age of single women. Given that governments increasingly focus on marriage and procreation, Chinese media produce a steady stream of articles weighing the costs and benefits of being too ambitious and forever remaining single.

In Japan, Prime Minister Abe has pushed for 30% representation of women in decision-making roles across industries. Not surprisingly in Japan, women are still viewed as primary care givers, with little outside support for day care or nannies. Japan’s immigration policies (unlike other countries in Asia), hinders the hiring of foreign domestic workers.

Perhaps, it’s the family that needs to collectively “lean in” to ensure greater equality and economic growth. Sandberg’s Lean In movement works for some cultures but needs to develop more applicable tools to use for Asia, which will continue as a growing economic force. To be successful, Sandberg’s movement needs an appreciation for cultural interpretations of language and better understanding of the nuances.

“Lean In” needs a refresh, one that is inclusive of the next generation of leaders. To make a contribution for the collective good, engage the extended family and re-shape organizational mindsets. Now that would truly be ambitious.