Female entrepreneurship and leadership is gaining momentum in Asia. Asian female entrepreneurs create more and more wealth. A recent HSBC Private Bank report found that 40% of the entrepreneurs in Asia are women, which is higher than the average of 31% in Western Europe and the United States. About half of these female entrepreneurs benefit from family capital and networks in their start-up processes.
Asian women are also more accepted into corporate boards and C-suites. For instance, researchers from the National University of Singapore showed that 9.2% of the board directorships in SGX-listed firms were held by women in 2015, up from 5.8% in 2009. In the same study, listed family firms beat non-family counterparts in appointing 2.1% more female directors. Again, family firms are part of this effort to embrace gender diversities.
This rising female power is, however, a very recent social phenomenon in Asia, considering that union by concubinage was only abolished after 1971 in the former British colony of Hong Kong. The evolution itself represents a challenge to the existing male hegemony, which is particularly salient in the Asian culture. It will still take a long effort to change gender stereotypes and age-old practices such as primogeniture in succession.
Growing Complexities with Rising Female Power
A key but oft-ignored question in this evolution is: Are we advisors well-equipped to serve the growing complexities? This begs the question of what the complexities are. These may relate to various factors such as individual upbringing, family structures, and business organizations, but cultural norms often shape how we perceive the influence of these factors. The following brief story of Sze-man may illustrate some of the complexities in a Chinese business family, where Confucian values prevail.
Sze-man graduated with an accounting degree from a top university in Australia and subsequently an MBA in Hong Kong. Her father received vocational training in England and founded his own manufacturing business in the early 1980s. The business has suffered a downturn over the years. Her mother comes from a traditional wealthy family, where talking back is an absolute taboo. She runs a healthcare business, which has earned a decent profit over the years. Given Sze-man’s passion for cooking, she started a Chinese restaurant, which was sold after suffering a big loss in the first year. After the exit, Sze-man has helped out in her parents’ businesses while managing daily family chores. She does not have any formal title or salary, but she is well cared for living together with the family.
Sze-man always compares the way she is treated with her elder brother, who barely finished the school certificate. She sees him as enjoying his luxury watches, doing nothing, but pointing his finger at her. Sze-man’s mother does not like her boyfriend who has merely a stable salaried job. She had once “confiscated” all jewelry and even money in Sze-man’s account, a tactic to keep her away from her boyfriend. Sze-man expects that the businesses and most of the family assets will go to her brother. She has no true intention to stay in the businesses but rather wants to try her wings out again. In her mid-30s, she wants to marry her boyfriend, but she has to be a filial daughter.
Sze-man’s case is not uncommon in Hong Kong or in mainland China. She clearly submits to the Confucian hierarchy, showing faces of assiduousness and loyalty, accepting the fickleness of fate. Interestingly, her father is quite open-minded due to his early exposure to Western ideologies, and her mother, given her upbringing in a traditional family, is the one who replicates the patriarchal and patrilineal values in this family. Her success in business has not encouraged the independence of Sze-man, but reinforced subordination and a tighter control over her personal life. Surrounding Sze-man and her family are the following issues:
- Contributions to the family and the businesses are not properly recognized, in terms of work compensation and future succession rights.
- Personal aspirations fueled by Western education are suppressed by male supremacy in the family.
- Stress on family harmony and filial piety drives a lack of self-differentiation and career planning.
- Freedom of marriage is not seen as a personal right but a family (business) affair; love bundled with money creates a strained mother-daughter relationship.
As advisors in this part of the world, we often feel constrained to address these issues. At times, we have to rely on our intuition to serve our clients: “Get your own job and be financially independent,” “Don’t compare!” or “Confront, in a nice way!” Our toolset has not expanded fast enough to capture and tackle the issues systematically. In particular, we have yet to build into our methodologies diagnostic questions about the roles of family members from different genders and from different generations. We need better assessment tools to evaluate the level of awareness and change readiness in the system. We need to find ways to bridge the analytical results to well-established concepts, such as governance, in an Asian way.
Celebrating Gender Diversities: The four learnings
1. Learning from the experience of our peers worldwide could be the first step. The Practitioner is amongst the few publications which cover wisdom from advisors facing this wave of change. For instance, Amy Katz had an excellent discussion on advisors’ roles in daughter succession. The new constellation – including the family and the advisors – need to “rethink their gender stereotypes and risk acknowledging them.” Reading these articles, we need to be more aware of the “situatedness” when transferring the know-how to another culture. For instance, increasing women’s visibility could be a plus in an individualistic culture but a poison in a collective culture, where patriarchs may see exposure as an indication of threat to their thrones.
2. Learning from indigenous cases can enhance the relevance of our practice. “Role models” in cases can also inspire clients to follow good practices and change. The following cases explore how women carrying different visions of business and coming from different generations create their own space in their businesses:
- The proactive: Domino Dee,  founder of SugarClock Artistic Confection, showed characteristics of the young singles. As the third child, Domino was given more freedom than her elder siblings, who might have borne the traditional responsibilities in her stead. While studying at university in Canada, she got into Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, without her parents knowing. With the family seed fund, she opened a bar after graduation, which turned out to be a failure. But the family trusted what she learned from this: “Only engage in businesses that you have true knowledge in.” Domino was blessed by the family in her second venture, a decision they never regretted. The business became a popular brand in the city. While sharing many similarities with Sze-man’s case, the positive outcome in the Dee family may be attributed to room for differentiation and a spirit of forgiveness facing failure.
- The reactive turns proactive: Annie Yau Tse, chairman and CEO of TSL Jewellery, took the listed family jeweler out of the crisis, as an in-law of the founder. Trained as a computer engineer, Annie never thought of stepping into her husband’s business. In 2008, when both her father-in-law and her husband had to be absent in the business, Annie stood up for the challenge in need of a “Tse” in the family troop. Going against tradition, she brought in external professionals to revamp internal control systems and restore public confidence. The stock price subsequently rose 2.5 times on trade resumption. Annie did not stop there and went on reinventing the family brand by injecting new elements of “love” from the family story. Annie demonstrated the unique perspectives an in-law leader could contribute under stress and how family love can transform a woman from a reactive steward to a proactive innovator.
- The evolving: The story of Elizabeth Lee Mok of Lee Kum Kee shows how the male-only rule in ownership succession was revised in a century-old Chinese family business. As a sibling sister, Elizabeth refused the offer of business shares three times, thinking that it was the effort of her brothers, who made the success of the company, and she should not take advantage of this as a marry-out. With the help of external advisors, the family started a family governance process, which offered the entire family opportunities to revisit the concept of fairness and empowered the sibling brothers to duly recognize Elizabeth’s contributions. This set an important precedent for how the family should manage diversity issues, making sure that females in future generations would not feel like “second-class citizens.”
3. Learning from males seems counterintuitive in the evolution of female power, but it well captures the essence of yin-yang balance in Chinese culture. It is about mutual interpretation: Yang (male) defines yin (female), and vice versa. When most of the decisions and policies in family businesses are still predominantly made by men, it is useful to know, for example, why men do nothing to change unfairness to their sibling sisters, wives, or in-laws even if they feel unease with this.
4. Learning from our practice as an action researcher and as part of the evolution. Get a gender-mixed advising team; gather views on gender issues from the multi-disciplinary team; locate a supervisor of an opposite gender. While some studies try to advocate for the so-called female-enabling or gender-neutral policies, in the very nature of our profession, we call for systems-enabling approaches, raising system awareness and change capability with and for the family. And this should be robust across cultures.
We advisors face the growing complexities in the evolution of female power in Asian family firms, and we need better tools to advance our practices. We see the importance of understanding the nature of male hegemony situated in our cultures and have identified potential learning sources to help construct our culturally sensitive practice. We should also be aware of other moving parts not covered here, such as growing LGBT rights, an increasing divorce rate, a widening gap in female-male life expectancies, changing family structures, and shifting government policies, as an integral part of this evolution.
About the contributor
Jeremy Cheng, CFBA, CFWA, ACFBA, is the manager of the Tanoto Center for Asian Family Business and Entrepreneurship Studies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He is interested in promoting education, research, and practice of both family businesses and family advisors in the Asia-Pacific context. Jeremy can be reached at email@example.com.
 Some case information is disguised to protect the confidentiality of the individual and the family.
 Gersick, C., Grady, K., & Lansberg, I. (2013). Women in Asian Family Enterprises: Understanding the Past – Looking into the Future. HSBC Private Bank.
 Dumas, C. (1998). Women’s pathways to participation and leadership in the family-owned firm. Family Business Review, 11(3), 219-228.
 See the proceedings of HKUST seminar on “Creating Opportunities for the Next Generation in Family Businesses” for more details.
 See the case on “TSL Jewellery: An innovator across generations” by K. Au, A. Chan, and H. Lam (IVEY Publishing: 9B15M017).
 See the case on “Lee Kum Kee: Female succession in family business” by R. King and W. Peng (HKUST Case 0114-024).