When Newsweek ranked the best countries for women in its September 26 issue, only one Asian country, the Philippines, made the top twenty. Among the worst 20 countries were Afghanistan, Pakistan and Solomon Islands as well as a slew of countries in Africa.
That Asia got such relatively low marks isn't surprising to women trying to get ahead in many Asian countries. While women can find the kind of household help not found in the West, thus easing work/life issues, general attitudes and pay often lag behind. A Pew Research Center study found 84% of those surveyed in India believe men have more right to a job when positions are scarce. In South Korea, 60% agreed.
That attitude is almost unheard of in the U.S., where 14% agreed that men deserve jobs ahead of women, and in Britain, where 12% agreed, according to the Pew survey. The viewpoints in some Asian countries are the result of "patriarchal, Confucian traditions that women get married, have children and stay home," said Jane Horan, founder of the Singapore-based The Horan Group, a consultancy that helps women navigate corporate politics and bias awareness.
Navigating such biases is tricky. Success depends on the particular country -- places like Singapore are easier -- as well as a woman's sensitivity to what does and doesn't work. Both men and woman face long work hours and out-of-hours meetings and conference calls. That can put a strain on family life.
"In Asia, it's often work hard, play hard," said Cliona Murphy, 43, who moved to China from the U.K. in 2007 and is now a senior research and development director for Asia Pacific at PepsiCo.
Nonetheless a career in the fast growing economies of Asia can be exhilarating. Women FINS talked to had five main pointers for making it work.
Be Less Blunt
In Western cultures, you may have no problem telling your boss exactly what you think of a how a project's going. In Asia, it pays to soften your delivery and your rhetoric, keeping in a mind a concept called "giving face," said Alison Lester, a Singapore-based communication skills coach who gives workshops at firms such as RBS Coutts and Goldman Sachs.
"Giving face" means not calling out someone on their errors in public, or shaming them in front of their colleagues or questioning them too aggressively.
"You need to be aware of the feelings of the other person," Lester said. "That can translate to qualifying what you say and generally not being too aggressive."
If it sounds like that advice could apply equally to men and women, that's correct. But women especially need to be aware of how they come across, especially in more conservative countries like Japan and Korea, where attitudes toward women in positions of power aren't as evolved as in other Asian countries.
To defeat those biases, Western women can reconfigure their image and tone when it comes to presentations, negotiations and meetings with their superiors.
For example, if you're distressed that your boss excluded you from a project, don't march into his office and say, "Why didn't you put me on that team?" Instead, Lester suggests saying something like: "I've been trying to understand your goals and strategy. As I understand it, you're looking for X. It seems to me that keeping me on the team would be a good idea to further those goals and I would love to be on it. Can you help me understand why you didn't?"
When giving speeches, you should speak with less force and confidence than you would in front of a Western audience. Lester recommends sprinkling your speech with qualifiers such as "I guess," "I hope" and "I wonder."
Richard Boden, a Hong-Kong-based principal in the financial services practice for executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, recommends figuring out who you need to get on your side before pushing through change or your own initiatives.
"You've got to get consensus while you are establishing yourself rather than pushing through change on day one," he said.
Still Ask for What You Want
Whether you're in Beijing or Boston, you should expect to be paid what you're worth. Women who move to Asia can expect the same issues that occur in Western countries, like receiving lower salaries for doing the same work as men.
Salaries for women in management accountant roles across Asia, for example, are significantly lower than their male counterparts, according to "Reflections from Asia Pacific Leaders: Strategies for Career Progression," a November 2010 study from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), a London-based global member association for management accountants.
The report found that male CIMA members earn 51% more than female members in Malaysia and 47% more in Sri Lanka. The discrepancy can be attributed both to women's hesitation to ask for a pay raise as well as outdated attitudes, said Sandra Rapacioli, research and development manager at CIMA.
"Women in Asia are less likely to ask for raises because they may feel like they need to have evidence to prove it, whereas a man might say, 'I can do this, I don't need to prove that I can do this,'" she said. "Some Asian bosses just think you're earning a bit of pocket money and shouldn't be earning more than your husband."
French-born Anne Isabelle Sam accepted a 25% pay cut when she moved in 1997 to Thailand from Hong Kong to become a human resources manager for a French-based hotel operator. "I didn't think I had a choice," she said. "I'm stupid to have accepted those terms."
So, when she transferred to Shanghai in 2002, she researched the housing market and told her boss what she expected to be paid. When he saw the cost-of-living data, he couldn't say no, she said.
Make sure you frame discussions about pay with diplomacy. "If you're too pushy, you risk losing your job offer," said Boden of Heidrick & Struggles. "Many companies would rather pull an offer than lose face in the negotiation."
Build Your Network
Networking is important everywhere, but in Asia, it's crucial.
"Business in Asia is much more relationship-based," said Kalpana Denzel, a Singapore-based consultant for executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. Get to know people at every level of the organization, said Denzel, an American by birth who moved to Hong Kong in 1998.
Women often don't reach out enough. A 2010 study published by Heidrick & Struggles that surveyed senior female finance executives across Asia found women often self-exclude or are excluded from informal bonding time with male colleagues. "By excluding themselves from the majority of social events, women are missing the opportunity that men have from networking with colleagues which provides informal feedback and direction," the study concluded.
"Women tend to build their social network outside of work while men spend more time building their networks with colleagues," said Boden of Heidrick & Struggles. "That makes it difficult for women to get the informal feedback men get when socializing."
Moreover, men tend to have broader networks with more links to more scattered groups of people. Women tend to have networks characterized by close relationships and a great deal of redundancy, said Denzel.
In Singapore, "everyone knows everyone and the network is very dense," said Lenka Snajdrova, a 27-year-old analyst at Morgan Stanley from the Czech Republic who moved to Singapore two years ago. "Before I came here I had nothing to do with Asia and it's a setback. If you're in a high position and you need to know people to call, not having the connections can hurt you."
To expand networks, women should develop a wide net of social contacts, including industry groups, women's business organizations, alumni associations and community groups.
Accept invitations from coworkers and clients, no matter how tired you might be at the end of the day. "If you're invited to a 10 p.m. dinner in India, for example, you go," Denzel said. "You take those invitations. You need to show a sincere effort to acclimate and to get to know people."
Focus on Work/Life Balance
If you have a family, plan to work as hard or harder in Asia when it comes to balancing your personal and professional lives.
"If you are in a senior role that requires global connectivity, you are likely to be working most evenings," said Boden. "It's unlikely you'll be home before 10 p.m. most nights."
Working around time zones on the other side of the globe is expected and needs to be "managed as best as possible," says Monique Ritacca-Herena, senior vice president and chief personnel officer for PepsiCo Asia, Middle East and Africa. That means being available for important meetings if they require travel, and also taking part in conference calls or video meetings, even if they're occurring at 2 a.m. your time.
You should also be aware of how your host country views women's roles when it comes to bringing home a paycheck and caring for the family.
"Sri Lanka is quite forward-looking, but the responsibility for taking care of the home and the children still rests on the shoulders of the women, even though the responsibility to earn money is shared between the two partners," said Rapacioli of CIMA. "You have to juggle that burden and those competing priorities."
Fortunately, home child-care is extremely affordable in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Many homes in Singapore, for example, are built with a room to accommodate an "amah," or a live-in caretaker and housekeeper. On average, it costs about $600 Singaporean dollars, or $460 U.S. dollars, to employ an amah for one month, according to XpatXperience, a website for expatriates living in Singapore. In New York City, it can cost the same amount to employ a live-in per week, according to 4nannies.com, an online nanny resource.
"The advantage of being a woman out here is everyday we're allowed an affordable support structure in the way of domestic help," said Denzel, who has two children aged 13 and 11 and who has employed an amah for 11 years. "Working abroad takes you away from the built-in support system of your extended family. In Asia, we're fortunate to have this option which allows me to have a job where i can travel and still spend quality time with my kids."
Don't Be Afraid to Be a Woman
Above all, behave like a woman. Asian cultures support leaders who are open to collaboration and put an emphasis on strong interpersonal relationships.
"Women can do well in Asia because many of the cultures have an indirect style of communication," said Horan of The Horan Group. "It's about being a collaborative and facilitative leader. Women have that natural proclivity."
"Women should capitalize on the qualities that they are naturally blessed with," like being sensitive and consultative, said Lim Chye Lian, Singapore-based global chair of global executive search firm IIC Partners. "The mistake would be to try too hard and emulate the male gender, especially in a male-dominated work environment."
But don't forget to adhere to your own identity. Karen Dalgleish, a Singapore-based, 45-year-old director of Borrowed Brains, a company that connects experts to various client projects, doesn't think ex-pats should go overboard in trying to be deferential.
"Don't let it stop you from treating people like other individuals," she said. "I don't believe in changing yourself to become so Asian that they don't know whether you're different from them or not."
Write to Julie Steinberg at Julie.Steinberg@dowjones.com