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Wed, Nov 12, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Businesswomen share tips on reaching the top

FIGHTING BIAS Women are doing well in family-run businesses, but advancing to leadership roles in Asian independent companies is still notoriously difficult

REUTERS , HONG KONG

When Yukako Uchinaga joined IBM Japan in the 1970s it was illegal for women to work more than two hours' overtime.

Ambitious and undeterred, she would routinely slip out to the washroom at 8pm, leaving a colleague to tell her boss she had gone home. Once the boss left the office, she would go back to work.

Uchinaga's initiative paid off. Today, she is a vice president of IBM Japan Ltd, a unit of International Business Machines, and was the first female appointed to its executive board.

Getting to the top of the corporate ladder is tough for Asian women, but the advice of Uchinaga and others who have made it is simple: forget about gender and barriers will disappear.

"To be a successful leader it doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman," Betty Yuen, managing director of Hong Kong power company CLP Power Hong Kong Ltd, told a "Women of Influence" conference in Hong Kong recently.

"I've never tried to dress like a man or play golf and I ignore people who have a biased view about women," she said.

Her motto, she says, is: "Just be yourself -- but be sure of yourself."

Fortune magazine recently named 14 Asian executives in its annual list of the world's 50 most powerful women in business.

They included Mary Ma, finance chief of Chinese computer maker Legend Holdings Group Ltd, Ho Ching, executive director of Singapore's powerful state investment agency Temasek Holdings Ltd, and Eiko Kono, the head of Japanese magazine publisher Recruit Co.

The number of Asians on the list, however, fell from 17 last year and female business executives in the region say Western women still have a much better chance of reaching the top.

"The female workforce in Asia is progressing, but it is still not close to the Western world," said Caroline Mak, chief executive officer (Greater China) of Hong Kong-based personal healthcare retailer Mannings, a member of the Jardine group.

Family-run businesses are one vehicle for successful Asian women, including Fortune 50 members Marjorie Yang, who runs Hong Kong apparel maker Esquel Group, and Pansy Ho, managing director of her father Stanley Ho's Hong Kong property and casino company, Shun Tak Group.

Getting to the top of independent companies is still difficult for women, especially in Japan, Uchinaga told the conference.

The Japanese government has a target to increase the number of women in senior corporate positions to 30 percent by 2020 from less than 1 percent at present.

Change will not be easy though, as Uchinaga found at IBM Japan. She introduced a mentoring system whereby male executives must select two female staff to train, but concedes it has been difficult to implement.

"Most Japanese executives don't know how to mentor," she said.

To take advantage of growing work opportunities, Asian women should realize they have advantages as good listeners and better communicators than men, the conference heard.

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