Dato' Napsiah Omar and Dato' Dr. Nellie Tan-Wong at the Women's Leadership Conference

Dato’ Napsiah Omar and Dato’ Dr. Nellie Tan-Wong at the Women’s Leadership Conference


By: Dato’ Dr. Nellie Tan-Wong

Entrepreneurship is one of the most crucial factors for the rapid development of a country’s economy. Entrepreneurs are the life blood of a nation’s economy. They create wealth and jobs. Many have applauded the surge of entrepreneurship amongst women. For here at last, they reason, women will no longer face discriminatory treatment from male bosses and the male power structure found in large organizations. If women could shatter the glass ceiling, the sky would really be the limit. However, if women jump without prior conditioning of the harsh realities of the business world and the long grounded attitudes of some of the people whom they will have to deal with, such women entrepreneurs will soon realize that they are walled in by differential treatment on all six sides: bankers, debtors, creditors, suppliers, customers and even employees. Bankers and creditors could be using irrelevant criteria such as marital status and age (linked to childbearing potential) to assess loan applications or credit facilities. Being married and having children contributes to the perception of stability in male applicants but these same factors are taken to suggest unreliability in women applicants. More subtle forms of differential treatment occur when women discover that they are invisible to customers, suppliers and creditors, many of whom assume that any man present in the business is the boss. Starting and running a business is difficult enough without having to shoulder the additional pressure of establishing credibility and power.
Unlike the old boys’ network, there is also a shortage of peer support networks for women to support, encourage and advise women entrepreneurs. Even when women’s business associations exist, women may not join them if they are overloaded with business and family responsibilities, as is often the case. Such isolation limits the women entrepreneur’s ability to tap sources of peer financing and informal advice as well as the information networks needed for survival and growth.

Jane Jacobs, a well known expert on the economy and the role of societies, has however given us a new way to view the role of women from developing societies, in economic development. She says, “if you want entrepreneurs, you have to look at women.” She explained that women’s work has lent itself to commercialization because of its scale and because women, to run a household in a developing society, have had to develop a much wider range of skills than men. Women’s work is not limited to feeding and caring of the family. Her duties include food preparation and serving, provision of bedding and other home garments, laundering and cleaning, sometimes the concoction of herbal remedies, midwifery, nursing, preparation of cosmetics, farming or gardening work. She argues that from such a long list of activities, could very likely emerge industries in clothing, textiles, food processing, cosmetics, natural medicine, manufacture of soap and cleaning compounds, hospital administration, geriatrics, obstetrics, restaurants and many others. It is the women who take the initiative in moving women’s work into the commercial world to earn money, whether in developing world villages or migrant settlements in North America. She concluded that if women do not take the initiative, nothing happens.

Whilst women in developing societies are accredited with bringing about economic reforms, their sisters in developed countries such as the USA and Canada, do best in industries rocked by change. To the question, where have women done best and why, the answer is: they have today flourished in fast growing industries where change, meaning deregulation and restructuring, has opened the way to advancement based on nothing more complicated than managerial ability.

Women are growing in numbers, and achieving huge success, in industries such as information technology, telecommunications, banking and financial services, retail and advertising, book publishing, the professions such as accountants, lawyers and business graduates. Women are even beginning to turn up in some of the last places you would expect to find them: automotive metal-casting plants. In Malaysia, we are happy with our automotive industry’s success; we are proud, despite being a small nation, to having produced our own brand of cars but to me, one of the glaring achievements is the extent of Malaysian women’s leadership in this industry. In the state where I come from, we also have a Malaysian woman who heads her own factory producing private planes!

To find the real locus of women’s success, put aside geographical quirks and look for two other attributes in the business that employs them: GROWTH or CHAOS! Women are advancing fast in the “cutting-edge” industries, where the old rules do not apply, either because there was never time to create them or because the game has changed radically. The best example of an industry where technological change and corporate restructuring have combined to shake up the old order is telecommunications. Emerging high-tech industries are similarly receptive to female ability because they do not have so many old habits to get rid of. Women at all ranks and salary levels are moving into high-growth businesses including retailing and banking in disproportionately large numbers BUT they are staying away from industries, tobacco for example, where government growth projections and common sense suggest the glory days are over. As a social activist, I also hope women will stay out from and influence a vast reduction, if not the complete disappearance, of industries promoting the arms race.

John Naisbitt, a global futurologist, predicts that as we move towards year 2000, Asia will become the domination region of the world: economically, politically and culturally and the emerging values and culture of Asia will include Opportunities for Women. There is a growing tendency to abandon the macho definition of leadership because the world’s problems have become too complex. The macho leadership lacks the component of caring and empathy, which is critical when there are no instantaneous solutions. People are now skeptical of military models of management. That spells opportunities for women and for a new breed of men who dare to create a new vision and new social orders. Never in history has a caring, competent and articulate woman leader had a better chance to succeed but only if she if willing to embrace the task of leadership. The challenge for women today is that shift from Liberation to Leadership. If women are willing to answer to that call of leadership, that world is already under way. Leadership cannot be issuing commands. We need to inspire, support, motivate and bring out the best in people: that is what successful women managers do best.