About Us

Women’s Pathways To Leadership In Asia

Conversations can lead to interesting outcomes.  In 2011, two women, Dr. Vishakha N. Desai (then president of Asia Society) and Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez (then a Vice-Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or LKY School) met in Singapore to discuss the state of women in Asia. Both women shared the view that, too often, research on women in Asia focused on women as victims or as recipients of aid or microfinance.  It was more rare for women to be studied as leaders, or for research to highlight women’s pathways to leadership.

The LKY School and Asia Society thus teamed up to propose a small project to the Rockefeller Foundation on Women’s Pathways to Leadership in Asia (WPLA).  With funding, WPLA was officially born.

WPLA has focused initially on broad-spectrum research to capture the current status of women as leaders in Asia, and what factors have led to progress in women’s leadership.  The project has used the image of “pathways” because leadership for women must begin with birth and survival, continuing through education, entry into the workforce and progressing in careers and callings as leaders.  The project’s initial research led to the publication of Rising to the Top?  A Report on Women’s Leadership in Asia, which was launched at the Asia Society’s third Women Leaders of New Asia summit in Shanghai in 2012.  Prior to the report’s publication, the LKY also conducted an international academic workshop on women’s leadership in Asia in academics, the arts, politics, and other areas.

Rising to the Top? Has been featured in numerous media outlets.  It has been translated into Vietnamese and used for executive education at the LKY School.  It has also been disseminated widely in various international forums.

WPLA has also supported a speaker series at the LKY School and other events addressing gender and leadership.  It has supported student research and a student group focused on gender and policy.  Ongoing research projects focus on the role of men in redefining gender roles and masculinity, and women’s leadership in the non-profit sector in Asia.

Through the above activities, the WPLA project seeks to highlight policies and practices that undermine or advance gender parity and women’s leadership in Asia.

This website is part of WPLA’s efforts to disseminate information, analysis, and resources on women’s leadership in Asia.  In addition to current team members featured on this site, the WPLA project has benefitted from research assistance in previous years from Ms. Kirsten Trott, Ms. Kerstin Duell, and Ms. Haseena Abdul Majid.

Background to Women’s Leadership in Asia

In recent decades, millions of Asian women have poured into the workforce.  Their contribution to Asia’s astounding economic progress has been immense, but persistent gender inequality in the region suppresses women’s incomes and their access to opportunities and resources in the workforce. This restricts the benefits that women bring home to their children and their communities, hampering the progress that could have been made in the area of social and economic security. The cost borne by families of having daughters, wives and mothers away at work is insufficiently compensated; at the same time, society bears the huge cost of untapped talent as eligible female candidates encounter roadblocks in advancement opportunities.

Empowering women through education, economic independence, skills training and promotion opportunities brings direct benefits to children, families and communities. In contrast to men, women effect broader social changes, promoting not only the well-being of their families but of society as a whole[1]. Development theorists and practitioners have long recognized women’s agency in development, micro-entrepreneurship, natural resource management, and peace-building.  Indeed, women form an integral part of development policies promoted by multilateral agencies. Gender equality[2] and the advancement of women’s rights[3] are considered essential to poverty alleviation[4] and a return on investment in development funds.

The complex array of multiple, transnational security challenges that Asia faces today – both traditional and non-traditional – is better tackled by harnessing all of Asia’s talent rather than just half of it.  In other words, the leadership potential and contributions of two billion women cannot be ignored. In the decision-making spheres of the civil society, governmental and private sectors, Asia is missing out on the recognized benefits of gender balance in leadership, such as improved organizational competitiveness, diversified problem-solving and decision-making, greater profitability, and ethical governance[5]. Addressing this imbalance is essential to the future of a thriving and resilient Asia.


[1]Nussbaum, Martha C., “Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.”, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press 2000.Nussbaum, Martha, and Amartya Sen, eds., “The quality of life”, Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press 1993.United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 2010a. Human Development Report 2010 (20th Anniversary Edition). The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development. New York: UNDP.
[3] Kristof, ND & Wu Dunn, S “Half the Sky”,Alfred A Knopf, New York 2009.
[5] Claire Schaffnit-Chatterjee, “Towards gender-balanced leadership”, Deutsche Bank Research, November 24, 2010.  https://www.dbresearch.com/PROD/DBR_INTERNET_EN-PROD/PROD0000000000265188.pdf