Simmons Leadership Blog

International consultant Haiyan Wang explains why more women have not attained leadership positions

Haiyan Wang, managing partner of the research and consulting organization, China India Institute, has had clients in some of the largest corporations in the US and Asia, including Johnson & Johnson, Sprint, and Far East Ship Yard. She has also co-authored two highly acclaimed books, Getting China and India Right and The Quest for Global Dominance, and writes a regular column for BusinessWeek.

Wang talks about what it was like to grow up in China, and how her experience affected her career and global perspective. She also shares her reasoning behind why she thinks women are not attaining more leadership positions--and why she decided to change her name!

How did you get started in your career?

I grew up in the inner provinces of China during the Cultural Revolution, reciting communist slogans without understanding them, while enduring poverty. The end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 allowed me to attend college instead of heading to the countryside for "re-education." China's economic reform in 1978 propelled me to enter international business in the 80s just as China began to open to the outside world. The TianAnMen Square movement in 1989 interrupted my privileged and promising career in importing steel for China's budding manufacturing industries. Afterwards, instead of taking the order to receive one year of "brainwashing" in a remote factory, I decided to leave China to seek a brighter future in the West. China's rise lured foreign companies to employ Chinese professionals like myself - well trained in China and the West - to conduct business with that part of the world.

What do you like the most about your job?

There are three reasons. First, is the freedom and flexibility to define my own agenda, be it research, writing, speaking, teaching, or consulting. Second, the work I produce - be it books, columns, opinion pieces, keynotes, or seminars - can influence individuals' and organizations' mindsets and actions in gearing themselves up for the new global reality. Finally, the rise of China and India has been, and will remain, the biggest transformational force in the global economy. It's a rich and dynamic research field that challenges our old thinking and yesterday's knowledge.

What's the best piece of career advice you've gotten along the way?

"It's never too late or too old to start a business." - Professor Anil K. Gupta

Why do you think women still have not attained more leadership positions in all industries/careers?

In my opinion, it has to do with three key factors: inspiration, aspiration, and perspiration. While there are cases of very successful women in every society, most women work in organizations led by men. In their everyday work environment, they see more men rise to the top and see women stall or fall behind. Women don't easily find role models. A second factor is the lack of critical mass of women on the top, which also feeds into the stereotype (often women's own perceptions) that they don't have what it takes to become a leader. Lastly, raising a family does put a constraint on the number of hours (visible to other co-workers) that women can put into work as compared to men. Inflexibility in the work place and lack of accessible childcare support make it much harder for women to juggle work-life balance.

How do you think women can support other women on their path to success

Be a leader yourself to inspire other women and tell other women "I believe in you. You can do it." Be their cheerleader. Also, be generous in giving advice to and opening doors for women. Share lessons learned. Most importantly, as a mother, instill in our own daughters the sense of destiny of becoming a leader. We must encourage them to not shy away from leadership roles and be assertive.

Any tips for work/life balance?

Allow yourself some private "zen" moments to de-stress, regain your inner-peace, and take it easy no matter how imbalanced work-life might be.

Fill in the blank. People would be surprised to know that I...

I named my own first name "Haiyan" which means "sea swallow." [It's based on] Russian writer Maxim Gorky's poem "The Song of the Sea Swallow," which sang the praises of the bravery of the storm petrel (representing the revolutionary spirit) fighting through storms (representing capitalism) all around, so we were told.

Haiyan Wang is a speaker at the 2012 Simmons Leadership Conference, the premier professional event for women, on April 5 at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. You can follow the conference live on Twitter @SimmonsConf and #SLC12.

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