Asian business systems, national cultures, and the problem of gender

F. Ben Tipton, The University of Sydney

Michael Witt and Gordon Redding (eds) Oxford Handbook of Asian Business Systems, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014 (752 pp). ISBN 978-0-19-965492-5 (hard cover) RRP $175.00.

Jane Horan How Asian Women Lead: Lessons for Global Corporations, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 (192 pp). ISBN 978-1-13-737871-2 (hard cover) RRP $55.95.

Andrea E. Smith-Hunter Women Entrepreneurs in the Global Marketplace, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013 (416 pp). ISBN 978-1-84-844170-5 (hard cover) RRP $126.85.

James Rajasekar and Loo-See Beh (eds) Culture and Gender in Leadership: Perspectives from the Middle East and Asia, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 (352 pp). ISBN 978-1-13-731156-6 (hard cover) RRP $178.95.

There is much to admire and much to learn from Michael Witt and Gordon Redding’s new Oxford Handbook of Asian Business Systems, and there are points to take away from the other three books under review here. But there is an odd disjunct. On the one hand, the index of the Handbook contains not one single reference to women or to gender. And on the other, although How Asian Women Lead, Women Entrepreneurs in the Global Marketplace and Culture and Gender in Leadership clearly do engage with women and gender, their information and arguments are not contextualised effectively. In other words, women are curiously absent from a work that aims to act as a comprehensive reference to Asian business, while in works where women and gender are the focus, we cannot determine with any certainty the significance of what we are told about them.

In what follows I first look at the Handbook and its place in the general management literature. On balance it represents a substantial improvement on the mainstream—which makes the absence of women all the more puzzling. Therefore, secondly I argue that women and gender have been omitted as the result of an inadequate definition of national culture. Third, I suggest that each of the other three works indicates, at least implicitly, how gender perspectives could be added to our picture of Asian business systems, obviously as case studies but also more generally in consideration of entrepreneurship and leadership, two other terms missing from the index of the Handbook. I conclude that all could benefit from testing against the business systems framework and from a consistent, historically grounded definition of culture.


Its prestigious imprimatur notwithstanding, the Oxford Handbook of Asian Business Systems stands well apart from the mainstream of management scholarship. It rests on works by Gordon Redding (1990) and Richard Whitley (1992) that together defined the ‘business systems’ or ‘varieties of capitalism’ approach to the study of the relationship between firms and their surrounding societies. Proponents believe that business systems, or capitalisms, differ substantially from one country to another (see Redding 2005; Whitley 1993, 2000, 2008). Most adherents generally go further, to argue that, despite the obvious pressures of globalisation on both governments and firms, business systems will continue to function differently, evolving along parallel paths perhaps, and showing little or no tendency to converge to a standard pattern. Whitley concludes bluntly in his contribution to the Handbook that ‘there is little evidence that political economies are becoming more similar to the Anglo-American model, or indeed to each other’ (p. 658).

A handbook is intended for reference and information, not for a straight through read. However, a straight through read, or even a casual dip, shows the tight discipline that Witt and Redding have imposed on their authors. Each state is identified as possessing a distinctive ‘variety’ of capitalism. The states included are arranged alphabetically, from China (‘Authoritarian Capitalism’) to Vietnam (‘Post State-Capitalism’). Each chapter includes sub-sections describing that state’s business system, the context (sometimes omitted), role of the state, financial system, ownership and corporate governance, internal structure of the firm, employment relations, education and skills formation, inter-company relations, social capital, institutional complementarities, evolutionary dynamics (also sometimes omitted), and a conclusion. A second section of the handbook takes up comparative themes across Asia, and a third, shorter section considers evolution and changes within systems.

The chapters contain massive amounts of information.

The chapters contain massive amounts of information, the consistent approach makes comparison easy and, within their framework, the authors are not shy of expressing judgments. If you wish to know how the role of the state in Laos (pp. 125–126) compares to Malaysia (pp. 145–147), for instance, you learn quickly that while in Laos ‘the Party portrays itself as the ultimate mentor of society’ and therefore the state ‘remains an important economic actor’ (p. 125), in Malaysia ‘The personal nature of Malaysian capitalism … dictates that the identity of an enterprise’s owner will determine his or her treatment at the hands of the state’ (p. 146). Similarly, the low level of social capital, ‘system capital’ or generalised trust, observed in the Philippines is explained with reference to the importance of extended family relations and persistent economic inequality (pp. 182–183, 530–532), while in Indonesia, ‘without a properly functioning legal system’, individuals need to rely on family and ethnic ties and connections with senior political figures (p. 91). The sections on institutional complementarities are particularly rewarding, making connections that might otherwise escape notice. In South Korea for instance, you may not agree that ‘The presence of a controlling (but not really owning) shareholding dampens long-term employment, which should in principle be facilitated by the combination of indirect finance and weak corporate governance’ (p. 230), but it is a connection worth thinking about.

Consistency comes at a cost, however. The desire to pin a label on each country’s specific ‘variety of capitalism’ leads to some problematic formulations. Despite the sometimes admirable qualities of Witt’s chapter on South Korea, the title phrase ‘Plutocratic state-led capitalism reconfiguring’ stretches both conceptual framework and syntax beyond reasonable limits. More importantly, the format does not allow for extended treatment of the more significant features of each case. The sections on the evolutionary dynamics and future direction of the Japanese (pp. 115–116) and Chinese (pp. 25–26) business systems seem seriously inadequate, and a corresponding section in the chapter on India is for some reason absent, which is unfortunate given the critical importance of these three economies for the future development of the rest of Asia and the rest of the world.

In addition, some places occupy more space than they deserve, and some less. Witt and Redding define ‘Asia’ as extending from India to Japan (p. 2), but omit Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia. Meanwhile, Laos (pp. 123–143) receives as many pages as China (pp. 11–32), India (pp. 55–74), or Japan (pp. 100–122). Singapore, a city of 5.5 million, and Hong Kong, with 7.2 million, receive full chapter length treatment as distinct business systems, but Shanghai, an independent municipality with the same status as a full province, an emerging international financial centre, the world’s largest container port, a population of 24.1 million, and, to go no further than scattered references in the comparative chapters, possessing its own distinctive business culture (see p. 34, 369, 477, 495), is not even mentioned in the chapter on China. Witt and Redding also follow the conventional, but regrettable, practice of excluding Australia and New Zealand (‘the Antipodes’, p. 2), and this, given their role in regional trade and investment, makes the handbook less useful for, say, European, Latin American, or North American practitioners than it could have been.

The focus on individual country systems means that supranational agencies such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations receive only passing mention, and others such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund none at all. Foreign direct investment appears in most chapters and multinational enterprises earn their own separate chapter, but virtually no attention is paid to the role of governments, notably the United States and the European Union, but also China, Japan, and Korea, in pressing preferential trade agreements and supporting their own firms. The national focus also means no consideration is given to regional variations. This makes the treatment of China and India look particularly thin. In their chapter on China, Witt and Redding note that ‘like many large countries China is home to multiple business systems’ (p. 12), and they argue that China’s ‘decentralised quasi-federalist structure’ leaves regional authorities wide latitude in economic policy (p. 14). This suggests separate chapters on the main regions would have been appropriate, for instance in the case of Shanghai. Similarly, writing on India, Lawrence Saez explicitly offers only ‘a stylized overview’ and does not even attempt to present the ‘significant cross-sectional variations in capitalist development occurring at sub-national or regional level’ (pp. 55–56).

The countries treated are taken as given, as are their business systems.

The countries treated are taken as given, as are their business systems. Witt and Redding have explicitly decided not to consider the historical background, not to ask when and how the existing states and the present business systems came into being, but instead to focus on ‘what currently is’ rather than on ‘what once was or happened’ (p. 5). This is conceptually naïve, because the way institutions and systems function is always influenced by their origins and historical development, and it leads to an immense gap.


Witt and Redding do not include a chapter on women. And, as noted above, the index contains not one single entry for either women or gender. Chapters where one would expect to find gender relations considered—notably culture, social capital and the role of the state—do not mention women. The chapter on employment relations contains a total of five references to women, their employment by Singapore-based contract manufacturer Flextronics (p. 400), their exclusion from Japan’s lifetime employment system (p. 402, p. 403, p. 407), and Korean firms’ reluctance to recruit them (p. 404). Country chapters very occasionally allude to gender. In Japan, as in the later chapter, ‘being a “regular” employee had traditionally meant being male’ (p. 108). In the Philippines, ‘Filipino kinship is cognatic, putting equal emphasis on the male and female lines’, and consequently ‘extended family members can easily number hundreds’ (p. 182). In India, in some states female literacy rates are ‘alarmingly low’ (pp. 67–68). But such references are rare (the ‘his or her’ on page 146 is the only mention of a ‘her’ of any sort in the chapter on Malaysia), scattered, not integrated or explained, and none of them appears in the index.

Witt and Redding are not alone. The relative scarcity worldwide of women in management roles is reflected in their virtually complete absence in the management literature. There is a separate journal Gender in Management (called Women in Management Review before 2008) of course, but for instance Morgan Witzel and Malcolm Warner’s Oxford Handbook of Management Theorists (2014) contains no index entries for either women or gender. Harukiyo Hasegawa and Carlos Noronha’s Asian Business and Management: Theory, Practice and Perspectives (2009), a textbook intended for upper undergraduate and masters degree students that they say ‘approaches Asian management from a new and more holistic standpoint than the narrow functionalist approach usually found in international business studies’ (p. xv), contains no index entry for women, and only two for gender, one each in the chapters on Singapore (p. 267) and India (pp. 229–230). There is a box, ‘Spotlight on leadership: Female leadership in Asia’ (pp. 139–140), but gender does not figure in the chapter on leadership, and the box is not listed in the index.


One might explain the absence of women in management theory as the regrettable effect of their underrepresentation in both senior management and senior academic positions, and one might expect even a ‘holistic’ textbook to reflect the state of the art in its field, both academically and professionally. But frankly, given the fundamental importance of ‘thick description’ (Redding 2005) of the points where one variety of capitalism differs from another, one expects better from business systems theorists. Why are there no women in the accounts of widely disparate Asian business systems? Why do the accounts of very distinctive Asian capitalisms contain no women?

The answer, I believe, is to be found in the definition of culture that lies under the analysis of institutions. Institutions, say Redding, Witt, and co-author Michael Bond in their chapter ‘Culture and the business systems of Asia’, congeal out of culture.

Culture inspires a first-stage contract of conformity to what is collectively seen as ‘right and proper’. People accept this because they are instinctively gregarious and dependent on membership. Conformity has a cost worth paying. The second stage is to take such definitions and create a form of stable order to express them. When norms are embedded into regular patterns of behaviour, such as business executives always wearing a suit, then when seen altogether the society has created a layer of institutions. These are not culture, but translations of cultural ideals into stable forms of action – situation-specific expressions of meaning in action (p. 361).

And since cultures vary, they expect institutions, and business systems, to vary as well. ‘Rather than leave culture out of the account because it is untidy, we suggest its inclusion as one of the significant shapers of business systems’ (p. 379).

Why are there no women in the accounts of widely disparate Asian business systems?

We may agree: culture is important and should be included. However, their account is wrong on two important counts. First, there is no natural process by which institutions emerge from some cultural substrate. The process is not biological or geological. It is not natural or inevitable. Institutions are created, consciously, at particular times, by particular groups, for particular purposes. Second, the metaphor assumes that cultures exist prior to institutions, that they contain some essential ingredient that pre-determines the forms that institutions will take. This, too, is wrong. Looking across Asia, the business systems portrayed are national systems. This means that the cultures assumed to lie behind them are national cultures. But the national states of Asia are not natural, they are not pre-existing, and they are not eternal. They were created, consciously, at particular times, by particular groups, for particular purposes.

A broad consensus has existed for some time among students of nationalism and national cultures (Tipton 2009b; see Hutchinson & Smith 1994). The content of national cultures differs, but the forms and the processes are consistent. The leaders of new national states claim that their historically arbitrary geographical boundaries are ‘natural’. They then devote immense resources to erect an array of institutions intended to develop and inculcate a deliberate mix of values and norms. They claim that their preferred mix reflects a culture shared by all of the inhabitants within the state’s boundaries. Schools, monuments, museums, and public celebrations all work together, and government leaders hope that together they will cause different groups to forget their distinctiveness, and cause individuals to feel themselves part of a larger whole, connected to the millions of other members of the national community they will never meet, and as Benedict Anderson says, for which and for whom they are willing, ‘not so much to kill, as willingly to die’ (1991, p. 7; on Asia see Tipton 1998, ch. 8).

An element of bad faith lies at the core of all nationalist ideologies. National borders are not natural, but the outcome of war and conquest. Despite the claim that the new official national culture descends from a distant past, it typically requires to be forced on large segments of the population. And despite the claim that all members of the national community are equal, one common aspect of the form of emergent national states has been the creation of hierarchies, of class, of race and ethnicity and especially of gender. Terminology and degree vary, but the new official national culture typically confines women to the domestic sphere, and as a result they become for the most part invisible, except during officially recognised celebrations (see Anthias & Davis 1989; and, for example, Hogan 2009). Historically, at lower levels of economic development and income, the project has frequently succeeded. Citizens of national states have internalised the official national culture as taught in the primary schools. However, over time difficulties arise. Groups may organise to resist assimilation into the official culture, notably in the ‘plural’ societies of Southeast Asia with their typically weak state structures (see Tipton 2009a; Suryadinata 2015). More commonly, at higher levels of education and income, individuals may choose among an array of sub-cultural options, and they may identify with the official culture, or not, as for instance in contemporary Japan. Cultures can therefore not only be created; they may change quite rapidly, in directions not easily foreseen (Tipton 2009b).

Does this matter? Yes, of course. National institutions vary widely, and an adequate understanding of existing institutions requires knowing when and how those institutions came into existence. National business systems also vary widely, and an adequate understanding requires knowing how those systems have evolved over time (Tipton 2007). Women play a role in every national culture, and they participate in every national business system, but their role and their participation vary widely from one system to another. Understanding a national culture, and understanding a national business system, therefore requires consideration of their gender relations.

But, accepting that women should be included, can we do better? If you were to include women, how would you do it? We might proceed via a series of questions suggested, implicitly, by the other books under review here. First, are there women in leadership positions in Asian business? Second, how typical are these women? Third, how might we theorise the answers to the first two questions? To be as clear as possible, these suggestions are not definitive, and these works are not without flaws. They demonstrate the abundance of materials available for the inclusion of women in an analysis of business systems, but they also demonstrate the need to contextualise studies of gender, to alter the direction of the mainstream rather than remaining on the bank.


An element of bad faith lies at the core of all nationalist ideologies.

First, emphatically yes, there are successful Asian business women. In How Asian Women Lead, Jane Horan presents four individuals. Akiko Ito is Japanese, but operates an organic fast food company in New Zealand, with some 150 outlets. In addition she heads a non-profit organisation that assists medium to large firms to achieve social responsibility targets. Faria Ali is Bangladeshi with a PhD from York University in Toronto who teaches leadership to women in the Middle East and South Asia. Judy Lee is Taiwanese, formerly worked for a global consumer products company in Africa, and is now a freelance consultant for United States firms on market entry strategies. Sara Chin, a Singaporean, is the managing director of an American global firm, for which she has worked for eighteen years.

Horan identifies a core of personal spirituality, the importance of family, and relationships based on trust as the common elements of her four cases. Her women actively seek to create an inclusive web that extends the feeling of belonging to a family. However, the extent to which these are specifically Asian elements can be debated. Horan cites work showing that women globally spend more time than men exploring spirituality as a dimension of leadership, for instance (Horan, p. 38). Hunmin Kim’s survey (noted below) finds that studies of leadership show women generally to be more democratic, more relationship oriented, and more advantageous for teamwork. Relatively risk averse and cautious, women leaders seek co-operation, and base their personal power on expertise rather than position (2013, p. 255).

Significantly, none of Horan’s women found success in her home country. Horan is an international consultant, a long-term expatriate, and she has perhaps predictably taken cases that reflect her own background and contacts, but she has not looked at the national contexts. In Ito’s case for instance, the Handbook chapter on Japan (pp. 104–105) suggests her consensual and participatory management style appears ‘Japanese’, rather than feminine, but we can also say that Japanese managers, who are overwhelmingly male, tend towards a style that could be perceived as ‘feminine’ in other national contexts (see Tipton 2007, ch. 2). Horan does not say how Ito’s style compares to the New Zealand norm. Would she appear relatively ‘feminine’ or relatively ‘Japanese’ compared to other New Zealand managers? Institutionally, Ito’s New Zealand business appears to enjoy adequate financing. In Japan, due to the rigidities of the financial system noted in the Handbook (p. 102), capital for new businesses is extremely difficult to obtain. Given the additional prejudice against female managers, we can say with virtual certainty that in Japan she would have found it impossible to secure such extensive funding.

Here, then, is one way in which culture, institutions, and gender interact to define an important aspect of the business system. Each of Horan’s cases has moved from a less favourable home environment, to one that provides greater scope for her talents. The particular aspect critical in each case may vary—the financial system, educational opportunity, or corporate structures—but in each case the specific facts would have been more clearly illuminated by a systematic view of the context.


Cases of course can be multiplied. But how typical are such successful individuals? A comparative statistical survey, of the sort that sociologist Andrea Smith-Hunter presents in Women Entrepreneurs in the Global Marketplace, indicates that the short answer is, not very. Across the world women entrepreneurs are a minority. Apart from a few ‘outliers’, Smith-Hunter’s subjects generally own small businesses in branches of the service sector, and the book’s title notwithstanding, none of them participate directly in the global marketplace. However, the short answer requires qualification, depending on where we are looking.

Significantly, none of Horan’s women found success in her home country.

Smith-Hunter limits her study to women who are owners or part-owners of registered companies. Unsurprisingly on average they are well educated, compared to women in their own country, and in the poorer countries they are much better educated than the average. Similarly with the resources they command. In wealthy countries they belong to the middle classes, while in poorer countries they qualify as members of the elite. In India females on average complete fewer than ten years of school, but all of Smith-Hunter’s respondents had completed university, and, remarkably, over four-fifths had gone on to postgraduate level study. They were well supported by family networks. Over four-fifths were married with an average of two children, over 60 per cent received assistance from their families to start their business, and family assistance tended to increase over time (Smith-Hunter, pp. 193, 208–210). Their average start-up capital was US$16,636. This looks low compared to the average of US$174,083 that Smith-Hunter reports for the United States (p. 212, p. 311). However, the Indian women employed an average of 7.57 employees, compared to an average of 5.19 employees for the United States women (p. 206, p. 306). And, if we compare the start-up capital figures with per capita gross domestic product of US$1,498 for India and US$53,042 for the United States (World Bank 2015), we see that while American women entrepreneurs commanded 3.28 times that annual average, these Indian women were able to access 11.1 times their country’s average; that is, the equivalently wealthy United States business woman would have enjoyed start-up capital of nearly US$600,000.

Unfortunately, as with income comparisons, Smith-Hunter consistently fails to contextualise her results. The institutions affecting small businesses are not described. Her respondents do not belong to the informal sector in any of the countries studied, but we do not learn what is required to establish a registered company in any of the countries. Many complain of difficulty accessing capital, but the complaints are not compared or set against the varying financial systems. Each chapter begins with a brief introduction cut and pasted from the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook and demographic information from the World Bank, but the facts presented are seriously incomplete, frequently irrelevant, and when relevant, not connected to the later summaries of her questionnaire results. In the case of India, a long paragraph details border disputes with China and Pakistan (pp. 188–189), but the government’s attempts to reduce its deficit, though noted (p. 188), are not analysed for their impact on female businesses. There is no mention the Bharat Nirman (Making India) program launched in 2005, which identified the rural sector as a growth engine, and included gender budgeting and special funds allocated for women’s development. Also missing is the reservation of one-third of seats in rural governing bodies for women; one million of 2.8 million elected public officials are female—more than all other countries combined (Gupta 2009, p. 221, p. 230).

The respondents for all chapters, recruited though email contact and recommendations from academic friends, appear few enough (Smith-Hunter calculates means, but total numbers are not given) to allow for informal group discussion. In India Smith-Hunter found ‘strong, silent convictions’ and her participants gave her ‘the impression that they had reached a point in life where they felt that the time had come for them to shine as women’. Additionally, ‘A pleasant result was that the women business owners belonged to professional and industry organizations’ where they ‘found camaraderie’ with other female entrepreneurs (p. 211, pp. 213–214). As researchers from the United States tend to do, she enquired as to ‘race’. An unsurprising 0.0 per cent said ‘Latina’; 2.9 per cent said ‘White not Latina’ or ‘Black’, most likely referring to their skin colour; 82.9 per cent said ‘Asian’; a puzzling 11.4 per cent said ‘Other’, possibly thinking the question referred to East Asians (p. 208). However, it seems not to have occurred to her to ask about caste affiliation, or to enquire regarding the role of caste membership in the formation of non-family networks, hiring, marketing, and other aspects of operating a small business.

India is the only Asian country Smith-Hunter includes. In compensation, she summarises parallel studies from a number of other Asian nations (pp. 191–201). Her survey, albeit selective, indicates that across an impressive number of countries the firms headed by women make a disproportionately large contribution to employment and to national income, with important multiplier effects. She adds ‘research has shown that a firm with a female CEO is more profitable than an otherwise similar firm with a male CEO’ (p. 339), although unfortunately does not provide a citation.


Smith-Hunter consistently fails to contextualise her results.

If it is true that female headed firms provide such obvious benefits, then why are there not more female business leaders, and more government programs to promote them? Smith-Hunter’s answer in several of her chapters is ‘patriarchy’. She concludes that ‘Traditional male prejudice against women is not peculiar to a particular country or region: it is considered a global sin’ (p. 340).

We may agree; prejudice appears pervasive. Nevertheless some sinners are blacker than others. A readily available example is the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, which ranks countries according to the equality of distribution of a nation’s resources, economic, social and political, between women and men. Asian countries span the entire range, from the Philippines, ranked number five behind only the perennial leaders in the Nordic countries, all the way down to Japan and South Korea, ranked an embarrassing 105 and 111 respectively out of the 136 countries included (World Economic Forum 2013).

Asian gender hierarchies appear to vary as widely as Asian business systems. This should not be surprising, but it calls out for nuanced explanation. Given the failure of management theorists to address gender, we may look to adjacent fields. The relative space available for entrepreneurial activity is clearly an important variable in national business systems, and since ‘entrepreneurship’ is another term missing from the Handbook’s index, this looks a promising addition. Unfortunately Smith-Hunter does not bring the extensive entrepreneurship literature to bear on her subject. She adopts the approach of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), which defines as ‘entrepreneurial’ any firm established by a single owner (Smith-Hunter, pp. 18–21; Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2013, p. 21). The GEM report shows, again, that Asian countries vary widely, both in the likelihood of women founding their own businesses, and in the proportion of those women who have founded their business from ‘necessity’ not ‘opportunity’ (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2013, Table A.3, p. 82). Missing, as in the case of India above, is any sense of the way in which these firms offer new combinations of resources, and missing as well is information on specific institutional constraints. Again, if the Handbook could usefully be extended to encompass entrepreneurship, so too would studies of entrepreneurship benefit from integration into the structures of national business systems.

Does the literature on leadership provide guidance for scholars and practitioners? Culture and Gender in Leadership, edited by James Rajasekar and Loo-See Beh, looks promising. In their introductory chapter, ‘Leadership in the East’, Loo-See Beh and William Kennan note that mainstream leadership literature has passed from description of the traits attributed to great men, to examination of leadership styles that might be learned or developed with experience, to behavioural ‘transactional’ approaches, to situational or contingency perspectives giving rise to ‘transformational’ or ‘charismatic’ leadership, and finally to contemporary integration of transactional and transformational models. But, they argue, mainstream approaches are based on Western and particularly United States experience, and assume in general that the organisation’s environment is stable. In Asia, the assumed relationships may differ from the US norm, and the environment may be subject to continual change. In addition, many leaders appear concerned primarily not with the wellbeing of their organisations, but with personal enrichment (pp. 11–12).

To account for variations from Western patterns, they suggest a social capital approach, resting loosely on the conceptions advanced by Pierre Bourdieu (1986). In the terms of the Handbook, this is ‘relational’ capital, possessed by individuals, not the ‘system’ capital of generalised trust noted above (see Handbook pp. 513–515). Ties of sympathy, reciprocity, and obligation cannot be quantified, but their number and strength set powerful individuals apart from those with less or no power. Thus,

[L]eadership can be profitably conceived as an activity dedicated to creating, maintaining and utilizing social capital in order to achieve ethical and responsible goals and outcomes whether at the national, regional, local or even individual level … [T]he availability of social capital, where managed effectively and appropriately, creates the potential for action. However, as the literature on the dark side of social capital makes clear, the ‘expenditure’ of social capital can be made wisely or unwisely, effectively or ineffectively, or for noble or base outcomes (pp. 29–30).

Thinking of the internal structure of firms, and of the role of the state in Asian business systems, it would have been useful if Witt and Redding had asked the Handbook’s authors to identify what counts as social capital in their respective countries, how it is acquired, and how it is deployed both within firms and between firms and the surrounding environment. Conversely, Beh and Kennan’s comparative historical survey would have been even more useful if they had systematically applied something like the business systems framework.

To account for variations from Western patterns, Beh and Kennan suggest a social capital approach.

However, the promise of that introduction is not fulfilled. The chapters assembled by Beh and co-editor James Rajasekar are of highly uneven quality, and they have not imposed the sort of discipline on structure and approach so evident in the Handbook. None of the other authors adopts the social capital framework of the introductory chapter. Of the three chapters on China, for instance, the first claims confidently that ‘Confucian philosophy constitutes the core value of Chinese culture … Taoism functions mainly in strategy, change, and flexibility. Both philosophies constitute the Chinese pattern of thinking and doing’. The evidence for this comes from three interviews, a Chinese manager, a British manager, and another ‘westerner’ (p. 70, p. 73). The second, on political leadership, argues that the regime prefers ‘stability above all else’ and hence may recruit ‘risk-avoiding careerists’ in preference to ‘risk-taking revolutionaries’ (p. 83, p. 88), but nevertheless ends hopefully that ‘Postponing critical decisions on the last leg of reform – that in the political sphere – can only be postponing the inevitable’ (p. 98). The third, based on an admirably extensive secondary bibliography (pp. 130–137), concludes in apparent despair that, ‘The sheer vastness of the Chinese world and the marked diversity of cultural influences preclude any definite claims on [sic] precise generalizations’ (p. 128).

The resulting confusion is disappointing enough. In addition, however, although we may have moved beyond the great man model of leadership, Beh and Kennan fail to consider women as leaders or the fact that most men benefit from a bonus in social capital granted by their nation’s specific gender hierarchy. Women are in fact only mentioned once in the first eleven chapters. In Saudi Arabia, which ranked 127 out of the 136 countries included in the 2013 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, the King has called for women to play ‘a greater role in Saudi society and politics in future’, we are assured that his statement ‘has been accepted with unprecedented happiness’, and a woman has been appointed as deputy education minister for female education (pp. 217–218). Other than that, women are absent from both ‘Leadership’ and ‘Culture’. ‘Gender’ is relegated to Section 3, a three-chapter ghetto at the rear of the book. Amongst these, Hunmin Kim’s very good piece on Korea (noted above) provides a broad context to analyse the gap between high economic development and low gender equality, though she does not consider social capital and is more concerned with the general status of women than with leadership. Kim’s data end in 2010, but the 2013 GEM report shows little change. Only four per cent of Korean women engage in independent entrepreneurship, and a third of those do so from ‘necessity’ (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2013, Table A.3, p. 82). Kim’s explanation emphasises the division between the public/male and private/female spheres, the low labour force participation of women, and their virtual exclusion from senior management except for daughters of the families that control the chaebol conglomerates (Kim 2013).

In short then, Kim and a few other contributions aside, we find three missed opportunities to address a very large and distressing gap in our picture of Asian business systems. But they do indicate possible directions, and there may be light over the horizon. The widespread skills shortages, for instance in Malaysia, and the imminent decline in population especially in Japan, noted in the Handbook, have sounded alarm bells in government offices. Over the past decade, most Asian countries have introduced some form of legislation to address gender inequality. Kim notes the Equal Employment Act 2006, cites evidence that the values of younger Korean couples are changing towards greater equality, and points to the rapidly rising numbers of women in local and national government, (Kim 2013, p. 263, pp. 269–270). These influences could significantly alter both Korean ‘culture’ and the Korean business system. We may see similar forces at work elsewhere, though whether gender hierarchies will converge remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is much still to be done.


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Frank B. (Ben) Tipton was educated at Stanford and Harvard, where he studied with economic historian David S. Landes and Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets. He is Professor Emeritus in International Business at The University of Sydney Business School. In addition to The Rise of Asia and Asian Firms, his books include A History of Modern Germany since 1815 (2003). Recent articles include ‘A review of foreign business management in China’ in the Asia Pacific Journal of Management (2011, co-authored with Jing Yu Yang and Jiatao Li). Ben’s academic research and consulting concentrate on comparative international management and the intersection of public and private sector governance. He is the author of the Kylie Dancer crime novels set in Melbourne, where he lives part-time and supports Collingwood.