As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s time to pay homage to the Asian women who have blazed a trail of success in their respective fields.
From some of the earliest Chinese rulers, like Empress Wu Zetian, to eminent leaders, like Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, Indira Gandhi and Imelda Marcos, of recent times, Asian women have brought down gender stereotypes and challenged established norms by society.
In the 21st century, too, Asian women from all walks of life continue to destroy cultural, social and gender stereotypes and carve a niche among male-dominated professions across industries and sectors. Let’s have a look at some of the Asian women who are breaking the glass ceiling to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts.
But before we get to that, let’s first talk about some challenges that aspiring women face at the workplace. For instance, the hiring and working patterns in many of the booming and highest-paying jobs in the past have been a testament to a pervasive gender disparity. This demanded change by presenting equal opportunities for women to pursue a career in any profession they chose, along with balancing their family life.
Furthermore, women leaders have been advocating for gender equality to reduce the gender pay gap, strengthen women’s financial security, warrant a diverse and skilled workforce and avert biases at the workplace. Now, more women are excelling in fields of science, technology, engineering, business, entrepreneurship and sports, which were once male-dominated.
While we are moving towards a discrimination-free social system, female powerhouses, such as Indian businesswoman Falguni Nayar, Malaysian squash champion Nicol David and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, are paving the way for women across the world.
Here are nine Asian women who are making it big in male-dominated fields
Falguni Nayar is the founder and CEO of Nykaa, India’s largest omnichannel beauty destination. In 2021, Nayar became the country’s richest self-made woman billionaire, making Nykaa the first women-led unicorn to hit the stock exchange in India. The IIM Ahmedabad alumni worked as an investment banker for 20 years before starting the beauty and fashion e-commerce company.
The idea for Nykaa dawned upon her in 2012 when she realised that women still had to resort to neighbourhood stores for their skincare, makeup and other unmet lifestyle needs. Recognising the huge gap between brands and consumers in the beauty market, Nayar capitalised on the white space, brilliantly translating the customer value to economic value.
Today, along with running a multi-billion dollar e-commerce business and physical stores, the 1963-born Nykaa founder serves as an inspiration to female entrepreneurs and proves that women need not place a cap on their ambition because of age or gender.
Making international luxury brands easily accessible to eager consumers, Nykaa has become a game-changer in the Indian startup ecosystem. The brand is now a Mecca for beauty and wellness products and services in the country.
Tsai is the first female president of Taiwan. Born in 1956 to a prominent business family, she spent a lot of her time as a child at her parents’ auto repair shop, which helped her inculcate grit and an ambitious spirit.
After graduating from the National Taiwan University with a bachelor’s degree in law in 1978, she earned a master’s degree and a PhD in Law from Cornell University, US, in 1980 and the London School of Economics in 1984, respectively.
She worked her way up serving as an academician and law professor at various universities in Taiwan from 1984 to 2000. Meanwhile, she also contributed to the country’s trade negotiation delegation and economic affairs as Chief Legal Advisor (1992-2000), Senior Advisor to Mainland Affairs Council (1994-1998), Senior Advisor to the National Security Council (1999-2000) and Chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council (2000-2004).
In 2002, she joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and two years later, she became a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), despite having no connections in the world of politics. Tsai became the first female political leader in 2012 and was elected the president of Taiwan four years later. She served as a legislator, vice premier and then the chairperson of the DPP.
Tsai is now tirelessly working towards boosting Taiwan’s economy and enriching its progress with investments and innovations in fields like biotech, defence and sustainable energy.
Sarah Al Amiri
Born in 1987, Iranian-born Sarah Al Amiri made waves in the world of engineering and advanced science by heading the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter mission, which was launched in 2014 with an aim to develop advanced technology to insert a spacecraft into orbit around Mars in the following years. Under her leadership, the mission achieved success on the first try in 2021.
Al Amiri obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Computer Engineering from the American University in Sharjah in 2008 and 2014, respectively. She also gained valuable experience as a programmes engineer at the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) while she was in college. Al Amiri then served as the Head of Space Science at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) after completing her master’s.
Before heading the MBRSC, she played an instrumental role in the development of UAE’s first two satellites, DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2, and the KhalifaSat or DubaiSat-3, during her two-year stint at the EIAST.
One of the youngest and most admired global leaders, Al Amiri is also the youngest to lead the MBRSC or any space agency in the world. She was appointed as the Deputy Project Manager and Science Lead of the Emirates Mars Mission (Hope Probe) at the MBRSC when it launched in 2014.
In 2017, Al Amiri was awarded the title ‘Her Excellency’ because of her position as the country’s first Minister of State for Advanced Sciences. She also became the chairperson of the UAE Space Agency three years later and aimed to strengthen the country’s knowledge-led economy development plans.
Among her many laurels is the honour bestowed on her by the World Economic Forum as one of its ‘50 Young Scientists’ in 2015. She became the first UAE citizen to speak at an international TED event in 2019.
Al Amiri was also included in the BBC’s top ‘100 Women’ list in 2020, followed by Time magazine’s ‘100 Next’, an annual list of the world’s top 100 emerging leaders in 2021.
With an array of accolades to her name, the 1983-born Malaysian squash player is an eight-time world champion and a nine-time Asian squash champion. She has also been crowned as the Women’s International Squash Players Association (WISPA) Player of the Year six times during her impressive sports career.
Nicol David began playing squash at the age of five and went on to smash records by becoming the youngest player to win a World Junior Championship in 1999. She defended her title in 2001. Ranked World No. 1 female squash player in 2006, she was the first Asian woman to win the title and held it for a record-breaking 108 months. Between 2005 and 2014, she won the World Open title a record eight times and eventually retired in 2019.
In 2011, David was declared the 12th ‘legend’ of squash by the World Squash Federation Hall of Fame, the first person ever to be inducted into the hall of fame while competing.
A beacon of strength and perseverance, David has broken the glass ceiling in the world of competitive sports and has inspired young girls across the globe to pursue a career in it. She also coaches children at squash camps and empowers the marginalised through her work as UNDP’s Goodwill Ambassador for Malaysia.
In June 2021, ACE Pictures announced the making of a biopic named I Am Nicol David, which was in its early production stages. It is based on the squash legend’s inspiring journey and will let audiences get a peek into her personal life.
Nina Tandon is an Indian-American biomedical engineer and the CEO of New York-based EpiBone, the world’s first company that grows living human bones for skeletal reconstruction. The biomedical engineering company develops bone tissues from a patient’s mesenchymal stem cells in vitro and uses them in bone grafts using advanced technology.
The bones can be developed and customised from scratch as per the exact measurements of a person, on a case-to-case basis. The patient’s immune system does not outright reject the new bone assuming its foreign status in the body, but naturally accepts the development, given its ultra-personalised state. These lab-developed bones can also grow, making them a game-changer for treating children with bone defects.
As a child, Tandon had always been interested in science, biology and the functions of the human body. But what made her pursue a career in the medical sciences was watching her siblings suffer from eyesight issues since birth.
Tandon is also a frontrunner in the development and research for building a fully functional beating heart in the same way as she did for bones. The trailblazing engineer and scientist was named the Global Thinker by Foreign Policy magazine for 2015 and has also been a revered senior TED fellow and speaker.
Working as a senior fellow at Columbia’s Lab for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, Tandon is an inspirational woman leader who is developing solutions for complex medical issues.
Pandelela Rinong Pamg
Born in 1993, the Malaysian diving champion is a student of sports science at the University of Malaya and the nation’s diving queen. Pandelela Rinong Pamg has two Olympic medals — a bronze and a silver — four World Championship medals and one Commonwealth Games gold to her name.
Scouted by her swimming coach at age eight, the young diver earned many accolades and medals through her grit, determination and consistency. Pamg practised her craft for years, without compromising her education.
To honour her achievements, the diving facility in her hometown, Sarawak, has been renamed Pandelela Rinong Aquatic Centre.
Kirsten Tan is a multiple award-winning and highly acclaimed filmmaker and cinematographer. She has a knack for fearless and visual storytelling, with a hint of bleak, satirical humour.
Tan was born and brought up in Singapore in a traditional household but traversed through South Korea and Thailand, before settling down in New York City, US, where she’s been living for over a decade. She obtained her Master’s in Film Production from the New York University and was subsequently awarded the Tisch School of the Arts Fellowship. Tan is also a Sundance Institute and Cinereach Film Fellow.
She debuted with a feature film, POP AYE — a Singaporean-Thai drama chronicling the adventures of a middle-aged, disenchanted architect who walks his elephant from Bangkok to Loei — in 2017. Soon noticed by several prestigious film festivals, Tan was invited to showcase POP AYE at the Cinefondation’s L’Atelier of Cannes Film Festival. It went on to become the first Singaporean film to win an award at the Sundance Film Festival the same year.
Her feature won many awards, including the Top Production Prize at Torino Film Lab, the Special Jury Prize for Screenwriting at Sundance, the Big Screen Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival and the Best International Film Award at the Zurich Film Festival. Pop Aye was chosen to represent Singapore in the foreign-language category at the Oscars in 2018.
She even received a special mention at the Parliament in April 2017 by Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, who praised her success and urged parents to let their children pursue creative dreams in the arts and humanities.
She bagged many high-profile brand endorsements, such as Giorgio Armani and Heineken, and has also created many impressive short films prior to Pop Aye. Some of them are 10 Minutes Later, Fonzi, Sink, Noodles and Still Standing (2018).
Born in Nagpur, Maharashtra, Aditi Pant is an Indian oceanographer who was born to a traditional Marathi family. With a BSc from the University of Pune, MSc from the University of Hawaii and a PhD from Westfield College, Pant became the first Indian woman to be selected for an expedition to Antarctica, alongside geologist Sudipta Sengupta, in 1983. This was part of the Indian Antarctic Programme, which aimed to conduct research on food chain physics, chemistry and biology in the Antarctic Ocean.
During her third expedition to Antarctica, her team developed Dakshin Gangotri, the first Indian scientific research base station in Antarctica in the 1980s.
Pant has held many important positions at institutions, including the National Institute of Oceanography, National Chemical Laboratory, University of Pune and Maharashtra Academy of Sciences. She has also won accolades such as the Structural Engineering Research Centre (SERC) Award by the Government of India and the Antarctica Award.
Influenced by her father’s love for all things science, engineering and his hobbies, like hiking and trekking, Pant knew she wanted a career which gave her the freedom to travel and learn. Her passion was further fuelled when she received a book called The Open Sea by Sir Alistair Hardy. It described the life of plankton through the Cambridge biologist’s eyes.
She then dove into the field of oceanography, which took her across the world, just like she had imagined as a child.
Born in 1930, Gloria Lim is a retired botanist and mycologist from Singapore who dedicatedly researched tropical fungi all her life. Through her hard work in the study of tropical fungi, she became the first female dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) in 1973.
Before her appointment as the first director of Singapore’s National Institute of Education (NIE), Lim worked for the Public Service Commission as its first female commissioner and continued in the role till 1996. She bagged several awards and accolades for her groundbreaking contributions to science and education in Singapore, serving as an inspiration Asian women in science and academia.
Lim was also on the scientific advisory board of MycoBiotech, a company that created medicinal mushrooms and played an instrumental role in fighting the mould growth problem in underground storage bunkers for the Ministry of Defence of the country.
Having authored close to 140 extensive research papers on mycology and contributed to several books, Lim has served on the prestigious editorial boards of countless international journals during her prolific career.
(Main and featured image credit: Nicol David/@nicoldsquash/Instagram)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Although there has been huge progress in establishing equal opportunities for both men and women across industries, corporate, construction, farming, architecture, aerospace engineering, firefighting and the army remain some of the most male-dominated fields.
Answer: If equal opportunities are provided, then women don’t really require additional skill sets to do the job. However, being a female in a male-dominated industry constantly requires them to constantly prove their mettle. Visible results matter in order to be taken seriously. Often, others weigh in their opinions on the woman’s job as well. Mansplaining and giving more importance to a man’s opinions become more evident.
Answer: Business, management, entertainment sector, household sector and science are some of the industries in Asia where there are large numbers of females in the workforce.
Answer: Some of the most influential Asian women of today include Falguni Nayar, Priyanka Chopra, Tsai Ing-wen, Sarah Al Amiri, Nicol David and Nina Tandon.