on “Winning the War for Talent”, co-authors explain why, in emerging markets, “Women are the Solution”

by workforceplanner

This article was written for Forbes in September 2011 by Rahim Kanani

Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution

Recently, I interviewed Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and Ripa Rashid, executive vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy, co-authors of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution.

Describe a little bit about the motivation to write and origins of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution.

The idea sparked a few years ago, when one of the members of our Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, a consortium of 67 global corporations and organizations focused on talent innovation around the world, suggested that we explore the issue of underutilized female talent in India. Then, as the recession stalled growth in developed markets, it became clear that multinational corporations everywhere are pinning their hopes for expansion on emerging markets, especially the four largest: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

These BRIC markets together represent 40 percent of the world’s population and have accounted for 45 percent of global growth since 2007, compared with 20 percent from G-7 economies. But there is a critical obstacle to their continued expansion: a cutthroat war for top talent.

To meet the talent shortage, multinationals have long followed the same well-trodden path: sending homegrown managers overseas, looking for (mostly male) foreign nationals educated in North America and Europe, or playing musical chairs with top-quality local talent. None of these options is sustainable in a growing market.

The answer, however, is hiding in plain sight. Across the developing world, women are increasingly outperforming men in the tertiary education system: In Brazil, 60 percent of college graduates are women; in China, 65 percent. In the U.S., 58 percent of university graduates are women.

Educated and ambitious, these women are determined to put their credentials to work. Over 80 percent of women in India aspire to top jobs; in Brazil and China, the figure is over 70 percent. In the United States, by comparison, a mere 36 percent of highly qualified women are shooting for top jobs.

We tend to think of Third World women as oppressed and impoverished, a story compellingly described in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky. But there is another narrative that demonstrates the new clout of highly qualified women in emerging markets.  As we enter the second decade of a new millennium, the face of top talent in emerging economies is most likely to be that of a woman.

With respect to women, paint for us a more thorough picture of the labor dynamics in emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

Women are among the biggest beneficiaries of the expansion in emerging markets – and one of its key engines.

Brazilian women are being hired for corporate senior management positions in far greater numbers than in the United States. In 2009, Brazilian women held about 40 percent of all jobs, leading South America in share of female workers in the labor force, with 45 percent of managerial titles and 30 percent of executive positions, compared to 20 percent in the U.S. Some 11 percent of companies in Brazil have female CEOs, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Corporate Gender Gap Report, making Brazil one of the top five of the 34 countries surveyed, after Finland, Norway, and Turkey.

The Soviet Union, for all its flaws, indoctrinated the country with the idea that women should work. For the 70 years of the Soviet system’s existence, “it was considered bourgeois for a woman not to work,” as one management consultant who grew up under Communism recalls.  Similarly, under Communism, girls were given the same educational opportunities as boys, and the precedent continues – although women take greater advantage of those opportunities: 86 percent of Russian women aged 18 – 23 were enrolled in tertiary education, as opposed to only 64 percent of the men. They want to use their degrees to do something more than quote Pushkin.  As a female senior executive at a Russian-based company told us, “A woman wants to have a career because otherwise she wouldn’t be interesting.”

It is often noted that there are two Indias, separated by a deep socioeconomic divide. In the modern thriving “New India,” or “India Inc.,” women represented 15 percent of senior executives and 11 percent of CEOs in 2009 – nearly four times the 3 percent figure for the Fortune 500 in the United States and the FTSE 100 in the United Kingdom. These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg: In the words of one commentator, “For every Indian woman who makes headlines, there is a legion of middle-class Indian women in the workplace.”

When Deng Xiaoping instituted market reform and declared that “to get rich is glorious,” he urged China’s men and women to help the country grow strong and wealthy by going into business. China’s women heeded the call: Today, China has the highest female labor force participation rate of all BRIC nations, with 75 percent of women ages 15 – 65 in the workforce. Many have succeeded gloriously: Half of the 14 self-made female billionaires on Forbes magazine’s 2010 list of global billionaires were from mainland China.  Backing them up are legions of ambitious and qualified women: 91 percent of Chinese businesses have women in senior leadership, the second highest percentage in the world. Furthermore, 32 percent of senior management is composed of women, a figure greater than that in the United States (23 percent) or the United Kingdom (19 percent).

What prevents emerging markets women from achieving their full potential?

Working mothers in the BRIC nations are able to think big and aim high because they have more shoulders to lean on than their American and European peers. Between hands-on extended family, inexpensive domestic help and an increasingly wide range of daycare options, professional women in these geographies are not sidelined by motherhood.

But even the smartest BRIC women face a series of family-centered “pull” factors and workplace-centered “push” factors that conspire to force them off the career track.

Traditional family values come at a high cost. Childcare may not be a burden but eldercare is. Fully 70 percent of highly qualified BRIC women have significant eldercare responsibilities. Unlike in the West, in there’s a huge stigma attached to placing parents in assisted living. In fact, “daughterly guilt” often exceeds “maternal guilt” as professional women in emerging markets struggle to balance career with responsibility to elders. With demographers projecting a leap in the percentage of the population aged over 60 across these regions, this burden is only going to increase.

Discrimination is an ongoing issue – in both local and global companies. Gender bias continues to limit women’s careers. In China, over a quarter of survey respondents (men as well as women) believe that women are treated unfairly in the workplace; in India the number is 45 percent. Problems of bias are severe enough to make nearly half of women in India, China and Brazil (55, 48 and 40 percent, respectively) consider quitting.

Extreme jobs are another challenge, with 60 hour-plus workweeks common. In China, highly qualified women working for global companies average 71 hours a week, in Russia 73 hours. These workweeks are significantly longer than in the U.S. or Europe.

Finally, safety concerns are a harsh fact of daily life for professional women in these countries: Close to a third or more feel unsafe getting to and from work, and that number rises to over 50 percent in Brazil and India. As one Brazilian female executive explained: “In a small city, they break your window and steal your radio. In Sao Paolo, they put a gun to your head and say, ‘Let’s go to the ATM.’”

The book discusses the need to employ different kinds of strategies to recruit women in emerging economies than those used in developed markets. What are some of those differences?

Employers can attract and retain top female talent by creating and promoting programs that directly answer their needs.

Take work-life balance, for example. HBSC in India launched a flex-work arrangement that includes staggered hours, a revolutionary concept in a culture that puts a premium on face time. But when all employees were required to be at work by 8:30, many had to leave home at dawn to allow enough time for India’s infamous traffic jams. With staggered hours, employees can choose the time most preferable for them to arrive or leave, as long as they work a regular nine-hour day, including the peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Another difficulty in developing and sustaining talented women in emerging markets is the lack of female role models. Companies like Cisco, GE and Intel sponsor networking events for their women employee resource groups in China and Southeast Asia in which participants can strengthen the communication skills needed to grow and succeed in a multinational corporation, nurture their confidence, forge crucial connections, and engage mentors.

Lastly, employers can step in to alleviate the pushes and pulls that force women out of their careers. Google India ensures a safe and comfortable commute by providing door-to-door shared taxi service in clean, air-conditioned cars for all of its more than 1,200 workers. Infosys bucks the tide of mothers dropping out after having a child with a one-year sabbatical followed by part-time work options, daycare centers located within four kilometers of office campuses and accessible by free shuttle buses, and on-campus supermarkets and drugstores. As a result of these programs, the number of women returning to work after maternity leave increased from 59 percent to 88 percent in the past five years, and the total number of working mothers tripled.

Could one use this economic theory as an approach to breaking gender barriers in social, cultural and political spheres of developing markets?

Absolutely. In many of these countries, employers can implement change more readily than governments. Once the gender barriers are broken in the microcosm of the workplace, new opportunities for women can blossom in the wider social, cultural and political spheres.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy (a nonprofit think tank), where she founded and now chairs the “Hidden Brain Drain” Task Force, a group of 67 global companies and organizations committed to fully realizing female and multicultural talent. She leads the CWLP’s advisory services practice Sylvia Ann Hewlett Associates. She also directs the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Women’s Empowerment.

Ripa Rashid, an executive vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy, has worked across Europe, the Americas and Asia-Pacific and held senior diversity roles at Booz Allen Hamilton and MetLife. Prior to her focus on talent management, she spent over 10 years as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Mitchell Madison Group, serving clients in the media and financial services sectors.