As multinational corporations turn to emerging markets as engines of future growth, they can’t afford to ignore women, who are increasingly outperforming men in tertiary education and claim more than half of college-level degrees in growth markets, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC) and the Middle East. To get more insight from speakers at our events, click here.
That was the loud-and-clear message Dr. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, delivered to an overflow crowd of corporate leaders and diversity-management executives attending a conference on global diversity hosted by DiversityInc at the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C. DiversityInc’s global research in 12 countries was previewed at the event and an executive summary will be available soon on DiversityIncBestPractices.com.
Hewlett, who chairs the “Hidden Brain Drain,” a task force of 50 global companies and organizations committed to developing female and multicultural talent, offered attendees a “sneak preview” of a major study she conducted on women in emerging markets, examining the factors impacting their access to and participation in the workforce. The full study appeared in the May 2010 issue of the “Harvard Business Review.”
According to Hewlett, although women constitute 50 percent of the brain power driving these emerging markets, major barriers still exist that impede their ability to scale the corporate ladder.
Today, 55 percent of tertiary degrees globally are granted to women and most BRIC/United Arab Emirates (UAE) women report extraordinarily high levels of ambition, close to or exceeding that of their male peers, she said.
For example, 80 percent of women in Brazil and 92 percent of UAE women say they aspire to hold a top job at a company, compared with 36 percent of U.S. women. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of women in Brazil, Russia, India and the UAE say they love their jobs, compared with 71 percent in the United States. The majority of women are also “willing to go the extra mile” for their companies, on par with the United States, where the figure is currently 85 percent, she said.
Still, Hewlett said it’s important for global companies to understand local gender issues and create equitable workplaces if they intend to hold on to these women in the long run.
In the interest of being “upfront and visible in terms of identity,” Hewlett shared her own struggles growing up as one of six daughters in a poor mining community in Wales. “We didn’t have a refrigerator or a phone or anything along those lines,” Hewlett said, noting that even at a young age, she understood the bleakness of her environment. “The unemployment rate was 38 percent. The coal mines were closing down.”
Her father offered Hewlett some sobering advice when she was young. As a woman growing up in their small, impoverished town, there were two things she could do: either marry an unemployed miner “or get the hell out,” she said. To that end, he took her on a bus ride to Cambridge University when she was 13, hoping to inspire his daughter. It worked.
“I went back to Wales and worked very hard,” she said.
But Hewlett told the audience that hard work would not have been enough. She was also helped immeasurably by progressive changes that were taking place in the structure of society, including affirmative action. “Sure, I worked hard, but that would not have been enough,” she said. “The rules of the game were changing. The women’s movement was getting off the ground.”
Eight years after her father took her on that bus to get a taste of the sights and sounds Cambridge had to offer, she was back—this time as a student. And just as her father predicted, it transformed her life forever.
Similarly women in emerging markets need changes to take place in the structure of their societies and their workplaces if they are to succeed.
Hewlett said multinational corporations can play a key role by understanding local gender issues impacting women in the global workplace and by helping smooth some of the bumps women in emerging markets face when trying to balance work and family life, she said.
Surprisingly, Hewlett said that women in countries like India, Brazil and China tend to be less encumbered by childcare, the way many women are in more mature economies like the United States, Germany and France.
“Very simply, they have more shoulders to lean on,” she said. “There is a tremendous reliance on extended family.”
Eldercare, however, is the big elephant in the room that many companies need to address. “Eldercare is a total nightmare,” she said. “Huge numbers of women in emerging markets have elders living with them or are largely responsible for their care.”
In India, 40 percent of professional women have parents or in-laws living in their homes. In the U.S., that figure is about 3 percent, she said.
“There are enormous cultural pressures in looking after elders for daughters-in-law of good standing,” she said.
Daughterly guilt is most pronounced in India, China and the UAE, where concept of “filial piety” or duty toward elders remains powerful, she said.
She said unlike childcare, eldercare demands go on for much longer, and in many countries, people in the professional workforce devote 20 percent of their income to the needs of their elders.
Employers can help by offering psychological support and employee network and support groups to help their women employees break through this combination of daughterly guilt toward elders and maternal guilt toward children.
“Women in their prime, trying to climb that ladder, are dealing with both things in a way that is unusual in our society,” she said.
Hewlett noted that women are already an important element in the professional workforce in BRIC economies and the Middle East, but they are being stretched thin. In India, Brazil and China, about 40 percent of women earn salaries equal to or greater than their spouses. However, the average work week for educated women can be burdensome and significantly longer than the standard 40-hour week, she said.
Extreme jobs, with 60–70 hours of work a week, appear to be the norm in Russia and China, Hewlett said. “They are tremendously in love with their work and they have a huge commitment when it comes to these jobs, but when you have eldercare needs, it’s hard to conjure up a 70-hour work week without any flexibility or the ability to ramp up or ramp down your career. Extreme jobs are a big red blinking light out there.”
Other issues impeding women’s ability to balance work and life:
- Conference Calls
Because everything revolves around U.S. headquarters time, every conference call that is important tends to happen at 11 p.m. or 1 a.m. in emerging markets, Hewlett said. While it may seem like a minor concern, conference calls ruin evenings on a steady basis. “There are some companies beginning to tackle rotating conference calls across time zones,” she said.
More than 80 percent of high-echelon women in India and China see mobility as a priority for advancement. However, they face a set of practical and cultural barriers, Hewlett said. For example, visas for international travel are difficult to obtain for many emerging-market nations.
“I had a senior colleague who had a Bangladeshi passport and it took her 3.5 weeks to get a visa into German and she had to go through two three-hour-long demeaning interviews,” Hewlett said. “If you have a privileged passport, you have no idea what they have to go through. It’s a huge barrier to movement.”
Exacerbating the situation further is social disapproval of women traveling alone, especially in countries like India, China and UAE.
One solution: Ernst & Young recently implemented a new program called Family Days, welcoming the whole extended family to join the firm for a full day to get them involved in the business strategy and help them understand the role of the company in the economy.
“They realized they need to get the whole family behind this woman if she is going to be encouraged to take global assignments,” Hewlett said. “It has worked wonders, this subtle kind of green light she gets. Considering she earns 40 percent of the income, it makes sense.”
- Danger and Safety
In India and Brazil, more than 50 percent of women report safety concerns related to commuting and work-related travel. Overall, close to one-third or more of women feel unsafe while getting to and from work, she said. “It’s one of the most powerful impediments to forging a long-term career as these women want to do and clearly need to do.”
In her soon-to-be-released study, Hewlett said there will be more than 30 examples of best practices global companies have implemented in emerging markets, “a blueprint of where you can start,” to help women move ahead.