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Published: October 24, 2011

 
 

How Female Talent Could Transform Emerging Economies

S+B: In your book, you say that bias against women continues to keep them out of the workforce. How are the best companies dealing with this?
RASHID: I’ll give you an example. In China, business is often conducted after hours, through socializing, networking, drinking. And we heard from many of the women that we interviewed that it was really hard for them to partake in that, not just because they wanted to go home to their families, but because physically they were not able to drink so much. And people looked at them askance, especially if they were single, if they were out socializing with large packs of men.

The leaders of Sodexo [a global company that provides food and facilities management services] wanted to find another way for women to network. They took the women’s networks they had developed in other countries and brought them to China, and then they went a step further — they set up a series of networks that also included clients, instead of just making them internal company networks. So this gave women a way to build business with their clients.

S+B: You also write that “extreme jobs,” in which companies routinely expect employees to work 50, 60, 70 hours per week, are the norm in emerging markets and have a disproportionate impact on women. Why are these so common?
HEWLETT: One issue is a kind of conference call tyranny, with schedules always set to a European or American clock. And that would seem to have such an easy fix — rotate the inconvenience around the world. Someone has to be inconvenienced, obviously, but it should not always be the folks in Asia.

RASHID: Another problem is that growth in these markets has quickly gotten ahead of the infrastructure, which leads to dreadful commutes. Outside Beijing, there was recently a 60-mile-long traffic jam that took over a week to clear up. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, commutes are routinely two and a half hours in each direction. In India, many companies have shifted their headquarters into new satellite cities such as Noida and Gurgaon, without any foresight about the kinds of commutes people would have to endure. It adds another half day to every workday.

HEWLETT: Part of the solution — not just for women, but for men as well — is virtual work, which terrifies employers. They think they’re going to have empty office space and wasted real estate. But people are not looking to work from home five days a week. They may not have the connectivity to work from home full time, or they can’t afford the expense of air conditioning. What they really want is some flexibility at the edges — one day or a half day per week from home, or the option of leaving work a little early to avoid the traffic.

S+B: Your case studies show that some companies are creating women-only groups to address development needs that are gender-specific, whereas other companies focus their efforts on getting more women to participate in existing leadership programs that include both men and women. What are the advantages and drawbacks of each approach?
RASHID: The right approach really depends on the organization. Solutions will be different in organizations where there are a lot of women visible at all levels, as opposed to an investment banking or a consulting environment, where it’s primarily men.

There is often a need to have a women-only safe space to discuss certain kinds of issues. In India, for example, Pfizer has had difficulty retaining women in the sales force, partly because there are cultural and safety issues concerning women traveling. The company created a high-performance community that paired the top 10 women in the sales force with top female clients, such as doctors and hospital administrators. It brought them together in a women-only environment to talk about some of the shared burdens that they’re encountering. But even the women-only groups are really good only when they incorporate some kind of visibility with top leadership, which is often all-male.

 
 
 
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