Skip to contentSkip to navigation

How Female Talent Could Transform Emerging Economies

Authors Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid argue that corporate leaders are overlooking one of the most enthusiastic, capable sources of talent in the world: women in emerging markets.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Companies as diverse as Google, Goldman Sachs, Siemens, and PepsiCo are facing a common challenge: the need to capitalize on the explosive growth in emerging markets including Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRIC countries) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). To do so, they have dedicated themselves to recruiting, hiring, and retaining top talent in these countries — no easy task in markets where turnover is often very high. These leading companies have tapped into a source of talent that many of their competitors have thus far overlooked: the women in these countries who represent more than half of university graduates and as much as half of the workforce. (See “The Third Billion,” by DeAnne Aguirre and Karim Sabbagh, s+b, Summer 2010.)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid believe that companies can no longer afford to maintain this blind spot. The authors of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011) surveyed 4,350 men and women in the BRIC countries and the UAE to understand women’s goals and aspirations, the obstacles that women must overcome in the workplace, and the factors outside the office that hold them back. They also profiled more than two dozen companies, including the four mentioned above, that are taking innovative approaches to attracting female managers and employees, and reaping remarkable results in terms of loyalty, retention, and engagement.

Hewlett (whose consulting firm, Sylvia Ann Hewlett Associates LLC, has an exclusive alliance with Booz & Company, s+b’s publisher) and Rashid discussed this new aspect of the war for talent with s+b in their New York offices in September 2011.

S+B: What first piqued your interest in women in emerging markets?
HEWLETT: We felt two powerful lures. One, obviously, was that these are the growth markets, and there are talent constraints in these countries. But, second, we felt that almost everyone had missed the boat in terms of seeing the extraordinary potential of women. There are books on the “China miracle” or the “India miracle” in which women aren’t even mentioned. Or worse, the narrative about women focuses on poverty and oppression and illiteracy. The general thinking in the West is that the most these poor, exploited women can hope for is a little bit of microfinance. I’m not trying to say that isn’t half the reality. It is. But there is this other story of tremendous vitality and aspiration.

S+B: And to what degree is this on the radar of Western multinationals that are expanding into emerging markets?
RASHID: The best, most forward-thinking companies are genuinely attentive to global nuances. In some ways, they can do more in emerging markets, where they have a blank slate. Companies are willing to take risks there in terms of their business model, and I think the same applies to talent models.

HEWLETT: It’s a huge opportunity for global companies to be the employer of choice in an otherwise patriarchal world.

S+B: What did you find as you began looking more closely at each of these countries?
RASHID: India came out of this research as the most innovative in terms of what companies are doing with female talent. Eleven percent of CEOs in India are women — which is four times more than the Fortune 500 has ever managed. One reason is that the business process outsourcing industry was at the heart of India’s initial economic growth spurt, and by definition it required flexibility and unusual work hours. That kind of work model attracted a lot of women. Moreover, companies in India were willing to take risks with their talent model.

S+B: Your survey also indicates that companies in India are achieving some pretty remarkable results in terms of loyalty and retention; 92 percent of the Indian women in your sample described themselves as loyal to their employers, and 85 percent said they were willing to go the extra mile at work. Are there lessons here that multinational companies can apply to their talent models in the West?
RASHID: Companies in India really make an effort to gain buy-in from their employees’ extended families. For instance, Ernst & Young started a global shared-services center in Bangalore in 2001; the partner leading it, Sharda Cherwoo, was a native of India who had been based in New York. She decided at the beginning that she wanted to recruit 50 percent women, and one of the things she did was to introduce family days. Employees’ families, including their in-laws, come in to see how women, in particular, spend their days and how highly they are valued in the company. Cherwoo said that after one of these days, she received a letter, written on an old typewriter, from a man who thanked her for hosting and said, “My daughter-in-law will be working for Ernst & Young forever.”

HEWLETT: Throughout the developing world, there’s nothing more freeing for a 28-year-old woman than having her in-laws on her side. Just think: Fifty-nine percent of Indian women live with their elders, compared to just 3 percent in the United States. But among some ethnic groups in the U.S., that number is much higher, and the number is also high in Latin America, Japan, and other areas. So companies can look at what their counterparts in India are doing with extended families.

RASHID: Another thing that made a huge difference at Ernst & Young is that healthcare benefits are available to the extended family. Cherwoo said a number of women came to her personally to thank her for this; one woman’s father had a heart problem, and he was alive because he had access to this kind of healthcare.

HEWLETT: Because the public health system in India is nonexistent.

RASHID: Kind of like in the United States. We’ve heard from some of the companies that we talk to in the U.S. that for our minority populations here, this could be a real opportunity to engage and retain multicultural talent. When you have African-Americans and Hispanics living in extended families, offering these kinds of benefits makes a huge difference.

S+B: It might surprise many Westerners to learn that eldercare is a much more pressing issue than child care for women in the BRIC countries and the UAE. Are multinational companies aware of this and helping female employees accordingly?
HEWLETT: A few are. Citi, for instance, is finding that employees are more interested in using flexible work programs to address eldercare issues than child care issues. But I think that it’s a brand-new fact to most multinationals, because the storyline in the West for so many years has been that the real challenge occurs when you have a 2-year-old.

Many global companies will end up refashioning their benefits packages for emerging markets, because the opportunities and the challenges facing accomplished women there are really quite different. This came home to me very clearly about 18 months ago. I gave a talk at the Second Arab Women Leadership Forum in Dubai. It was a wonderful conference, with 600 women from all over the Middle East in very significant positions. But the design of the conference had been subcontracted to a U.S. group, and the first session was on the challenges of day care. In the Middle East, where women often have servants and extended family members to help them, child care is not the issue of the day. There were many other challenges that could have been raised, such as how women can travel for work when that is not considered culturally appropriate. But the organizers had just imported the agenda of a U.S. women’s conference, and it backfired. People walked out of the session.

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.

S+B: That reminds me of a quote from your book: Samara Braga, a financial markets leader for Ernst & Young in Brazil, noted that 40 percent of people working in financial services in Brazil are women, as opposed to 25 years ago when there were hardly any women in the field. She went on to say, “Of course, these women are not yet at the same level as men. But in 10 years they will be.” We have been hearing that in the U.S. for decades — that as the pipeline of women expands, women will naturally rise into the executive suite. But we are still waiting. Do you think it could actually happen in emerging markets?
HEWLETT: I think the jury is out. It’s not clear that the huge new flood of female talent coming through the pipeline will transform the reality at the top. Each stage has been a huge struggle. Women in the U.S. used to stall out at age 21. Now it’s probably 35.

Yet there are signs that emerging markets might be different. In India and to some extent in China, there are more women at the top of organizations. As Ripa noted earlier, [these countries have] new approaches to talent management because they have a blank slate — there are no legacy human capital models that are predicated on the life needs of a man with a wife at home. And we have never seen this kind of transformation of gender roles in economies with 10 percent growth.

RASHID: Brazil has a female head of state. The U.S. never has had one. So, who knows? Maybe there are leapfrog opportunities. We hope so.

Author profile:

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.