Powering China's Economic Force

 -  9/7/11

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It’s been little more than a generation since Chinese politician Deng Xiaoping famously stated in 1978 that “to get rich is glorious,” and the People’s Republic of China has transformed itself from an impoverished, isolated nation into a powerhouse in the global market. Yet its continued success — and that of the multinational corporations pinning their financial future on the world’s second-largest market, according to the United Nations Statistics Division — faces a serious obstacle: a cutthroat war for talent.

According to Manpower’s 2010 Talent Shortage Survey of 35,000 employers across 36 countries, 40 percent of employers in China had difficulty finding the right people to fill openings, a 25 percent increase since 2009. Similarly, 92 percent of companies surveyed by Kelly Services say their competitive power is “affected” by the shortage of key talent, and 23 percent are “greatly affected.”

Research conducted in 2010 by the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP) suggests a solution: leverage China’s ambitious, educated women. Few employers have maximized the potential — or realized the power — of China’s white-collar female professionals. Fewer still are aware of the complicated career dynamics of this talent pool.

Chinese women are graduating from universities at nearly the same rate as men. Close to 4 million pour into the Chinese workforce each year, according to the World Bank Education Statistics Database. They make up nearly 40 percent of MBA students at top-ranked programs at China Europe International Business School and Tsinghua University — nicknamed “the Chinese MIT” — comparable figures to the best schools in the U.S. But the similarities to the West end there.

Among more than 1,000 Chinese college graduates of both sexes surveyed by the CWLP, 65 percent of the women consider themselves “very ambitious,” compared to 36 percent of their U.S. counterparts (Figure 1); 76 percent aspire to a top job versus 52 percent of Americans (Figure 2).

“We often find female candidates to be as competitive, if not more so, than their male counterparts,” said Adeline Wong, head of HR for Booz & Co. in greater China.

One reason for their drive: China’s one-child policy. Introduced in 1979 as a strict population control measure, the policy has had important ramifications for women who are now in their 20s and early 30s, especially in the urban areas where it was most heavily enforced.

“Because I was ‘the only,’ I was the target of my father’s fierce ambitions,” recalls one executive surveyed. “If I’d had a brother, this would not have happened.” Taught by their parents that they are just as good as boys — “if not better,” says another anonymous survey respondent — “[we] definitely don’t have an issue with self-worth.”

Yet, a powerful combination of cultural traditions, gender bias and the demanding nature of today’s extreme jobs can derail even the most motivated, high-performing woman. “Yeah, we hold up half the sky,” said a female senior manager for a multinational pharmaceutical company, echoing Mao Zedong’s famous proclamation, “but there are 5,000 years of history dragging us back.”

Comparatively speaking, child care isn’t the career-crippler it can be in the West. The vast majority of the Chinese women surveyed — 80 percent — had mothers who worked, and there is no social stigma in sending one’s child to day care, boarding school or to live with a grandparent during the work week (Figure 3).

One senior manager with a multinational services organization drops off her 2-year-old daughter with her in-laws every Sunday evening and picks her up on Friday, and this is a typical scenario. “Of course, I miss the chance to be with my daughter, but working mothers have to focus more on work,” she said.

But if child care isn’t a career threat, elder care is. Every woman in China knows being a good daughter or daughter-in-law unquestionably trumps satisfying personal career ambitions, no matter how successful that career may be. “In our culture, we take care of our parents,” said one executive in the financial sector. “Whenever they need me, I will be there” — whether that means relocating to be near them, as this woman planned to do, taking a less-stimulating job to free up time to spend with them, or leaving the workforce entirely.

Among the Chinese women surveyed by the CWLP, 95 percent already have elder care responsibilities. Every woman personally interviewed knows someone who put her career on hold to care for an aging relative. More than half — 58 percent — of Chinese women also provide financial support to their parents or in-laws — an average of 18 percent of their annual income, the CWLP data showed.

A similar number of Chinese men are in the same boat: 93 percent of the men surveyed already have elder care responsibilities, with 67 percent providing financial support.

The pressure of being a good daughter or daughter-in-law can be crushing: daughterly guilt affects 88 percent of the women surveyed. Adding to a high-achieving woman’s burden, China’s one-child policy means women in their 20s and early 30s have no siblings to share the load. China’s rapidly aging society will only intensify the problem.

Despite communism’s push for egalitarianism, gender bias continues to limit women’s potential. Some 36 percent of both men and women surveyed believe women are treated unfairly in the workplace. Problems of bias have been severe enough to make 48 percent of the women responding to CWLP’s survey disengage or consider quitting their jobs.

It’s not just male bias that can get in the way of women’s advancement. When it comes to projecting the management style, communication abilities and executive presence required to succeed at multinational corporations, Chinese women can be their own worst enemies. “There’s a high level of humility, self-deprecation and apologizing,” said a partner at a global consulting firm.

Compounding these burdens are crushing work schedules: Survey respondents in full-time jobs routinely chalk up working weeks of more than 70 hours. Driven by the global span of operations, the situation is getting worse. Nearly a third — 31 percent — report putting in more time than they did three years ago — an average of 18 additional hours per week.

Further, they are spending a sizable portion of their time stuck in traffic. IBM’s 2010 Global Commuter Pain Study ranked Beijing traffic as tied for the world’s worst; Shanghai isn’t far behind. “The traffic is a huge waste of time,” said one financial services executive. She said being able to work remotely would not only help her juggle family and work, it would add to her efficiency by eliminating two hours of commuting time each day. But face time is a cultural norm that has a huge impact, not just in China but across Asia. Virtual work options and flexible work arrangements are rare in China.

Multinational organizations expanding their presence in China, and Chinese companies extending their reach into the global marketplace, have a unique opportunity to help China’s career women keep their ambitions on course. Programs such as GE Women’s Network and Women at Intel Network help women overcome cultural challenges through initiatives aimed at boosting their self-confidence, inter-cultural communication skills and networking ability. Cisco’s Extended Flex program formalizes telecommuting, flexible time and part-time work, giving flexible work arrangements corporate credibility. Genpact’s WeMentor and Standard Chartered’s Women in Leadership programs strengthen the pipeline of high-potential women through specific career development action plans. “It made me understand what is needed to reach a senior management position,” said one Standard Chartered program participant.

Employers should note, however, that in traditional Chinese companies, training is seen not as a perk but as a message that “you’re a bad worker and we want to fix you.” One way to entice Chinese women into a training forum is to bring them together as a group. That will provide an environment of safety where they can share their personal challenges apart from male colleagues.

The payoff will be apparent. Ambitious Chinese women are astonishingly loyal to employers who respond to their needs. Despite a recent Booz & Co. study, “The Next Management Crisis in China: Developing and Retaining Highly Skilled Young Managers,” conducted in 2008, asserting that securing and retaining top talent is a “major, persistent problem,” CWLP survey respondents display significant levels of commitment: 88 percent of Chinese women consider themselves very loyal to their employers and 76 percent are willing to “go the extra mile.”

As China’s educated women catch up to and, in some cases, exceed their male counterparts in academic credentials, they bring a rich diversity of opinion and a keen sense of the consumer marketplace to their employers. That marketplace is increasingly dominated by women. Female earnings in emerging markets are growing twice as fast as male earnings, and women now control two-thirds of all consumer spending. When translating product development and marketing strategy into emerging markets, the mandate to “think global and act local” in pragmatic terms means “hire more women.”

Women are also key to connect with the mother lode of growth: the small-to-medium business market. “The SMB market in emerging markets is the market,” said one senior manager with a global technology firm. “We’re servicing small entrepreneurial companies, and 33 percent of them in Asia are owned by women. If we want to sell into that market, we’ve got to understand who those women are and how they reflect on the marketplace.”

Recruiting and hiring talented women isn’t enough. Organizations have to establish the practices and processes to enable highly qualified and ambitious women to flourish and contribute as fully as their male peers. Forward-thinking companies that learn to tap into the vast potential of female talent in China will gain a lasting competitive advantage and ensure continued growth, now and in the future.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founding president and Ripa Rashid is executive vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy. They can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.