The BRIC Woman’s Trials When Getting Ahead

With Western economies reeling, multinational corporations are pinning their hopes for growth on emerging markets. The four largest — Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) — together represent 40 percent of the world’s population and accounted for 53 percent of global growth between 2007-2010, according to “BRICs Still Solid Building Blocks of Global Growth,” from the Feb. 23, 2012, Global Times. Even as the global financial crisis cooled BRIC expansion, the size of their markets and the fact that they are still growing demands that companies — Western-based and those headquartered in developing economies — allocate their best and brightest employees to these crucial geographies, sharpening an already cutthroat war for high-echelon talent.

The solution is hiding in plain sight. Every year, large numbers of college-educated women enter the BRIC professional workforce. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based think tank, shows that their career ambitions and commitment overwhelm their U.S. counterparts. Managers such as Valentino Carlotti, who heads up Goldman Sachs Brazil, are taking notice. “For me, when you look at who’s coming into the workforce and what they can mean for the development of human capital, it’s a no-brainer that women are a competitive advantage,” he said.

Yet their career potential is often derailed by family-rooted “pulls” and workplace-centered “pushes.” Employers who wish to maximize the potential of this rich talent pool need to understand the complicated career dynamics affecting ambitious women, and create policies and practices that enable them to flourish.

A Complex Web of Pulls
When Subha Barry was the head of global diversity for Merrill Lynch, she said she noticed a curious phenomenon among career women in India. “You’d have women with the highest of qualifications, the most incredible talents, and yet, while in appearance, intellect and abilities at work they could hold their own with the best of Western women, you would find them doing surprising things, like saying, ‘I’ve had a baby. I need to stop working so I can focus on being a good mother.’ I’m not talking one or two,” Barry said. “I’m talking droves.”

Although childcare is one of the most common career killers for women in the United States and Western Europe, it is rarely a serious problem in the emerging markets. Parents and in-laws frequently live nearby and are willing to pitch in to help care for their grandchildren. Nannies and household help are, for the most part, affordable and readily available.

But Barry said she eventually realized childcare is often an excuse to mask the symptoms of a more pernicious issue: the family and social pressures on women ratchet up after they have children and become even heavier as their parents and in-laws get older.

This is the case across the BRICs. “It’s OK to be a successful professional as long as you know your priorities,” said Yula Rocha, a New York-based news correspondent for one of Brazil’s largest television networks. “Career ambition is well-regarded so long as you are perceived as being a good mother and a good daughter, and capable of doing everything.”

Some 51 percent of the Indian women surveyed reported pressure to “drop out” of the workforce when they got married; the demands on women in Brazil and Russia are fewer but still significant. The pressure increases in all countries after a career woman has her first child: rising to 29 percent in Brazil, 35 percent in China and 42 percent in Russia. In India, 52 percent of women surveyed were pushed to abandon their careers when they had children, the highest among all the markets in the study.

Eldercare is another pull, especially in countries where filial piety is tightly woven into the cultural value system. Although elders today represent a net benefit to the female career professional in BRIC markets, demographic projections show a significant jump in the percentage of the population over 60. This dramatic shift will land squarely on professional women. While many women in the research sample did not have children, 81 percent do have eldercare responsibilities. “Daughterly guilt,” already substantial across the BRICs, exceeds maternal guilt in India and China.

The adult BRIC women in the survey live with their parents or in-laws in numbers far higher than that for the U.S. Between 33 percent (Brazil) and 58 percent (China) also assist their parents financially, and the amount of support — necessary in countries where state benefits for the elderly are limited or nonexistent — is substantial.

In spite of the tremendous gains in women’s status in the BRICs during the past two decades, gender bias remains a workplace reality. In India and China, more than 25 percent of respondents believe women are treated unfairly in the workplace due to their gender; in India, the number is 45 percent. More than half of educated women in India and nearly half of their counterparts in
China have encountered bias severe enough to make them consider scaling back their career goals or quitting altogether. Russia is the exception, partly because of a communist legacy that integrated women into the workplace better than elsewhere in today’s emerging markets. Further, a sizable percentage of men agree that women are treated unfairly because of their gender.

The most commonly encountered types of bias involve lingering stereotypes about women’s abilities and work commitment. These deeply rooted prejudices can impact women’s careers in a range of ways, from curtailed assignments to smaller salaries to penalties for taking maternity leave.

Although it is illegal across the BRICs to fire a woman for getting pregnant, mothers don’t have an easy time returning after maternity leave. Their position may be occupied by someone else or their responsibilities may be diminished. As a result, “You have to demonstrate a much stronger drive to prove that you can accomplish as much, if not more, than your male counterparts,” said Joan Wang, managing director at Susquehanna International Group, a global trading firm.

But assertiveness can be difficult for women brought up in cultures that place great value on women’s submissiveness and reticence, as in India and China, or consider it a trait that detracts from women’s essential femininity. Many women surveyed felt crippled by this cultural bind. “As a woman brought up in India, you have to be likable, you have to be soft, you have to be polite, you have to listen to other people, you have to hold back a little,” said one focus group participant. “And none of this works in the corporate world.”

Not being able to “be yourself at work” can be alienating. This is compounded by the fact that promotions are often seen as based on “an ability to fit in,” rather than “an ability to produce results.” Thus, many talented women feel unwelcome in the workplace. This sense is further reinforced by the absence of senior female role models, mentors, sponsors and access to leadership training. Many women in the study spoke of how hungry they are for more support from their employers, and how much they would benefit from programs that would help them break out of their shells.

Women also have to fight cultural stereotypes that bar them from coveted assignments. More than half of the women surveyed are interested in international assignments, with most seeing them as critical to their career advancement. Yet because it’s assumed that a woman’s responsibilities to her home, husband and children take precedence over her commitment to her career, she is often passed over in favor of a man, who is assumed to be mobile because his family can follow him wherever he is sent.

Women also have more to consider logistically. Getting to work can be a struggle. Nearly one-third of survey respondents — and more than half in Brazil and India — feel unsafe on their daily commutes, where they regularly run a gauntlet comprising everything from sexual harassment to armed robbery. Nearly three-quarters in India and China cite strong social disapproval of women traveling alone, making it difficult for them to shine in sales roles, which involve frequent trips to semi-urban and rural locations. “I could make more money, have great professional opportunities and a more comfortable life in Sao Paolo,” said a Brazilian focus group participant. “But frankly, the violence is too much.”

While deeply rooted cultural and social shibboleths often prevent women from realizing their full potential, their employers can bridge those barriers by creating processes and practices that enable highly qualified women to flourish.

Become a talent magnet: Ten years ago, Infosys, a Bangalore-based IT company, was running out of young engineers. Its solution was to target women. To support that effort, in 2003 it launched IWIN, the Infosys Women’s Inclusivity Network, to help make Infosys a female-friendly environment. “Every year we ask women, ‘What are three things you want us to do’” to make Infosys more attractive to you,” said Nandita Gurjar, senior vice president and group head, human resources. “We do all of them.” Women now make up 40.3 percent of entry-level workers, 24.2 percent of mid-level managers, 6.5 percent of senior managers, and 6.2 percent of top-tier leaders, nearly double the number six years ago.

Claim and sustain female ambition: Because this is the first generation of women to move in force into management roles, the networks of successful senior women, now common in the U.S. and becoming more so in Western Europe, are still nascent in emerging economies. However, global companies know how to provide this kind of support: They’ve done it for female and minority talent in the U.S. and Europe. Launched in China in 2000, GE’s Women’s Network (GEWN) initially focused on work and lifestyle issues. It has since shifted its focus to career development, with an emphasis on the cultural hurdles that hold women back. GEWN now has 28 chapters throughout Asia.

Deal with pulls and pushes: Gaining international experience can be a career necessity and a challenge for many women in emerging markets. Pharmaceutical multinational Boehringer Ingelheim implemented an alternative to traditional long-term postings. The program is called “Extended Business Trips,” and offers short-term assignments between three and six months. Participants’ family members are allowed to join them; in some cases, childcare and eldercare may be provided. The program’s flexibility means that employees with obligations at home won’t have their career development curtailed by limited mobility.

The Lure of the Public Sector
It’s generally assumed the top university graduates in Brazil, Russia, India and China will want to work for multinational corporations (MNC), and that foreign employers can have their pick of the best and brightest. Yet many highly qualified women are giving the private sector the cold shoulder.

Research from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that a high percentage of educated women view the public sector as a desirable place to work. Their reasons have little to do with power, prestige, interesting projects or advancement, and everything to do with job security, benefits and work-life balance.

The emphasis on job security is related to fears that once super-heated economies are cooling down. Salaries may not be as big as in the private sector, but the benefits are attractive. Chinese who opt for the “iron rice bowl” — the nickname for a government job with guaranteed security and benefits — can enjoy subsidized housing and education, serious factors in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, where high living costs strain even two-salary family budgets. Thanks to one of the world’s most generous pension systems, Brazilian state employees can retire at their full salary and receive the same pay-scale increases as their working counterparts.

Equally attractive are family-friendly hours. Career success on the MNC fast track involves 70-hour-plus workweeks with nearly one-third of Chinese women reporting they put in 18 more hours per week than three years ago, and 38 percent of their Brazilian counterparts work an additional eight hours. Working wives and mothers in Brazil appreciate the civil service’s legal maximum workweek of 44 hours — plus overtime pay of 150 percent of one’s base salary — something that’s barely given lip service in private companies.

A government job once meant parking one’s ambitions at the door — one focus group participant went so far as to say that it “stains resumes.” But that perception is changing: 57 percent of Chinese respondents reported professional opportunities as a benefit of public jobs, especially in green technology and scientific research, a significant amount of which is conducted within the public sector. Similarly, as Brazil takes a more prominent position on the global stage, state-owned flagship companies such as Banco do Brasil and energy company Petrobras are becoming talent magnets. A 2010 survey of university students ranked Petrobras as the top employer of choice, beating out Google.

With the public sector promising increasing possibilities for women to nurture their ambitions in a female-friendly work environment, MNCs can no longer assume they are the first choice for the best and brightest talent in emerging markets.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation. She can be reached at