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The Potential of Professional Women in Emerging Markets

by Tom Nunlist

November 2, 2016

Women in Emerging Markets are Breaking the Glass Ceiling.

Ripa Rashid, Executive Vice President of the Center for Talent Innovation, discusses women in the emerging markets workplace

When it comes to thinking of gender equality in the developing world, a hefty portion of attention is, rightfully, devoted to women at the lower end of the economic spectrum—for example female workers in the Bangladeshi garment industry, or in China’s factories. For these women, entering the workforce in a relatively low-paying job can make a big difference in life outcome for them and for their families, with the gains they make multiplying over several generations.

But inequality at the other end of the spectrum, in the white-collar professional world, also has an enormous impact on individual lives, and on entire economies. Women in China are now half of the educated workforce, but play a disproportionately small role in management, and are routinely held back by an outdated system of work. The result is that society’s investment in educating women is largely wasted. Ripa Rashid, managing partner at Hewlett Consulting Partners, executive vice-president at the Center for Talent Innovation, and co-author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets, discusses the significance of, and challenges faced by, women in the workplace, both in China and elsewhere.

Q. Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets was written just about five years ago. In that time, what has changed for women in the workplace in these markets?

A. The research for that was actually done six or seven years ago. What’s shifted is, I think, that women’s roles, regardless of which economy they’re in, have become more global. As businesses become more and more global, including companies that are headquartered in the emerging markets, the span of control that professional women are managing is becoming even more global than what we had encountered before.

We have a more recent publication, Growing Global Executives: The New Competencies, and in that we surveyed 11 global geographies including China, but not just emerging markets. We also looked at middle-income markets such as Turkey and South Africa. What we found is that the challenges for women working across multiple boundaries are a little bit different than those for men. We found that the kind of tightrope of how to project credibility, convey authority and emotional intelligence, varies widely as is obvious for both men and women across geographies. But for women, those latitudes of how they should display authority and emotion are quite distinct.

Q. Could you explain that a little more?

A. Absolutely. What we found was that to really be successful as a global executive for men or women, there are three areas that both men and women really need to nail. The first one is projecting credibility across global markets. This really builds on some work we did previously on the intangibles of leadership. How is one perceived as “leaderly?” The second piece was about inclusive leadership, and the third piece was around really navigating the landscape of gaining advocacy in sponsorship among leaders who will really pull for you to advance and give you greater visibility – how do you develop advocates who will promote you?

We decided to explore gender differences within these 11 geographies. What we found in China was a polarity around projecting authority, which is a big part of displaying strong executive presence as a leader. One question was, how are leaders expected to project authority: in an assertive way or in a restrained way? We were expecting, in Asia, more of a preference towards restrained authority, regardless of gender. However, what we found in the case of China was that 68% of respondents said that women should be projecting authority in a restrained way, versus 10% of respondents who said the same for men.

Ripa Rashid of Hewlett Consulting Partners and the Center for Talent Innovation
Ripa Rashid, Managing partner at Hewlett Consulting Partners, Executive vice-president at the Center for Talent Innovation

Q. So when it comes to Chinese women wanting to be effective executives, should they conform to those ideas of what a good female leader is, or fight against it, or just do what they do?

A. That question is spot on. We always caveat our research findings saying that it is descriptive and not prescriptive. When it comes to navigating executive presence, this question comes up all the time. Are we asking female executives to conform to a leadership paradigm, which really still encodes a level of the double-standard? We’re not. We are really trying to make women aware of the double standard, as well as men, and make leaders aware of that.

Q. My impression is that your work isn’t so much about gender equality in the workplace, but rather about looking at gender equality from the workplace, using the career as a starting point. Is that the right idea?

A. We intended our work, and it is the thread that runs through all of our publications around women’s issues at the Center for Talent Innovation, to really look at women’s careers in a holistic frame. So looking at women’s experiences in the workplace, but also women’s interface with the culture, the system, and the processes that are in place. And in that attempt to be more holistic, we are looking at demographic and social trends, as well as sociological elements such as the family and environment.

One of the most fascinating data points we found in Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets was that 58% of the professional women in our sample in China were providing monetary support to their parents, and on average it was anywhere from 15-20% of their annual salary. That’s a significant responsibility, and that has implications that, as you astutely point out, relate to women’s commitment to work. If you are not just supporting yourself, but also helping support your parents, the onus to succeed at work becomes that much more important. And then the other fascinating piece we found in terms of the influence of coming up against the systems and processes at work, we found the rise of what we call the “extreme jobs” in terms of push factors. We found in our research that regardless of whether women in China were working for multinationals or locally-based companies, was the average working week was over 70 hours a week. And it was the highest of the five countries—the BRIC countries plus the UAE. But what was fascinating was that was not just driven by after-hours work and calls, but also driven by the incredibly onerous commute. The original definition was a job of more than 60 hours of work per week, after hours, unpredictability etc.—that really has a medium-term impact on the sustainability of ambition as well as health.

Q. A Korean woman we know in her mid-40s is struggling to find a job back home, but nobody will hire her because she is unmarried. How do you push back against that kind of thing?

A. We haven’t done any research in Korea. But in terms of the age factor, that’s not rare at all. We actually find in our work on executive presence, which is again around projecting “leaderlyness,” that for men, regardless of geography, that window is a much longer window than it is for women. For women, the sweet spot of what it takes to be viewed as leaderly is a much narrower band. We haven’t looked at it systemically, but just anecdotally, men have about 18 years of runway in which they can be thought of as the next great thing as a leader in a large organization. For women it’s less than half that.

But to answer your question, you can address this issue by talking about trends and markets. This goes back to the traditional elements of the business case for retaining women, which is predicated on the talent pool, and the market place shifts that are inevitable. Women are 50% of educated talent in China today. In reality, if you are a large organization looking to hire top talent, 50% of your talent is going to be female. And ruling out that 50% gives you a narrower pool of talent and skills. In terms of the marketplace, particularly for consumer-facing companies, that’s a no-brainer—82% of consumer decisions globally are made by women. Another argument is innovation, where there is a clear linkage between teams that have greater diversity and the outcomes of what they produce.

Q. And how to go about retaining women in the workplace?

A. It’s about thinking through what the workplace should look like. Women are suffering from the stranglehold of the traditional workplace paradigm, which evolved from military models, from the production line, of how work should be done in certain hours, in certain places, and with certain career lock-step advancement models. In spite of the fact that the workforce has transformed radically in the past 60 or 70 years, we still adhere by-and-large to a very similar work model. So I think the question remains, what can organizations do to rethink the way work is done. Silicon Valley in the US, and the tech sector in general, are beginning to introduce broader, different notions of what work is and how you construct it. One of the things that I found very disturbing in my time working in Asia is the kind of adherence to the very traditional, face time-driven, lock-step career model, where flexible career opportunities, where any kind of off-ramping or sabbatical opportunities were all viewed as accommodations for women and not as a reality for the future of work.

Q. Taking the long historical view, how long before women’s issues in the workplace are not only overcome, but quaint?

A. Sadly I think this is where reality sets in. I am inherently an optimist. I don’t think I could do the work I do if I were not. But any of the numbers that project when gender parity can be reached, or try to anticipate the timeline of equality for women in any arena, and there are many studies on this, are dire. Gender parity will not be achieved for at least another 70 years, definitely not in my lifetime and lucky if it’s in my children’s lifetime. So on that front, I think there is a real impetus, for those of us who are able, to advocate and keep the conversation alive and keep it as a burning platform. There is no room for complacency here. Because it’s not just about gender parity in what we can do, it is really about economic efficiency and growth. Obviously it is the right and moral thing to do, but beyond that it is incredibly inefficient to be generating legions of highly talented, ambitious, able women in our education systems around the world, then having them drop out of the workforce and not contribute to the bottom line. It’s hugely costly. A lot of the sensitivity studies that have been done recently by McKinsey and others show that if Japan were to tap into its female workforce, its economic doldrums would be partially alleviated. So for me, it’s also a question of economic and bottom-line value. It’s incredibly inefficient, not to mention unfair, to be investing in the education of women, and to have the opportunities constrained for them at different points in the pipeline. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s irrational.


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