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Women's Tug of War

For employers in emerging markets, women hold the key to winning the talent war -- if they can overcome the cultural issues that have traditionally held them back. "The goal is not to become Western women," says one expert. "The goal is to reconcile tradition and culture with ambition."

Thursday, December 1, 2011
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When Ruchika Bhaskar Sethi joined Ernst & Young's Global Shared Services center in Bangalore, India, as a senior associate 10-plus years ago, she was a young, single woman. One of about 80 employees of the business unit just established by the London-based professional-services and accounting giant, Sethi fell in love with the company, and it quickly became her "second home."

In the decade that followed, Sethi got married, gave birth to two children and was instrumental in setting up the GSS people function. Today, she heads the center's people team and was recognized as Young HR Professional of the Year at the Asia Pacific HRM Congress Awards 2011.

GSS evolved as well, becoming a trusted business adviser and respected fixture in the Indian business community. Its workforce grew to 5,000 people, 49 percent of whom are women. That's just slightly higher than the percentage of India's total female population, which stood at 48.3 percent in 2009, according to the World Bank's Gender Statistics report.

For much of the Western world, accustomed to seeing women in India and other emerging markets portrayed as held back by a male-dominated society, the idea of a Bangalore-based business amassing a workforce that's half female -- with an HR department headed by a woman -- seems rather foreign in and of itself.

"There's a misconception that women in the emerging markets are the poor and the disenfranchised and that the educated are this tiny, elite tip of the iceberg," says Ripa Rashid, executive vice president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank based in New York, and co-author, with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution. "That is not true. Educated women are a huge part of the talent pool in these countries. They are not some kind of exception or anomaly."

Education-wise, Russia leads the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), with 86 percent of Russian women ages 18 to 23 enrolled in tertiary (post-secondary) education, compared to 64 percent of the men in that age group, according to the World Bank Education Statistics Database.

In India, women account for 40 percent of the 14 million students enrolled in tertiary education, while Brazilian women earn 60 percent of that country's tertiary degrees. In China, women constituted 48 percent of all college graduates in 2008, according to the most recent statistics available from the World Bank Data Catalog.

"Education is seen as the ticket to economic freedom, the ticket to establishing a life, a career, a future," says Pat Casey, group HR director for Digicel Group, a mobile-communications company based in Kingston, Jamaica, with operations in 32 markets worldwide. "I've always been impressed by the incredible focus both men and women in the emerging markets put on education as a means to establish a foothold on the career ladder."

Research from the Center for Work-Life Policy reveals that women in the BRIC nations are also far more ambitious than their U.S. counterparts. While just 36 percent of American women consider themselves "very ambitious," 59 percent of Brazilian women, 63 percent of Russian women, 65 percent of Chinese women and a whopping 85 percent of Indian women describe themselves that way. When asked whether they aspire to reach the "top job,"

BRIC women's numbers rose even higher (80 percent, 60 percent, 86 percent, and 76 percent, respectively) compared to 52 percent of U.S. women.

Such findings should be encouraging for multinational organizations shifting their growth strategies from mature markets to the developing markets, where the kinds of economic difficulties that have been plaguing the Western world are unheard of.

Since 2007, the BRIC nations have accounted for 45 percent of global growth, according to New York-based financial services firm Goldman Sachs. The Indian economy alone has averaged an 8.5 percent growth rate over the past five years. Such rampant growth has created a talent crunch beyond any other, resulting in chronic talent shortages throughout the BRIC nations.

That fact alone accounts for much of BRIC women's optimism, says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, a Paris-based consulting firm specializing in building "gender-balanced" organizations, and author of How Women Mean Business: A Step by Step Guide to Profiting from Gender Balanced Business.

"They are 'aspirational' because there's a lot of opportunity," says Wittenberg-Cox. "Companies are hungry for talent, so they will recruit whoever is good on competence alone. That's where women always win."

Recognizing that women in the BRIC nations are a highly educated, highly motivated population, multinationals and locally headquartered companies are increasingly seeking to tap this vast talent pool.

While some companies have found success by simply banning biased questions from the interview process, others have discovered that deep-seated notions about a woman's place in society make it difficult to overcome long-standing cultural traditions that have prevented women from taking their rightful place in the workforce. 

Building Support

Cultivating a gender-balanced workforce is not as simple as merely opening up recruiting to women, however. Women in emerging markets are not simply clones of their counterparts in advanced, industrial economies.

In many emerging countries, they face what Rashid and Hewlett call "an intricate web of pushes and pulls" -- an assortment of cultural issues ranging from traditional expectations involving women's roles in family and society, to safety and security concerns, to explicit workplace bias and harassment that has proven so severe, at least 40 percent of working women in Brazil, India and China told the Center for Work-Life Balance it has made them consider scaling back their career goals or quitting altogether.

"In the emerging markets, there is a tug of war between women coming out from one side as the educated workforce and both the family and the culture pulling them back and saying their real place is in the home," says Nandita Gurjar, senior vice president and group head of human resources, and a member of the executive council for Infosys, a global-technology-services company based in Bangalore, India. "It's sometimes a challenge to justify to their family their reasons for wanting to work."

That's not to suggest that emerging-market women resent or reject their cultures or the traditional responsibilities that go along with them. On the contrary, Rashid says, they wish to find a way to honor them while fulfilling their career aspirations and contributing to the economic development of their countries.

"The goal is not to become Western women," says Rashid. "The goal is to reconcile tradition and culture with ambition."

For many women, that begins with assuring family members that their jobs are not an affront to their culture. With more than half of working women in India and China living with their parents or in-laws, gaining their support is crucial, says Rashid.

For employers in these markets, and their heads of HR, it means creating programs and policies that help female employees and recruits deal with both factions.

Ernst & Young India responded by instituting Family Days at the GSS center in Bangalore. Designed to demystify the workplace, particularly for the in-laws of married female employees, it features presentations by senior leaders of the company, including the CEO and COO, followed by a 30-to-45-minute interactive session during which family members are allowed to ask any question. They are then free to walk around the office and see firsthand where their family members spend time away from home.

Such events are of "tremendous value," says Sethi, who's watched as fathers stood up and explained that their daughters could be making more money elsewhere, but having them work at E&Y makes them feel they've accomplished something as a parent. One father-in-law, she says, wrote to the CEO that, "My daughter-in-law will be working at Ernst & Young forever."

Such an enthusiastic response comes as no surprise to Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for the New York-based U.S. Foreign Policy and Council on Foreign Relations and author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East. "[Family Days] are helpful in allaying concerns, in dispelling myths, in getting the family on the side of the [woman] who's trying to work," says Coleman.

According to her, school enrollment in India has actually been shown to rise when call-center representatives hold information sessions in the rural villages where many of their female workers grew up. After learning about the opportunities and salaries available to young women, Indian parents are not only more likely to support their daughters' desire to work, they are also more likely to encourage their younger daughters to go to school and follow in their footsteps.

Infosys takes things one step further, sending letters to family members praising the great job their daughter or daughter-in-law is doing on the job and informing them of specific achievements.

"We keep them involved by saying we understand that they are a very important part of the success of their child and want to recognize that by continuing to have communication with them," says Gurjar. "That is very unique to India."

Addressing Safety Concerns

The issue of safety and security is one of great concern to families in many emerging-markets countries. And rightly so. While women in developed nations typically don't think twice about taking a cab to the airport for an 11 p.m. flight to another city, women in the BRIC nations don't have that luxury, says Rashid.

In fact, nearly every woman who participated in the Center for Work-Life Policy focus groups that ultimately became the nucleus of Rashid and Hewlett's book reported daily incidents of danger -- everything from being held up at the ATM to being mugged while sitting at a traffic light. Others said simply wearing a nice watch, carrying a laptop or using a cell phone makes a woman a target for criminals.

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In India, Rashid says, women suffer daily harassment when using public transport. In fact, more than 50 percent of respondents to the Center surveys reported feeling unsafe on a regular basis. As a result, many metropolises have launched female-only commuting options, such as pink taxis, special trains and female chauffeurs.

Still, traveling to rural areas can be problematic for women, particularly after hours. With long hours frequently keeping female workers at the office past 7 or 8 p.m., companies have responded by providing transportation to ensure that those women arrive home safely.

Because of the seasonal nature of the work, there are times when Ernst & Young employees put in extremely long hours. It's not unusual to rack up 14- or 15-hour days when working on tax returns and audits.

To ensure those employees have a safe ride home, the company maintains a system at its Bangalore facility where anyone who is working beyond 8 p.m. is sent home in a cab, accompanied by a security guard who sits in the front alongside the driver.

At Infosys, buses typically transport employees to and from work, but if a female employee happens to be working late, the company provides taxi service, complete with security guard, to take her home. Gurjar says the service is an "extremely expensive proposition," but the only other option would be to discourage women from working late, thus preventing them from working on certain projects and limiting their growth potential with the company.

While she has never had occasion to take advantage of the company's late-night taxi service, Divya Amarnath, principal in education and research at Infosys, has -- on more than one occasion -- made use of on-site accommodations designed to allow employees to catch a few winks before returning home or beginning the next workday.

Infosys also uses a group of outside lawyers to investigate any complaints of sexual harassment by male workers. If misconduct is discovered, "very strict action" is taken against those involved.

"We have created a culture whereby there is a high amount of respect and professionalism in dealing with women," says Gurjar. "It puts a high sense of fear into the men that [harassment] is not treated lightly."

To discourage stereotyping of its female employees and combat the mind-set that women leave the workforce once they've married or had children, Ernst & Young launched a web-based training tool around unconscious bias to "anyone who makes people decisions" in both India and the Middle East. While it hasn't been a "silver bullet" solution, it's definitely made an impact, says Fleur Bothwick, Ernst & Young?s London-based diversity and inclusiveness officer for Europe, the Middle East, India and Asia.

Still Lacking in Leadership

Much like Ernst & Young, Infosys' Bangalore headquarters has seen its female population soar -- from 12 percent of 5,000 employees in 2000 to 35 percent of 140,000 in 2011. Yet the number of women in senior leadership positions stands at a paltry 12 percent.

That is unacceptable to Gurjar, who has set the goal of achieving an evenly split senior leadership team. The key to achieving it, she says, lies in building a strong pipeline from the very bottom and then continuing to build the confidence of women as they work their way up to the senior ranks.

"We've come a long way and it's extremely rewarding to see such a large workforce of women who are empowered and love working with us," says Gurjar. "We will continue to do whatever it takes to ensure that many of these women do reach senior leadership positions."

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. has faced a similar dilemma with its emerging-market female workers. Despite a goal of growing more women leaders, Intel struggles to achieve parity at the senior-most levels.

To overcome that challenge, the technology giant has launched a number of initiatives designed to give high-potential women the opportunity to learn from other high-achieving women, while building confidence in their own abilities.

While the majority of the programs originated in the United States, Kim Warren, women's initiative manager for global diversity education and external relations, has been increasingly taking them global -- including into the emerging markets.

Such initiatives include the Women Principal Engineers and Fellows Forum, an annual two-and-a-half day event bringing together the most senior technical women from around the world; the Global Advancement of Women in Leadership Summit; and the Command Presence Workshop, designed to help female workers become more comfortable when presenting to executives or participating in task forces or intense meetings.

Intel also maintains the Women at Intel Network, a group with 32 chapters across the globe devoted to empowering the company's female workforce. According to Rashid, such programs and networking opportunities are crucial if companies hope to overcome the internal bias that plagues women in emerging markets and, all too often, threatens to derail otherwise promising careers.

"Women are often told that they lack executive presence and their communication styles are not assertive enough," she says. "Helping them get past that bias requires a nuanced understanding of the cultural pressures that women are contending with and providing access to a cross-company network of senior women they can learn from and draw inspiration from."

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