Winning the Talent War in Emerging Markets: Women are the Answer

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid

As global companies try to harness the growth and possibilities of emerging markets, the extraordinary energy, ambition and drive of BRIC women can provide a critical competitive edge.

In the four years since Goldman Sachs launched its business in Brazil, growth has exceeded all expectations. Headcount in the São Paolo headquarters has expanded more than tenfold and is predicted to double again in the next two to three years.

“The growth opportunity is huge,” says Valentino Carlotti, president of Goldman Sachs Bank in Brazil. “We expect Brazil to become a major contributor to the revenue generation of the firm. But we can’t get that done without attracting and retaining great talent.”

Carlotti’s concerns are shared by corporate leaders and talent managers throughout emerging economies, where finding, keeping, and maximizing top talent is an urgent imperative. With Western Europe and the United States struggling to emerge from recession, multinational corporations from all countries are looking to developing markets for future growth. The dynamic economies of the four largest – Brazil, Russia, India and China — stand out for the speed of their growth and their long-term potential. The so-called BRIC nations together represent 40 percent of the world’s population and have accounted for some 45 percent of global growth since 2007, compared with 20 percent from the G-7 economies. Despite inflation concerns in Brazil and fears of a housing bubble in China, the BRICs remain remarkably resilient, fueling many multinational corporations’ hopes for the future.

Yet there is a critical obstacle to their continued expansion: a cutthroat war for high-echelon talent.

A dearth of top talent is often cited as the single biggest barrier to company growth in emerging markets. In India, the percentage of employers having difficulty filling positions jumped 51 percent from 2010, according to the Manpower Group. A Towers Watson study found that 81 percent of businesses in Brazil reported difficulties identifying talent with critical skills. China also reported a dramatic talent shortage surge, with 92 percent of the companies surveyed by Kelly Services saying their competitive power is “affected” by the shortage of key talent, and nearly a quarter – 23 percent – being “greatly affected.”

The problem is especially dire at top ranks. At the very moment when many multinationals are setting aside the ingrained “corporate imperialism” that led them to ignore local managers, they face limited rosters of local talent to promote. Melinda Wolfe, Bloomberg’s head of professional development, explains the situation: “Bloomberg is now in 146 countries and growing at a rapid pace. We have an urgent need to draw upon a deep pool of talent to deliver excellence.”

The solution is hiding in plain sight: large and growing numbers of university-educated women. Yet business leaders tend not to have women on their radar screen; fewer still understand the nature of this rich talent pool or know how to make the most of it.


15-25 % percent of young women in the BRICs are now college-educated. They’re not just earning degrees: they are bursting with the desire to use them.

Educated Women = Turbo-charged Talent

Despite an expanding body of work on women in emerging economies, few studies have considered the potential of educated, ambitious women. Much of the existing research casts them in a narrative of victimhood.
Books like the best-selling Half the Sky and From Outrage to Courage, as well as reports and initiatives from the United Nations and the World Bank, promulgate the notion that all women in developing countries are oppressed, their potential obscured by poverty and their presence relegated to the sidelines of male-dominated cultures.

Our research – which is based on a rich new database – shows this to be untrue.

Just as in the United States, where female college graduates now outnumber men, women in the BRICs are flooding into universities and graduate schools. They represent 60 percent of college graduates in Brazil, 47 percent in China, and 57 percent of enrolled students in Russia. These figures represent more than just a tiny elite: between 15 and 25 percent of young women in the BRICs are now college-educated – a substantial number. And they’re not just earning degrees: they are bursting with the desire to use them.

Highly educated women the world over are ambitious, but ambition and aspiration among BRIC women is off the charts. New data from the Center for Work-Life Policy shows that 85 percent of female college graduates in India and 65 percent in China consider themselves very ambitious, compared to a paltry 36 percent in the U.S. In India, 86 percent of college-educated women are shooting for the top job, closely followed by their counterparts in Brazil (80 percent) and China (76 percent). (see Figure 1)




And their turbo-charged ambition is paying off.

The figures are impressive. Half of the 14 billionaires on Forbes magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s richest self-made women are from mainland China. In Brazil and India, 11 percent of the CEOs of large companies are female. Meanwhile, the number of women who head up Fortune 500 corporations in the United States and FTSE 100 firms in the United Kingdom is stuck at less than 5 percent.


With a rapidly aging population in the BRICs, eldercare will be an even bigger challenge than childcare for BRIC women.

Opportunities and Obstacles

What’s behind these startling numbers? Our study describes opportunities and obstacles which are surprisingly different from those in the West.

Childcare, for example, is not the career challenge it is in the U.S. and Western Europe. A robust network of relatives combined with inexpensive domestic help and an increasingly wide range of daycare options give BRIC women multiple shoulders to lean on, so they are not knocked off-track by either childbearing or childrearing. In China and Russia, a positive legacy of Communism’s push to have women participate in the workforce is that there’s no social stigma in sending one’s child to daycare, boarding school or to live with a grandparent during the workweek.

Furthermore, among women professionals, there are fewer children to care for. Contrary to the prevalent view that all women in developing markets have children, and lots of them, our data revealed that a significant proportion of educated women in emerging economies do not have children. Access to education and birth control—the same benefits that have lowered birthrates in the developed world – enables BRIC women to delay or decline motherhood. Among college-educated women aged 21 to 64 in our survey, more than half in Brazil, Russia and India did not have children.

But if childcare isn’t a challenge, eldercare is, and with a rapidly aging population in the BRICs, it will only get worse. Eldercare is a ticking time bomb with the potential to blow up careers just as women reach the peak of their potential. The vast majority of women surveyed – 81 percent – have duties on the eldercare front; 95 percent of college-educated Chinese women professionals already have eldercare responsibilities, impelling them to relocate to be closer to aging parents, take a higher paid but less stimulating job to pay for eldercare expenses, or even drop out of the workforce entirely. That can stall a fast-track career, especially if, as so often the case, climbing the corporate ladder requires relocating. “If a great job opportunity comes up that involves moving to a different city, even if the husband and wife agree from a career point of view, the question is, what happens to the parents,” notes an Indian senior resources manager for a major multinational company. “Childcare is much easier. You can hire nannies.”

Most BRIC women find it more difficult to subcontract their mother-in-law than their children. The alternatives that exist for childcare, such as a nanny or daycare, are rarely available for eldercare. While old age homes for the affluent are beginning to crop up in India and China, placing parents in a full-time care facility is anathema in emerging markets. In China and India, for example, daughterly guilt is a bigger issue for working women than maternal guilt. (Figure 2)




Discrimination is another career derailer in emerging markets. Overt and explicit prejudice is so common that more than one-third of both our female and male respondents in China believe women are treated unfairly in the workplace owing to their gender; in India, the number is a whopping 45 percent for both sexes. More than half of highly qualified women in India, 48 percent of their counterparts in China, and 40 percent of Brazilian women professionals have encountered bias severe enough to make them consider scaling back their career goals or quitting altogether. (Figure 3)




Beyond general gender bias rooted in cultural practices, women also contend with conflicting social and professional expectations of proper behavior. In India and China, for example, women are often expected to be submissive and reticent, attributes that penalize them in a multinational’s pressure-cooker milieu. “As a woman brought up in India, you have to be soft, you have to be polite, you have to hold back a little,” observed one Indian financial professional. “And none of this works in the corporate world.”

Workplace biases across the BRICs escalate with motherhood, anecdotal evidence shows. Longer maternity leaves can be a double-edged sword. “We have women who are afraid to tell their boss that they’re pregnant because they’re very insecure about how the boss will react,” says Sodexo Brazil’s executive president Satya Menard. Working mothers find their commitment and potential under constant scrutiny. In interview after interview, women routinely told us of returning from maternity leave to less-challenging projects or roles, or being given a lower performance rating.

Long hours can also push emerging markets women off their career tracks. In many of the BRICs, 70-hour workweeks are not unusual. Exacerbating the workload are protracted – and often unsafe – commutes endured by women in Moscow and Mumbai, Shanghai and Sao Paulo, Bangalore and Beijing. “The traffic is a huge waste of time,” complained one financial executive in Beijing. Being able to work remotely would not only help her juggle family and work, she noted, but would add to her efficiency by saving two hours of commuting time each day.

These family-rooted “pulls,” together with cultural and social “pushes,” underscore the fact that the challenges faced by women in emerging markets can be quite different from their counterparts in developed countries. Consequently, the solutions cannot be transplanted versions of what works in the U.S. and Western Europe.


Companies that create the conditions for talented women to flourish, that keep them motivated and feeling valued, will be repaid in above-average levels of engagement, commitment and loyalty.

An Agenda for Action

The rapid pace of change in the BRICs offers an opportunity for forward-thinking companies to gain competitive advantage with female-friendly policies. Many of the most successful programs start locally or at the grass-roots level, rather than as a wholesale transfer of initiatives already implemented in established markets. They provide innovative models and lessons that might also apply in the Western context.

The roadmap for fully realizing female talent in emerging markets involves three essential action steps:

Becoming a talent magnet. Being known as a standout employer has an enduring impact on a company’s image and reputation, enabling it to attract and retain the best and brightest, right from the start and over the long haul. Companies that create the conditions that allow talented women to flourish, that keep them motivated and feeling valued, will be repaid in above-average levels of engagement, commitment and loyalty. Among the suggestions that surfaced in interviews and focus groups:

Formalize flextime. Flextime is still relatively unknown, especially in cultures that place a premium on face time. One way to remove the stigma associated with flexible work arrangements is to detach it from working mothers and telecommuters, and apply “intermittent flextime” that could apply as much to someone whose job entails late-night telephone calls to California as to someone dealing with ailing elders.

Make the most of maternity leave. Women on maternity leave often feel disassociated from their team and have no way to keep up with advances in technology. Smart employers train managers to maintain contact with women while they’re out, provide workshops to reboot their technological skills, and offer on-ramping programs that help them ease back into full-time work.

Claiming and sustaining female ambition. Confounded by the dissonance between conflicting social and professional expectations, and caught in a cultural tug-of-war, many talented women downsize their ambitions for themselves. How can a woman gain the confidence and skills to feel comfortable – and excel – in a leadership role? Networking and relationship building, essential to strengthening engagement and commitment, help women develop the ties, visibility and organizational know-how essential to their professional success. Suggestions include:

Break lockstep career paths. Flexible career paths would also be a huge help to women torn between career and family care. Right now, re-entry opportunities after taking a break are rare to nonexistent in many BRICs – so much so that Chinese women sadly joke that the chance of finding a job after dropping out of the market is even smaller than that of finding a wealthy husband.

Support professional development programs. From role models and mentors to learning self-confidence and the inter-cultural communication skills to navigate within the wider context of the corporation, women’s networks and leadership programs are especially valuable in emerging markets.

Dealing with pushes and pulls. Women in emerging markets face unique family-related pulls and society- and work-related pushes that conspire to derail their career ambitions and cause them either to settle for a dead-end job or leave the workforce entirely. Responding to these challenges with imagination, sensitivity and flexibility is a tall order. What solves the problem in one country may have little impact in another. Finding solutions involves a delicate balance between a global mindset and local knowledge. Suggestions include:

– Solicit family support. Get the entire family involved in the woman’s career by regularly inviting family members to show-and-tell sessions about the work environment. Such events demystify the woman’s work and emphasize the message that what she is doing is valuable and worthwhile.


From Shanghai to São Paulo, from Moscow to Mumbai, BRIC markets are increasingly dominated by women, who control two-thirds of all consumer spending… Educated women in these economies bring a keen sense of the consumer marketplace to their employers.

Unprecedented Advantages

In addition to providing much-needed, qualified talent, educated women have much to offer their employers. From Shanghai to São Paulo, from Moscow to Mumbai, BRIC markets are increasingly dominated by women, with women controlling two-thirds of all consumer spending. Married women are overwhelmingly the primary decision-makers for their family’s purchases of food, clothing, healthcare, education and household products.

Educated women in these economies bring a keen sense of the consumer marketplace to their employers. 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.”

The overall diversity of thought, perspective, and experience that educated women add to any organization is multiplied in developing markets. As one human resources director in Brazil notes, “Gender diversity is not a social issue. It’s a business issue.”

Companies that recognize and take steps to relieve the forces that constrain BRIC women’s careers stand to benefit further from an extraordinary degree of zeal and commitment that these women bring to work. Contrary to the image of capricious job-hoppers, always on the lookout for a higher salary, our analysis reveals a surprisingly strong sense of commitment, with nearly 90 percent of survey respondents expressing loyalty to their employer and 49 percent declaring a desire to continue working at their current company for three years or longer. Close to 80 percent report loving their work, and 74 percent are “willing to go the extra mile” for their companies. This is good news indeed for employers, particularly when compared to results of studies such as Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study which found a mere 21 percent of global workers to be engaged in their work.

As global companies try to harness the growth and possibilities of emerging markets, the extraordinary energy, ambition and drive of BRIC women can provide a critical competitive edge. A deeper understanding of their complicated career dynamics is the surest route to continued growth, now and in the future.

About the authors

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York.) She is the co-author with Ripa Rashid of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution (Harvard Business Review Press).


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.