iStock_000015539406XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson

When you consider women in the developing BRIC economies – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – who do you envision? Are they victims? Are they oppressed? Or are they ambitious high performers, managers, and business leaders? As part of its lengthy study on women in these markets, The Center for Work Life Policy recently released the results of its report, “The Battle for Female Talent in China,” which seeks to paint a new picture of educated women in the developing world.

Ripa Rashid, Executive Vice President at the Center for Work Life Policy, explained, “We wanted to create a narrative – a more complete picture of women in these markets. When you hear about women in emerging economies, you often think about microfiance or victimhood or sex trafficking. And these are all important issues. But there is another narrative of successful, ambitious women in these regions as well.”

She continued, “We wanted to bring to light that neglected narrative.” The Center for Work Life Policy study, conducted between 2009 and 2010 and co-authored by Rashid and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, polled hundreds of white-color female professionals in the developing world. The results, which will be published by the Harvard Business School Press this fall, reveal fascinating new insights into the cross-cultural dynamics of ambition and motherhood.

Politics and Ambition

The neglected narrative Rashid referred to shows that BRIC women are significantly more ambitious than their Western counterparts. In the US, only 52% of women surveyed said they considered themselves ambitious, while 75% of Chinese women said the same.

Part of this, Rashid explained, has to do with communism’s attempt to minimize gender stereotypes around who does what kind of work.

Next, she said, you can’t ignore the impact of China’s one child policy. Women in their 20s and 30s in China are usually the only child in their family. “These women grew up with a very strong sense that the hopes and ambitions of their parents are pinned to them.”

And as industry grows in China, Chinese women are also growing more ambitious. For example, Rashid said, in 2005, 20% of Chinese MBAs were female. In 2010, 45% of MBAs were female. Compare that to the percentage of female MBAs in the US, which has been stalled around 30% for many years.

But while politics and economic growth may influence the ambitions of Chinese women, strong family ties add another dimension to the work/life challenges that Chinese women face.

Daughterly Guilt and Child Rearing

While Chinese professional women feel a strong sense of ambition, they also feel a strong connection to their parents. In the West, women often report a high sense of “motherly guilt” – the guilt of leaving a child to go to the office. But according to Rashid, the Chinese tradition of filial piety leads women to feel a strong sense of “daughterly guilt.”

While daughterly guilt was felt more strongly across the developing world than in the West, it was significantly higher in China – perhaps another side effect of the one-child policy, Rashid explained. For example, 88% of the women surveyed in China reported a strong sense of daughterly guilt, while 86% reported motherly guilt. In comparison, 70% of Indian women reported daughterly guilt, while 62% reported motherly guilt.

Rashid explained that this was partially related to low government pensions for the elderly in China. Additionally, she said, most of the professional women polled (58%) said they still lived with their parents. And Chinese grandparents were particularly keen to participate in the upbringing of their grandchildren.

As a result, she explained, “There is no expectation for women to offramp around childbirth. In some ways, you might say Chinese women are ahead of the game, compared with women in the West.”

Sharing Best Practices

Rashid was careful to point out that applying lessons learned in the emerging markets to Western regions may be difficult. But, she said, multinational companies should share best practices across regions and apply them in culturally competent ways.

For example, she mentioned that Ernst and Young has found success in initiating family days at its Indian locations – inviting not just spouses and children, but extended family as well. “It has been a game changer for families’ support for keeping women in the workplace.”

Such a program may work well in areas were women face pressure from extended families (and in-laws) to take a more traditional path, staying within the home.

Similarly, she said, “In China, there is a lot of energy going toward connecting women at senior levels across companies.” She compared this to a program organized by the FTSE 100 in the UK that provides cross-company mentors.