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How Companies Can Attract and Retain High Performing Women in Emerging Markets

By Melissa J. Anderson

Last Week the Center for Work Life Policy held an event at the New York Stock Exchange to launch its latest book Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid.

The book details why companies must approach the attraction and retention of women in the developing world differently than they would in other areas. The challenges companies have in keeping these women on board are different than they are in the West – and, therefore, the strategies they employ must be different as well.

At the NYSE event, Melinda Merino, Executive Editor Harvard Business Press, explained that in recent years much of the world’s growth has taken place in the emerging markets. And, she explained, “There is a phenomenal opportunity for companies to participate, to get their fair share, in the growth of these regions.”

But, she explained, companies are struggling when it comes to talent management in these regions. In particular, the attraction and retention of highly educated women is challenging.

According to Hewlett, the college educated women in these regions are highly ambitious, and don’t face many of the same pulls around childcare that many women in the West face – for example, child care is frequently not as much of an issue because people tend to live with or nearby extended family and in many situations domestic help is the norm. “Women in emerging markets are not behind the curve. In some ways they are out in front.”

Women’s ambition levels in the BRIC countries and United Arab Emirates, the countries studied for the book, are significantly higher than they are in the US. For example, 85% of women in India report “high levels of ambition,” whereas in the US, that percentage is only 36%.

She continued, “They are not reflections of their Western sisters. They’re profoundly different.”

Challenges for Women in Emerging Markets

But, that’s not to say there aren’t challenges for employers looking to hire women in these markets, explained Rashid. One major pull factor, she said, was elder care. “The centrality of filial piety” stood out in all of the cultures studied for the book. And whereas it may be acceptable to put a child in day care, it would not be acceptable for to place a parent in a care facility.

The other challenges that women face are related more directly to workplace pressures. For example, in these countries, working extremely long hours is the norm. So is having 24/7 availability, the willingness to travel, and an openness to making after-work commitments.

Rashid attributed much of this to the reality that companies operating in emerging markets are often based elsewhere. For example, it’s not unusual to be expected to participate in conference calls in the middle of the night.

Additionally, she said, in emerging markets, the pace of infrastructural improvements have not kept up with the pace of growth – so commuting to and from work can take hours.

Finally, Rashid pointed out, the realities of workplace gender discrimination are understood differently in these countries. For example, in India, 45% of women and men feel that women are treated unfairly because of their gender.

“What’s remarkable about these figures is the amount men and women concur about biases,” she said.

Rashid mentioned other issues that women face, like gaining approval from extended family or inlaws around working, or safety issues when it comes to travel. But, she said, companies in emerging markets are beginning to wake up to the potential of female high performers – and finding ways to keep them in the company.

Employer Solutions for Attracting and Retaining Women in Emerging Markets

She said, “The real lesson here is that employers that will win in these markets are not the ones who will employ a one size fits all solution.”

For example, she discussed Ernst & Young’s solution to helping women gain support from their in-laws to have a career. “Very early on, Ernst & Young instituted family days.”

She continued, “It was not just bring your spouse or children, but your extended family as well.” The real buy-in needed, she said, came from in-laws. The program has been extremely successful in helping them see how women are providing value to the company and to the country.

Later on, NV (Tiger) Tyagarajan, President and CEO of Genpact discussed solutions that his company implemented to retain women.

He explained how there was a time when his company was losing clients or being passed over for clients because his workforce was not seen as diverse. He explained how when the company was first started, it had to mirror time zones in the US – which presented safety issues and family pressures for women.

“So we decided that we had to transport people to and from home every day.” At the time, this was not an industry practice, he explained. The vehicles also contained guards, and were not allowed to pick up women first, or drop them off last.

“Family days were something we discovered at the beginning,” he said, to help gain support from extended families of women in more conservative regions.

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