Ripa Rashid

On Their Own Terms

How women in emerging markets are redefining the global workforce

by Kate Pavao, August 2011

When it comes to women in the developing world, the Western media isn’t telling the whole story, says Ripa Rashid, co-author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution. There certainly is poverty and disempowerment, she says, but many women are seeing unprecedented opportunities. “There’s a parallel narrative that’s actually very relevant for the corporate business perspective,” says Rashid, “So, the takeaway here is to not make assumptions about the needs and abilities of women in these places; they might surprise you.”

Here, Rashid talks to Profit about how companies can recruit — and retain — women workers as they expand into emerging markets.

Profit: Why are women the solution?

Rashid: We know that women in the West are already the majority of college graduates—60 percent in the US and Western Europe—and at least 50 percent in many professional schools. When we looked at the BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — we saw a very similar pattern in these emerging markets. In Brazil, for instance, women make 60 percent of university graduates, just like in the US.

So what’s the end implication of all this? Basically, companies need to recognize that women are a critical part of their talent pool, no matter where they’re doing business, and in particular, in these growth geographies. And women do have different career trajectories, so that’s something to be mindful of when half of your workforce is women.

Profit: What do employers need to be aware of?

Rashid: The pushes and pulls that women in emerging markets experience are quite different from women in the West. There’s some overlap—obviously, there’s issues around hidden biases that I think women experience no matter where you are—but there are very specific aspects, too.

Women in emerging markets have many more solutions than women in the West when it comes to child care — including help from parents and in laws, and domestic help — but one of the place where the picture’s a little different is around elder care.

This is particularly true in places like China, which, because of the one-child policy, could mean a female Chinese professional has four elders living in her house, who are pretty much dependent on her financially, for health care, for lots of things. Even though men also have elder care challenges, typically it’s the woman of the house who’s doing most of the caring and feeding. Without an exception, the professionals we interviewed, every single one of them said they would make career changes or location changes —they would move heaven and earth—to be there for their elder care responsibilities.

There are many other issues, as well. In our interviews, we heard women say they would choose a particular job over another for the shorter commute, and because of safety reasons, for the location of the office.

Often the solution for employers may be pretty simple. Women may just looking for an environment where they can talk about this and find commonality. They might just be looking for help with resources. India has long done the pink taxi services, with women driving women to work; the call center industry really drove that. One of the things we were very heartened by was the creativity, even among some locally headquartered companies in India. For example, Infosys hosted a vacation camp for kids. That’s not something people are doing here in the US; they’re ahead of the game in some ways.

Profit: How is social networking changing women’s expectations?

Rashid: Social networking really enhances people’s vision of who they can be, because they’re exposed to so many more role models. When I was growing up — I grew up all over, but I spent part of my growing up in Bangladesh— you were limited to one television channel and the dog-eared Cosmopolitan magazine somewhat might bring back from the West. Now it’s so much more of an expanded vision.

You also have young university students from these countries. Twenty years ago they couldn’t afford to travel in the West. Now they can. You see them in Paris, you see them in Rome. So their vision of who they are is much more cosmopolitan than any prior generation, and inherent to that is a sense of egalitarianism. So they’re going in with complete expectation that they can do everything on their own terms and be very successful.

Profit: And are Western companies’ expectations changing as well?

Rashid: I used to work and live in Asia 12 years ago. Then, there was still very much a one-way transaction: “The West is ahead, we’re going to transfer our best practices to you; you’re learning from us.” At it really was the export model of talent; they all were farmed out from headquarters.

Now, when I go back to East Asia, I see a very different kind of approach. In Hong Kong and Beijing I saw a lot more people open to understanding local cultural aspects of working in these places and willing to hire top notch local talent. Novartis has a tropical health center in China. And GE has one of its big technology research centers in India. Innovation is coming from everywhere, and businesses are finally beginning to realize that. It’s a big shift in a short period of time.