The Global Battle for Female Talent

Faced with dynamic business expansion, multinational recruiters are waging a relentless drive to hire and keep female leaders.

By Kathy Gurchiek June 1, 2012

June CoverMuch like miners searching for a rich vein of gold, multinational employers are turning their attention to women in emerging global markets where business opportunities beckon–Brazil, Russia, India, China and the United Arab Emirates to fill their need for top talent.

Researchers say these women are educated and ambitious and could be the answer for employers looking to fill the skills gap.

Yet tapping into that talent requires an understanding of recruitment and retention strategies that take into account the cultural challenges for women in these emerging markets.

"A Western lens is a Western lens, and you can't cut and paste" policies and strategies, says Ceree T. Eberly, chief people officer and senior vice president for the Coca-Cola Co., who has experience in China, Latin America and Europe. "We have to reflect the local market." Benefits that attract and retain Western women may not work in emerging markets.

Shifting Marketplace, Talent Pool

The global marketplace is shifting. According to The Wealth Report 2012, China will be the top economy in 2020 and India is predicted to claim that spot by 2050. In 2012, Brazil outpaced the United Kingdom, becoming the sixth-largest economy in the world.

"Educated women in emerging markets bring a keen sense of the consumer marketplace to their employers" and control two-thirds of all consumer spending and "a surprising number" out-earn their spouses, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid write in Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets (Harvard Business Review, 2011).

They quote Hiroo Mirchandani, business unit director at Pfizer India, who told them Pfizer recognizes that "women are good at engaging customers, nurturing relationships and communicating product features. Tapping into this talent pool provides a competitive advantage."

Hewlett notes that many women in emerging markets "are surprisingly well-qualified, out-achieving men in tertiary education." Sixty percent of women in Brazil and 65 percent in the United Arab Emirates have undergraduate or graduate degrees, according to information from the World Bank Education Statistics Database.

They want to use their education and have no plans to off-ramp from their careers, Hewlett says. They are ambitious and eye the top jobs. In India, where 83 percent of women ages 31 to 63 identified themselves as highly ambitious, 11 percent of chief executive officers in 2009 were women, vs. 3 percent in the United States, according to Hewlett and Rashid.

Hewlett attributes this fierce drive to growing up in an environment where, unlike the recession-flogged West, opportunities abound and growth is on a trajectory.

Add an increasing cost of living that fuels the need to be a wage-earner, plus families' investment in their careers, and women in emerging markets have "huge incentives" to work, Hewlett maintains.

Confronting Challenges

Business travel can be a challenge for women in some markets, according to Hewlett and Rashid.

While members of this talent pool are interested in international assignments and realize the importance of these opportunities to their careers, there are obstacles. Visa applications can be expensive and have wait periods. In some countries, people may voice disapproval of women traveling alone. Extended assignments pose difficulties for the woman's partner.

Danielle Adetunji, a country manager for Coca-Cola, looks after seven countries that make up Mid Africa and Horn of Africa territories. She is married to a senior executive at Coca-Cola; both have worked at the company for 18 years. They have daughters ages 13, 11 and 2.

In 2002, she relocated from South Africa to Kenya without her family when she was appointed region finance manager for the 22 countries and islands making up the East Africa region based in Nairobi.

"Culturally, it was very difficult for our extended families to understand why we [would] choose such an option," says Adetunji, who was born in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.

In most countries with emerging economies, "the man is financially responsible for the family unit," she explains. Status and respect in the community comes "from a perception that the man is doing a good job at it.

"No matter how attractive a job offer to the woman is, it will be very difficult for the family unit to relocate if the man does not have a guaranteed appointment in the new location," Adetunji wrote in an e-mail to HR Magazine.

After relocating, she found daily personal and business activities more challenging. She also missed the family support.

"At the time, the expatriate policies were not customized to ease the pressure on a woman operating in a foreign country," she explains.

Later, when Adetunji's husband was relocated to South Africa in 2011, Coca-Cola offered her a transition role that gave her flexibility "and allowed the family to settle without any major disruption."

She credits Coca-Cola's support and flexibility for enabling her and her husband to manage their careers in different parts of the world, noting that they have lived apart only 18 months in 18 years of marriage.

All her children were born outside the countries where she was posted. During her pregnancies, Coca-Cola allowed her to work away from those postings so she could give birth in the country of her choice.

Cultural expectations around a woman's role in the family also pose challenges to career growth and retention. In Brazil, for example, elder care responsibilities weigh on working women.

The story is similar in China, where nonfamily elder care doesn't exist and is not socially acceptable. In addition, the country's 1979 one-child policy means that many working women care for two sets of parents, a child and sometimes grandparents.

Work/Life Tensions in India

Indian women tend to stay home longer after the birth of a child than Western women, Saundarya Rajesh points out. Many also take career breaks when children are 15 to 17 so they can help with the transition to high school.

Rajesh is president and founder of Avtar Career Creators and founder and director of Flexi Careers India. The latter offers services for professional women who wish to create part-time or flextime careers for themselves.

There is a great deal of work to be done in gender sensitization in the workplace to address the issues women face, including harassment and parental responsibilities, Rajesh explained via e-mail.

Indian employers "work on assumptions based on findings and studies done in the Western context" because of what she calls a "dearth" of literature relevant to Indian women.

There are conflicting signals conveyed to Indian woman, Rajesh observes. She notes that women only began entering the workplace in large numbers during the early 1990s. "Conflicts began to appear" as women's workplace participation rate "slowly grew to 28 percent."

"On the one hand, the academic world wanted her to shine and be ambitious, considering that she excelled here. 'India Inc.,' too, wanted her talents—she was a great negotiator, a good leader and smart at emotional intelligence.

"But when she became a mother, the workforce was hassled. Cultural and social expectations of women clashed with workplace roles," and women made "a hasty retreat."

Rajesh blames work/life issues and inadequate organizational and governmental support for the estimated 18 percent annual attrition rate of Indian women from the workplace.

Rajesh advocates for flexibility during women's important life stages. She says HR professionals' role in attracting and retaining these women includes:

• Creating a gender-intelligent workplace environment.

• Creating career development programs for women that focus on professional and life skills.

• Investing in research pertinent to Indian women.

• Designing infrastructure and facilities that support women at different life stages.

• Providing flexible work options.

• Building working models through assessment and job analyses.

"Traditionally, the support structure is family, and there are not many day care or elder care options," points out Danielle Monaghan, HR director for the North Asia Division of Cisco Systems Inc., based in Beijing. She lives in Beijing with her husband and three teenage children, and serves on the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) Global Special Expertise Panel.

It's not unusual, she says, for young couples to work in different cities while trying to care for parents elsewhere.

"The stress is high, and many women feel very alone in the workplace," she writes in an e-mail.

There are other societal obstacles that Western women don't face.

Single Muslim women are forbidden from living on their own, Hewlett says. "Many very high-level women in Dubai have horrendous commutes because they have to live with their family of origin," she explains.

In Brazil, safely commuting to and from work is a challenge for 62 percent of the women Hewlett and Rashid surveyed.

Reaching Out

Some employers turn to female employees and nonemployees for ideas and solutions to help women flourish, according to Hewlett and Rashid. The payback, they write, is above-average engagement, commitment and loyalty.

They point to the example of Sharda Cherwoo, a native of India based in New York and a coordinating tax partner with Ernst and Young who led a team responsible for all management of the company's facility in Bangalore. Knowledge of cultural issues prompted Cherwoo and her team to provide transportation services for employees and expand group health care coverage for elderly relatives and children.

At IT company Infosys, managers ask female employees to annually identify three factors that would make the company more attractive to women and help them do their jobs better, according to Hewlett and Rashid.

Infosys has a satellite office in the middle of Bangalore where new mothers can work without traveling to the suburban main campus, cutting their commuting time by as much as 50 percent. And the company's Women's Inclusivity Network offers a one-year child care sabbatical as well as the option of working part time for the next two years, according to the authors. The part-time option permits employees to work either half days or a few full days per week.

In India, where it's not unusual for an applicant to need parental approval of a job offer, Ernst and Young has a regular Family Day open house to demystify the workplace.

Stevens J. Sainte-Rose, group HR director of Eurasia Africa Group for Coca-Cola, recalls how the company partnered with other multinational companies in Russia to create a forum where women could talk about mentorship and other workplace issues. It was a way to extend the brand while learning about that talent pool.

Coca-Cola's Eberly says her HR professionals primarily benefits professionals work under the assumption that benefits will look different in every country to reflect the culture.

"We're trying to É adapt the policies locally," she says. "You have to go back to the local market, the local culture" and start small. "Do one thing, and do it very well." Coca-Cola has found that pilot programs can build momentum.

Be cognizant of cultural and social mores, she recommends. Time spent on family activities, for example, is highly valued in emerging markets. Awareness of cultural mores includes establishing boundaries not sending a business e-mail during the weekend unless it's urgent, for example, or not asking people to travel for business meetings on the weekend.

"We try to respect the need for employees to be with their families," Eberly says. "It starts with me. I have to set the tone and the pace."

Promote your female-friendly programs when recruiting women from emerging markets, Cisco's Monaghan advises. "Many companies are doing great work to retain women employees with management support, mentoring and coaching, but they do not highlight this in their recruitment campaigns." Such benefits can attract men, too.

Coca-Cola wants to recruit and retain women from these markets primarily "because women are the financial gatekeepers of most households," a Coca-Cola spokesman wrote in an e-mail to HR Magazine, "but we also have a focus on developing the best workforce we can to meet the diverse needs of our consumers."

Women in emerging markets want to see evidence that other women have moved up the ranks, according to Hewlett and Rashid's research. Position senior-level women throughout the organization, not just in HR, and make sure the hiring process includes female interviewers or male interviewers who have guidelines on interviewing women, Hewlett advises.

Many business leaders "talk the talk but, due to growth and other priorities, do not follow through on the recruitment promise. While they may be able to hire women, they are not able to retain them," Monaghan wrote in an e-mail.

Women look for companies with trusted brand names, female role models and evidence that companies are investing in women, she continued.

To that end, Cisco offers:

  • A mentoring program.
  • An active women's group as a way to share best practices and support female employees.
  • Work-from-home and hoteling options.
  • On-ramp and off-ramp programs that allow employees to take up to one year off to handle personal or family concerns.

They want to see career growth, lots of females in key roles, mentoring and equal access to training, says Carol Olsby, GPHR, principal at Carol Olsby and Associates Inc., a global and domestic HR consultancy. She has experience in the Americas, Asia and Europe, serves on SHRM's Global Special Expertise Panel and is global HR director for the Washington SHRM State Council.

HR professionals have a role to play, she says, in helping their organizations become employers of choice for women in emerging markets.

It requires finding ways to support cultural norms. In the Philippines, for example, Sunday is a family day not a workday. HR professionals should figure out how such norms align with business strategies and how HR policies can be brought into play.

Commuter safety issues can be addressed by providing shuttles, telecommuting options and bodyguards for those leaving the office at late hours. Neighboring companies might share the cost.

"Women everywhere are pressured for time, have little time to relax, and feel stressed [and] overworked," Adetunji says, "but women in emerging countries feel the strain even more than women in developed economies due to lack of infrastructure, [lack of] supportive legislation as well as cultural norms."

To attract and retain women in emerging markets, companies must develop gender- and culture-specific policies that address their concerns. "A company that makes the choice to invest in women today will have a competitive edge" and will thrive in the 21st century, she predicts. Those that wait will be left behind or be scrambling to catch up.

The author is associate editor for HR News.

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