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BW Businessworld

Yes, She Is The Answer

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There is an impending shortage of local talent in the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) bloc, which are hot spots of high growth for MNCs. So far, corporations have been managed either by expats or by a small pool of mostly-male local managers, who are bred either in the US or Europe. This has led to a game of musical chairs where the Pepsi head goes to Coke at an exorbitant pay only to have the next new entrant replace him at a more ridiculous figure. So, is there a way out?

Winning The War For Talent In Emerging Markets: Why Women Are The Solution by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid has the answer: hire women consciously and retain them by providing the right environment. Also, corporations must understand the local social milieu to identify key reasons that lead to women dropping out from the workforce in India, China, Brazil, UAE and Russia. Each region has a different social dynamics at play, impeding women from making it to leadership roles. There are a few common reasons such as elder care responsibilities and maternal guilt. And there are some unique ones, too. For instance, the book talks about how Chinese women do a complicated balancing act when it comes to style compliance -- somewhere between the extremes of being too submissive and too aggressive. While this is not an issue for Indian women, they are caught in a bind of trying to fulfill an expanded set of both professional and social demands. Our society mandates the women as the exclusive keeper of family traditions. Brazilian women have a different problem of protecting themselves while commuting to work. Russian women, thanks to decades of Communist rule, participate in the workforce as equal partners with men. But again, they have their own issues such as high divorce rates and male chauvinism, which put the responsibility for bringing up children on women. This, coupled with the high cost of living in cities, pushes women to place a high premium on compensation compared with their Bric peers. Emirati women have issues that are unique to Islamic societies such as not being able to travel without a male escort and having to cope with extreme work hours, as workdays and hours in UAE do not match those in the rest of the world. The authors have interviewed women professionals extensively to emphasise that such societal forces that put family top in the agenda of women push them out of the workforce. Infrastructure and law and order issues too take an inordinate toll on women's professional life.

The solution, therefore, is to devise policies and interventions that can overcome such factors. The authors strongly suggest corporates offer flexible work arrangements and option to work from home. Women, the book's vast research shows, offer their unflinching loyalty to the employers who accommodate their need for flexibility. Another effective intervention is providing mentors and women networks that can offer them role models and advise on career and personal life. In the last part of the book, there are examples from successful programmes adopted by various MNCs to become the most favored employer for women. The GE Women's Network, HSBC's cross-functional development panel, Women at Intel Network, Women in Lenovo Leadership, Novartis Executive Female Leadership Program, all demonstrate the concerted effort these firms. The other trend is to have a specific executive within the corporation whose mandate is to promote diversity not just across gender but also look at giving right opportunity to minorities, differently-abled professionals, setting goals for the same and making it happen.

Interestingly, the authors conclude by saying that in this millennium women are different as they demand and get what they want instead of dropping out as their mothers did. They also talk about men wanting similar flexibility like women, keen to spend time with kids, family and home unlike their father's generations.

The statistics given in the book is just great and proves women are a compelling talent pool that no one can ignore. It is also the right time to bring attention to this fact, as corporations find it tough to manage high growth in emerging markets with their traditional pipeline of men.
There are changes already. Flexi hours, women networks, safe transport and onsite childcare facility have been around in some companies for a while. However, things change dramatically only when a critical mass of women reaches the top. But getting there continues to be a big challenge as it requires board and executive level push from early days of the company. It will eventually happen, as economies move towards services where quality of talent is a deciding factor for success. We are already seeing this in the technology world.

Authors' Details:
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president of the non-profit Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP). She also directs the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Ripa Rashid is executive vice-president at CWLP, and has worked with Booz Allen Hamilton, PwC and Mitchell Madison Group.

Parthasarathy is CEO, Global Executive Talent

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 07-11-2011)