Professional Women are Key to Development in Emerging Markets

iStock_000017499097XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last week the World Bank released its latest research on women in developing countries. The report “The World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development,” revealed that while gender equality is making progress across the globe, there are still many gaps.

And while gender equality in itself is a core objective of the organization, it is also important because of the economic growth and stability that gender equality facilitates. In his forward to the report, World Bank President Robert Zoellick explains, “But greater gender equality is also smart economics, enhancing productivity and improving other development outcomes, including prospects for the next generation and for the quality of societal policies and institutions.”

The study raises important questions about the world’s women – like “why are there 3.9 million excess female deaths each year?” and it points out that women earn less than men everywhere. But it is important to remember that all women in developing areas are not victims.

Research by the Center for Work-Life Policy on women in emerging markets points out that while many women in developing countries must contend with tremendous challenges, there are also many women in these regions who are powerful and ambitious – even more ambitious, the organization says, than their western counterparts.

CWLP Founder and President Sylvia Ann Hewlett remarked last week at an event at the New York Stock Exchange, “The dominant narrative for many years has been a narrative of victimhood. But it is not the only narrative. There is also a tremendous narrative of empowerment and success.”

These women are not victims of poverty or exploitation – and in fact, they may be one part of the solution to the abuses that many women in these areas face. When women are viewed as key economic drivers, explain both the World Bank and the CWLP, they get more rights and have a better standard of living. The countries in which they live and work get an economic boost as well.  After all, more high performing talent means more productivity.

Attracting and Retaining High Performing Women

According to the CWLP’s research – as set out in “Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution,” the new book by Hewlett and Ripa Rashid, Executive Vice President at the CWLP – talented women are key to unlocking the economic potential of emerging markets.

These college-educated women are increasingly ambitious and career-minded. Hewlett said, “Women in emerging markets are not behind the curve. In some ways they are out in front.”

She continued, “Huge numbers of women in these markets are immensely educated. Not just a tiny elite.” For example, she said, 65% of the top business schools in Beijing are female. Yet, these markets are facing a talent shortage when it comes to high performers.

And when it comes to highly educated women in particular, companies need to try harder to make it work for this valuable segment of the workforce.

Closing the Gap

The World Bank report highlights many ways in which women travel up the pathway to empowerment. And the organization is careful to point out that there is no magic bullet when it comes to gender parity – many factors come into play. But, economic opportunities rank high on the list.

For example, on a list of eleven factors in “moving up the ladder,” the top three are “occupational and economic change,” “financial management,” and “education and training.” Jobs, money, and education are the top rungs of the ladder to gender parity.

But many other factors have to line up as well. The study explains, “Indeed, where gender gaps have closed quickly, it is because of how markets and institutions – formal and informal – have functioned and evolved, how growth has played out, and how all these factors have interacted through household decisions.”

Similarly, as the CWLP research has shown, the companies that have been the most successful in attracting and retaining professional women have evolved to meet the professional and personal needs of women in these areas (rather than employing a one-size-fits-all approach) to gender diversity.

Rashid said, is that, “Employers that will win in these markets are not the ones who will employ a one-size-fits-all solution.”

For example, some of these programs have involved inviting extended family to tour facilities, providing safe travel to work, and implementing flexible work schedules that enable women to work from home if necessary – particularly when their jobs involve communication with markets across the world that run on opposite hours.

The challenges that high performing women in emerging markets face are markedly different than the ones faced by professional women in developed countries. But by catering to the needs of this highly educated and ambitious segment of the population, companies can help attract and retain a valuable source of talent. And when women in these areas are seen as leaders and role models by the entire population, they can help pull up women everywhere.

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