Is a Woman in Brazil Better Off than a Woman in the U.S.?

Women overseas are reaching new heights professionally. Here's what we can learn from our emerging market counterparts

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A woman sits on a train platform while working on her computer in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The mention of women in emerging economies often evokes a picture of oppressed and poverty-stricken victims, relegated to the sidelines of male-dominated cultures. That’s the usual narrative, exemplified by the best-selling Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn. Yes, these problems are real and of critical importance. But educated women in Brazil, Russia, India and China — the BRIC economies which represent the four largest emerging markets — and the United Arab Emirates, are telling a different tale: one of agency and power.

Just as in the U.S. — where female college graduates now outnumber men — BRIC women are flooding into universities and graduate schools. They represent 65% of college graduates in the UAE, 60% in Brazil and 57% in Russia. These figures represent more than just a tiny elite: Between 15 and 25% of young women in the BRICs/UAE are now college-educated — a substantial number. And they’re not just earning degrees: They are bursting with the desire to use them.

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Highly educated women the world over are ambitious, but ambition and aspiration among BRIC/UAE women is off the charts. New data from the Center for Work-Life Policy show that 85% of female college graduates in India and 92% in the UAE consider themselves very ambitious, compared to a paltry 36% in the U.S. In India, 86% of college-educated women are shooting for the top job, closely followed by their counterparts in Brazil (80%) and China (76%).

And turbo-charged ambition is paying off. In Brazil, 14% of the CEOs of large companies are female; in India, the figure is 11%. Meanwhile, the number of women who head up Fortune 500 corporations in the United States and FTSE 100 firms in the United Kingdom is stuck at less than 5%. What’s behind these startling numbers? Our study — which is based on rich, new data — describes opportunities and obstacles, which are surprisingly different from those in the West.

Unlike in the U.S. and Western Europe, childcare, for example, does not pose the same career challenge; a robust network of relatives combined with inexpensive domestic help give BRIC/UAE women multiple shoulders to lean on. They are not knocked off track by childbearing. Another important reason: smart companies facing shortages of skilled workers in emerging markets are “leap-frogging” established practices in the West and designing workplaces and career models conducive to female success. For example, the global business-services firm Genpact offers work-from-home, extended maternity leaves and sabbatical options. These alternatives help the firm maintain one of the lowest turnover rates in India. Pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim’s “Extended Business Trip” program allows high-potential women to gain international experience without sacrificing family time by offering shorter assignments, arranging for the women to visit home every month and providing childcare and eldercare for those who bring family members along.

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This is not to say that BRIC/UAE women don’t have their own distinct set of career challenges. Eldercare has the potential to blow up careers just as women reach the peak of their potential. The vast majority of women surveyed — 81% — have significant duties on the eldercare front and find it more difficult to subcontract their mother-in-law than their children. In China, daughterly guilt is a bigger issue for working women than maternal guilt. Discrimination is another career derailer in emerging markets. More than half of educated women in India, 48% of their counterparts in China, and 40% of Brazilian women professionals feel they receive inferior treatment at work because they are women. Some encounter bias severe enough to make them consider scaling back their career goals or quitting altogether. Exacerbating these issues are protracted — and often unsafe — commutes endured by women in Moscow and Mumbai, Shanghai and Sao Paulo, Bangalore and Beijing.

These barriers underscore the fact that the challenges faced by emerging-market women can be quite different from their counterparts in developed countries. Consequently, the solutions cannot be transplanted versions of what works in the U.S. and Western Europe. These rapidly expanding countries are the growth engine of the world — and their educated women are helping to power the dynamo. Considering the skills and the attitudes women bring to the table in these markets, strides they’ve already made and their potential to further drive these markets, companies might want to think about how they can similarly nurture female ambition in established economies — and make gender, not geography, a new source of growth.