India's Crown Jewels: Female Talent
This post was co-authored with Ripa Rashid.
Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without India making global economic headlines. But there's one aspect of the "India Inc." miracle that remains a well-guarded secret: the rapid rise in the workplace of educated, ambitious Indian women.
Many Westerners continue to view India as a place where women are poverty-stricken, oppressed, and marginalized. This is true. But India is also the place where educated, highly skilled women are staking their claims and making their presence felt. Last week's Financial Times ranking of the world's top women in business included five Indian CEOs; another study (PDF) finds that 11% of the CEOs of the largest Indian companies are women. As one commentator recently remarked, "For every Indian woman who makes headlines, there is a legion of middle class Indian women in the workplace."
Global companies pinning their growth prospects on this burgeoning market would do well to understand and attract this rich talent pool. New research from the Center for Work-Life Policy offers some fascinating insights.
Women make up 42% of India's college graduates, a figure that has grown steadily over the last two decades and is only expected to rise. Relatively unfettered by cultural preconceptions that steer Western women away from the "hard" sciences, they account for 44% of degrees in the sciences and 25% in business administration, management, or commerce. Also noteworthy: More than 50% of female college grads also hold a post-graduate degree, in comparison to 40% of men. "If you look at the number of top graduates from any Indian school," whether in management or engineering, as one HR manager for a global conglomerate notes, "a disproportionate number are women."
Armed with their freshly minted diplomas, Indian women are hungry to prove themselves. Over 85% aspire to hold a top job, showing levels of ambition nearly double that of their U.S. counterparts and markedly higher than women in Brazil, Russia, or China. Age doesn't affect their determination: Both older and younger Indian women show levels of ambition far higher than their counterparts elsewhere.
What drives this tremendous zeal to achieve? First, in India, academic performance is highly valued for men and women alike. An Indian pharma executive recalled her upbringing: "It didn't matter if you were a boy or a girl. If you came out top of class, that's what was appreciated."
Thanks to the dynamic, fast-expanding Indian economy, there is plenty of room for ambition and aspiration. "You only have to look around to see proof that dreams can become concrete reality in India," said a senior female executive. "People have created fortunes in this market, and it is encouraging to know that one can create opportunities for oneself and achieve great things." The good times in India have been particularly good to those with the right skills; even in the wake of the global recession, India has seen the highest year-on-year salary increase in the region.
A number of leading multinationals are well aware of the importance of nurturing and sustaining ambition among the rich talent pool of women. Genpact the global outsourcing giant, for example, does so through its WeMentor program. WeMentor identifies and pairs 150 high potential women at middle management level with experienced leaders in the company for professional guidance. Ernst & Young hosts regular open house "Family Days" at its Shared Services Center in Bangalore. These sessions, which draw together 25 to 30 members of employees' families for a show and tell about the work environment are an important way for married women to gain valuable support from family members, such as in-laws and parents, for their work choices.
The result? Ambitious women in India are also remarkably loyal to companies that respond to their needs. While a common assumption paints top talent in India as fickle job-hoppers — switching employers at the promise of a bigger paycheck — Indian women express considerable commitment: 68% consider themselves very loyal to their employers, and 81% value job security as a top priority, both figures notably higher than for men.
"When I tried hiring women from companies that got it right, I couldn't do it," remarked an HR executive for a U.S.-based multinational. "At the end of one of those meetings, one candidate said to me, 'You can offer us better salary and benefits but as a woman in India, a lot of other things matter. How do I know your company's culture, your language, and how it will be perceived if I leave at 3:00 to take care of my kids? Why would I give up the familiarity and flexibility I have here for a 20% pay hike?'"
Companies expanding their Indian operations have a rare opportunity to "get it right" by recognizing the talent of these ambitious and well-qualified women. Those that do will reap a rich reward for years to come.
Co-author Ripa Rashid, senior vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy, has worked across Europe, the Americas, and Asia-Pacific. She is the coauthor of the Harvard Business Review article "The Battle for Female Talent in Emerging Markets" and forthcoming Harvard Business Review Press book, Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets.