Talent in China: A Legion of Ambitious, Qualified Women

This post was co-authored with Ripa Rashid.

In the decades since Deng Xiaoping instituted market reform, millions of women have profitably followed Deng's dictate that "to get rich is glorious." Half of the 14 billionaires on Forbes magazine's 2010 list of the world's richest self-made women are from mainland China. Chinese women in powerful business positions include Wei Sun Christianson, CEO of Morgan Stanley, China; Mei Yan, Managing Director of MTV Networks, China; and Mary Ma, former CFO of Lenovo and managing director in global equity giant TPG, who recently started her own investment fund. Backing them up are legions of qualified and ambitious women who, increasingly, are the engines powering China's economic juggernaut.

These women offer a solution to a cutthroat war for talent in one of the world's fastest-growing economies. One recent survey showed that 40 percent of employers in China had difficulty finding the right talent to fill openings, a 25 increase percent since 2009, while 92 percent of the companies in another survey say their competitive power is "affected" by the shortage of key talent. Yet few employers have maximized the potential — or realized the power — of China's "white-collar" women professionals.

New research from the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP) explores and analyzes the complicated career dynamics of this rich talent pool. The findings of "The Battle for Female Talent in China" will be presented on March 22 in Beijing.

Like their Western counterparts, the study found, Chinese women are graduating from universities at nearly the same rate as men. They make up nearly 40 percent of MBA students at top-ranked programs at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai and Tsinghua University (nicknamed "the Chinese MIT"), comparable figures to the best schools in the U.S. But the similarities end there.

Sixty-five percent of the more than 1,000 college-educated women surveyed consider themselves very ambitious, compared to 36 percent of their U.S. counterparts; 76 percent aspire to a top job versus 52 percent of Americans. One HR leader in China notes, "We often find female candidates to be as competitive, if not more so, than their male counterparts."

One reason for their drive: China's one-child policy. As "the sole hope in the family," women now in their twenties and thirties were taught by their parents that they are just as good as boys — "if not better," says one executive in this cohort. "They definitely don't have an issue with self-worth."

Their diamond-hard determination is further honed by China's intensely competitive school system and encouraged by the benefits of a "modern" lifestyle: a spacious apartment, a fancy car, money for sumptuous vacations, nice clothes and dining out — things they couldn't even have dreamed of possessing when they were growing up. One manager in a multinational corporation explained why she decided against a low-paying academic career, despite scoring third in the nationwide university entrance exam for biology majors. In her third year of university, she was awarded an internship at a large German firm. "I made $3,000 a month. My parents" — professors at a national science academy — "made $600 a month."

Yet communism's push for gender equality still confronts deeply entrenched Confucian values, and the tug-of-war between ambition and tradition can derail even the most motivated high-performing women.

Unlike their Western counterparts, childcare isn't the issue. Instead, eldercare is a heavy burden, and with a rapidly aging population, it will only get worse. The vast majority of Chinese women surveyed — 95 percent — already have eldercare responsibilities. "Daughterly guilt" affects an extraordinary 88 percent, impelling them to relocate to be closer to aging parents, take a higher paid but less stimulating job to pay for eldercare expenses, or even drop out of the workforce entirely. "These sharp differences between Chinese women and their counterparts in other countries show that multinationals can't have one cookie-cutter global policy for women," says Rosalind Hudnell, Chief Diversity Officer and Global Director of Education and External Relations, Intel.

Multinational organizations expanding their presence in China and Chinese companies extending their reach into the global marketplace have a unique opportunity to help China's career women keep their ambitions on course. Among the programs being implemented in China, GE Women's Network and Women at Intel Network help women overcome cultural challenges through initiatives aimed at boosting self-confidence, inter-cultural communication skills and networking ability. Genpact's WeMentor program and Standard Chartered's Women in Leadership Programme strengthen the pipeline of high-potential women through specific career development action plans. One Standard Chartered program participant later commented, "It made me understand what is needed to reach a senior management position."

The payoff? Ambitious Chinese women are astonishingly loyal to employers that respond to their needs. Despite the fact that that securing and retaining top talent is a "major, persistent problem," according to a recent Booz & Co. study, the female CWLP respondents display impressive levels of commitment: In contrast to a recent survey which found a mere 21 percent of global workers to be engaged in their work, 88 percent of Chinese women consider themselves very loyal to their employers, and 76 percent are willing to "go the extra mile."

For all companies, supporting China's qualified women isn't just a nice thing to do. It's absolutely necessary. "Women should be an essential part of every company's China strategy," says Edward Tse, Chairman for Greater China, Booz & Company. "Understanding the unique needs of this talent pool is one of the most overlooked secrets to succeeding in this complex market."

Co-author Ripa Rashid, executive 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.

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