The millions of women who have poured into the workforce in emerging markets over the past decade are used to overcoming obstacles but few are more difficult, infuriating, and demeaning than their daily commute. Corporations hoping to boost their bottom lines in these expanding markets may think that their obligations to their employees are limited to improving the workplace environment. But what if their female talent can't get to work in the first place?
That's a real problem, according to our new book, Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution. Horrible commutes are a fact of life in emerging market metroplexes. In IBM's ranking of the world's worst commutes, Beijing and Mexico City each scored 99 out of a possible 100 "pain points." New Delhi, Moscow and Sao Paolo aren't far behind. Among Beijing residents surveyed, 84% blame the congestion, incessant honking, and nerve-shredding daily automotive gauntlet for adverse work performance. Moscow drivers, hardened veterans of sclerotic traffic, reported an average delay of two-and-a-half hours when asked to report the length of the worst traffic jam they experienced in the past three years.
"AWFUL roads and awful traffic," moans an IT manager in Bangalore. "The traffic is time-consuming and stressful. I am so much more productive on work-from-home days."
A special circle of commuter hell is reserved for women using public transportation in emerging markets. Taunting, catcalls, pinching, groping, and other forms of harassment are so common and so persistent, according to research from the Center for Work-Life Policy, that one-third of women in Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates feel unsafe using public transportation to get to and from work. In Brazil, the number skyrockets to 62%. A recent USAID study in India found that commuting concerns were a primary reason for women to consider quitting their jobs.
Smart employers, however, can step up to offer support in a variety of ways:
Stagger office hours. When all of HSBC India's employees were required to be at work by 8:30 a.m., many had to leave home at dawn to navigate India's infamous traffic. With staggered hours, employees can choose the time most preferable for them to arrive or leave, as long as they work a regular nine-hour day and those hours cover the peak period between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Being able to come in at 9:30 "gives me a lot of flexibility," says Nikunj Upadhyay, vice president of organizational development. "I can exercise or do yoga. That hour is very valuable for just taking care of myself." Since HSBC introduced staggered hours and other flexible work arrangements three years ago, it has posted the lowest attrition record in the industry.
Encourage work-at-home options. Virtual work options that are increasingly familiar in the West remain rare in many emerging markets, where the tradition of face time still prevails. "The traffic is a huge waste of time," grouses a Beijing-based senior executive for a global financial firm. She estimates she could save two hours a day if she didn't commute, giving her that much more time for clients, as well as for her family. "I don't think it's necessary for me to be physically in the office all the time," she says. "A lot of internal work can be done by videoconferencing. And if people produce results, what's the big deal?"
Provide protection. Almost every Brazilian woman interviewed for our book has been the victim of a mugging, often right outside their office building. A recent U.S. State Department report warned, "Violent crimes, such as ... armed assault and occur regularly" in Sao Paolo and Rio. After one woman complained to the company president, a system of bodyguards for women was established. "The president was a clever guy," she recalls. "He knew the women were the ones working long hours because they were dedicated. So he said, 'Anyone who has to leave the office after 7 p.m. has the right to a bodyguard to take you to the bus, train or parking lot.' After that, I felt safe."
Offer alternatives to public transportation. Most high-tech firms in India routinely provide buses or commuter vans that shuttle employees from train stations and other pre-arranged stops to their campuses. Google goes one step further by offering shared cabs for its 1,200-plus workers at sites in Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Gurgaon. The company outsources the door-to-door service to contractors, which provide trained drivers and clean, air-conditioned cars — a huge plus in India's hot and humid climate. Best of all, the service is free.
Workdays aren't confined to within office walls. For many women, the workday begins the moment they step out of their front door — and what happens next strongly determines not just how productive they will be but also where they want to work, what type of career they pursue, and whether to accept certain positions. Employers may consider commuting woes none of their concern, but it's clear that they can do something about it — and should. By making rush hours a little less loathsome, companies can attract, retain, and make the most of their female talent in these expanding economies.