Ambitious, educated women and their key role in solving China’s talent crunch

Educated women in China have the same goals as their counterparts in Western countries. However, companies in China don’t seem to know how to create an environment that will appeal to and accommodate the needs of Chinese women. Those companies that learn how to do so will gain a lasting competitive advantage and ensure continued growth.

The Chinese economic juggernaut seems unstoppable. Yet the continued economic success of the world’s second-largest economy – and that of the multinational corporations pinning their financial future on its vast market – faces a substantial obstacle: a cutthroat war for talent.

According to Manpower’s 2010 Talent Shortage Survey, 40 percent of employers in China had difficulty finding the right people to fill openings, a 25 percent increase since 2009. The result? Ninety percent of the companies surveyed by Kelly Services say their competitive power is “affected” by the shortage of key talent, with nearly a quarter – 23 percent – being “greatly affected.”

New research from the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP) suggests a solution that, until now, has been almost completely overlooked: China’s ambitious, educated women.

Few employers have maximized the potential of China’s “white-collar” women professionals. Fewer still are aware of the complicated career dynamics that prevent this rich talent pool from realizing its power – or what they can do in response. This article will explore the power and potential of this overlooked workforce and suggest how companies can make the most of it.

Aiming for the top

Like their Western counterparts, Chinese women are graduating from universities at nearly the same rate as men: Close to four million pour into the Chinese workforce each year.  They make up nearly 40 percent of MBA students at top-ranked programs at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and Tsinghua University (nicknamed “the Chinese MIT”), figures that are comparable figures to those at the best schools in the U.S. But the similarities end there.

Among the more than 1,000 college graduates — MBAs or undergrads — of both sexes surveyed by the CWLP, 65 percent of the women 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. As one HR leader in China notes, “We often find female candidates to be as competitive, if not more so, than their male counterparts.”

What propels their extraordinary determination to succeed? One reason is China’s one-child policy. Introduced in 1979 to control a burgeoning population, the controversial measure has opened opportunities to women now in their twenties and early thirties, especially in the urban areas where the policy was most heavily enforced. “Because I was ‘the only,’ I was the target of my father’s fierce ambitions,” recalls one executive in this cohort.  “If I’d had a brother, this would not have happened.”

In a culture which traditionally valued boys over girls, this reversal opened opportunities for education and achievement which girls eagerly seized. As another senior manager in her 30s explains, “They definitely don’t have an issue with self-worth.”

Their own ambition is honed and hardened by China’s education system and encouraged by the rewards of success: a spacious apartment, a fancy car, money for sumptuous vacations, nice clothes and dining out – perquisites that represent an irresistible attraction when compared to the spare surroundings in which most of these women grew up. That’s why one manager in a multinational corporation decided against following her parents’ footsteps into academia, despite scoring the third highest ranking in biology in the nationwide university entrance exam. In her third year of university she was awarded an internship at a large German firm. “My parents made $600 a month,” she recalls. “I made $3,000 a month.”

Yet a powerful combination of cultural traditions, gender bias and the demanding nature of today’s “extreme jobs” can derail even the most motivated, high-performing woman.


The cost of family values

The tumult of the Cultural Revolution and the loosening influence of market reform may have relaxed some traditional social strictures, but within the intimate circle of the immediate family, age-old expectations persist – and possess surprising force. “There’s a huge price to pay for going against family values,” observes a senior manager at a global pharmaceutical firm.

Interestingly, childcare isn’t the potential career-crippler it can be in the West. Mao Ze Dong’s famous pronouncement that “women hold up half the sky” was a battle cry for women to serve the revolution as soldiers and iron welders, farmers and bureaucrats. More than 80 percent of Chinese female professionals surveyed by the CWLP had a mother who worked during the revolution. The revolution was long over by the time these women were born. But its legacy, as in the former U.S.S.R, is the very high proportion of women in the workforce.

Today’s working mothers can aim high, in part, because they have plenty of shoulders to lean on:  nannies are inexpensive and there is no social stigma in sending one’s child to day care, boarding school or to live with a grandparent during the work week. A typical story is that of a senior manager with a multinational services organization, who drops off her two-year-old daughter with her in-laws every Sunday evening and picks her up on Friday. “Of course I miss the chance to be with my daughter, but working mothers have to focus more on work,” she says stoically.

Still, despite such pragmatism, even very ambitious women admit feeling torn between their career and their child: 86 percent feel maternal guilt. Tradition can trump ambition, warns a global leadership consultant. “Chinese women will feel guilty if they’re not fulfilling their role at home. If they have to trade something, it might very well be their upward mobility.”

The pressure on mothers, however, pales dramatically in contrast to what is demanded of daughters. Every woman in China knows that being a good daughter or daughter-in-law unquestionably trumps satisfying personal career ambitions, no matter how successful that career may be. “In our culture, we take care of our parents,” says one executive in the financial sector. “Whenever they need me, I will be there” — whether that means relocating to be near them (as this woman plans to do), taking a less-stimulating job to free up time to spend with them, or leaving the workforce entirely.

Among the women in China surveyed by the CWLP, 95 percent already have eldercare responsibilities. More than half (58 percent) of Chinese women also provide financial support for their parents or in-laws — an average of 18 percent of their annual income, the CWLP data show. In China, where state support for the elderly can’t keep up with the soaring cost of living, contributions from adult children aren’t just appreciated; they are necessary.

The Confucian ideal of filial piety is one of the virtues that is held above all else. Unlike in the West, putting elders in institutional care is neither a viable nor a palatable option. The nursing homes or assisted living facilities that currently exist are few and, in any case, placing a parent in one is viewed as tantamount to abandonment.

Every woman interviewed knows someone who put her career on hold to care for an aging relative. Adeline Wong’s story is typical. When her mother and aunt fell ill a few years ago, Wong left her job with one of the top venture capital firms in Taiwan. “It was a very good career, but I quit and spent several months taking care of them.”

The pressure of being a good daughter or daughter-in-law can be crushing: an extraordinary 88 percent of the women surveyed feel guilty about the trade-off between work and eldercare responsibilities. Adding to a high-achieving woman’s burden, China’s one-child policy means that women in their twenties and thirties have no siblings to share the load. As China’s rapidly aging society intensifies the problem, more women will inevitably be in the position of Adeline Wong, forced to leave their careers while at the peak of realizing their potential.

Pressures at work

Despite Communism’s push for egalitarian workplaces, gender bias is so common that 36 percent of both men and women in the CWLP study believe women are treated unfairly in the workplace owing to their gender. Problems of bias have been severe enough to make 48 percent of the women disengage or consider quitting their jobs altogether.

Women’s exclusion from male-dominated “power centers” is overt, unquestioned, and intact. A great deal of business and relationship-building takes place outside of work in heavy drinking sessions or local variants of the “golf course” conversations that have long been the exclusive preserve of male executives in the West. Women in China find themselves shut out of these activities because they’re expected to spend their discretionary time with family rather than work-related socializing. That, in turn, makes men less willing to include or invest in women. A partner in a professional services firm in China explains, “Unless you’re lucky enough to have someone reach down and pluck you up in a mentorship role, you’re on your own.”

Yet even with a mentor, when it comes to projecting the management style, communication abilities and executive presence required to attract a sponsor and succeed at multinational corporations, Chinese women can be their own worst enemies. “There’s a high level of humility, self-deprecation and apologizing,” says a partner at a global consulting firm. “Men have the same characteristics but it’s worse for women and it hurts them more.”

Compounding these burdens are crushing work schedules. Survey respondents in full-time jobs routinely chalk up working weeks of more than 70 hours. Driven by the global span of operations, the situation is getting worse. Nearly a third (31 percent) report putting in more time than they did three years ago – an average of 18 additional hours per week.

Furthermore, they are spending a sizable portion of their time stuck in traffic. IBM’s 2010 Global Commuter Pain Study ranked Beijing traffic as tied for the world’s worst; Shanghai isn’t far behind. “The traffic is a huge waste of time,” complains one financial services executive. Being able to work remotely, she calculates, would eliminate two hours of commuting time each day, adding to her efficiency as well as helping her juggle family and work.

Yet there are few alternatives to traditional work models. Despite an overwhelming desire for flexibility (92 percent) of the women surveyed), part-time and virtual work options that are increasingly familiar in the West remain rare in China. Career breaks and sabbaticals are even more uncommon.

With the typical workday stretching to more than 12 hours, it is no surprise that many women leave the corporate career track, opting to start their own businesses or switching to the public sector. Government jobs generally offer shorter hours and more security than the corporate world; some even subsidize housing and education, serious factors in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, whose skyrocketing living costs strain even a two-salary family budget. As a result, more than half (57 percent) of the CWLP survey respondents view “the iron rice bowl” as an attractive career choice. (The “iron rice bowl” is a Chinese euphemism for a government job).

Why employers should care

As China’s educated women catch up and, in some cases, surpass their male counterparts in academic credentials, they bring a rich diversity of opinion and a keen sense of the consumer marketplace to their employers. That marketplace is increasingly dominated by women: for example, female earnings in emerging markets are growing twice as fast as male earnings, and women now control two-thirds of all consumer spending. When translating product development and marketing strategy into emerging markets, the mandate to “think global and act local” in pragmatic terms means “hire more women.”

Women are key to connecting with the mother lode of growth:  the small-to-medium business market. “The SMB market in emerging markets is the market,” explains a senior manager with a global technology firm. “We’re servicing small entrepreneurial companies, and 33 percent of them in Asia are owned by women. If we want to sell into that market, we’ve got to understand who those women are and how they influence the marketplace.”

Last but not least, ambitious Chinese women are astonishingly loyal to employers that respond to their needs. Despite the fact 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 one survey which found a mere 21 percent of global workers to be engaged in their work, 88 percent of CWLP survey respondents consider themselves very loyal to their employer and 76 percent are willing to “go the extra mile.”

What employers can do

Merely recruiting and hiring talented women isn’t enough. Organizations have to establish the practices and processes that enable highly qualified and ambitious women to contribute as fully as their male peers.

Employers can create the conditions that allow talented women to flourish, and that keep them motivated and feeling valued by paying attention. CWLP data make it emphatically clear what educated and ambitious women want from their employers: intellectually stimulating work, plentiful opportunities to learn and develop, smart colleagues and a supportive work environment, fair compensation and relatable job security.

Some successful solutions, which are already in place at multinational corporations, have been customized for their these same corporations’ operations in China:

Programs such as GE Women’s Network and Women at Intel Network help women overcome cultural challenges through initiatives aimed at boosting their self-confidence, inter-cultural communication skills and networking ability. A recent two-day networking event for 50 senior-band GE women was tailored to enhance the skills Asian women need to develop if they want to grow and succeed in a multinational corporation: effective communication, assertiveness, and the ability to make strong presentations. “The ultimate goal is to help our members grow continuously, both professionally and personally, within GE,” the HR manager of GE China explained.

  • Genpact’sWeMentor and Standard Chartered’s Women in Leadership programs strengthen the pipeline of high-potential women through specific career development action plans. One Standard Chartered program participant commented, “It made me understand what is needed to reach a senior management position.” The initial program, aimed at women in middle management, was so successful that it has since expanded to junior and mid-level management one step below.
  • Flextime is still relatively unknown in China. One way to remove the stigma associated with flexible work arrangements is to formalize it and offer options that suit a variety of needs, ranging from an “intermittent flextime” for someone whose job entails late-night telephone calls to someone dealing with ailing elders. Cisco’s Extended Flex program encompasses this full spectrum. It comes complete with training programs for employees, to make them understand the responsibilities involved in taking up flexible work practices and for managers, to help them learn how to manage a flexible workforce. Phase I comprised telecommuting, flexible time and part-time work; Phase II enables workers to take unpaid breaks of between 12 and 24 months, as well as training programs to help returning workers ramp up to speed on their business function.
  • Company programs that encourage a woman’s entire family to get involved in her career help support her ambitions. GroupM China regularly invites family members to show-and-tell sessions about the work environment. Such events demystify the woman’s work and emphasize the message that what she is doing is valuable and worthwhile.

The rapid pace of change in China offers an opportunity for forward-thinking companies to gain competitive advantage with female-friendly policies. Being known as a standout employer has an enduring impact on a company’s image and reputation, enabling it to attract and retain the brightest and best, right from the start and over the long haul. Those companies that learn to tap into the vast potential of female talent in China will gain a lasting competitive advantage and ensure continued growth.

About the Author

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, New York.

About the Author

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, New York.

About the Author

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, New York.