Women in some developing economies are joining the top ranks of business management at the same pace as those in western countries.
This is particularly true in the largest emerging markets, says Saadia Zahidi, head of gender and employment initiatives at the World Economic Forum. The body’s annual Global Gender Gap Index uses economic, educational, health and political indicators to rank 145 economies on how well they are using their female talent pool.
“You have a group of highly skilled women in the higher and middle income brackets who are doing incredibly well and in many cases better in terms of the gender gap and leadership than in [some] developed countries,” says Ms Zahidi.
Notable examples include Somruedee Chaimongkol, chief executive of Thailand’s Banpu, one of Asia’s largest energy companies, and Siza Mzimela, a former South African Airways chief executive who now owns her own airline.
Ms Zahidi says that with 21 per cent of senior company positions held by women, China’s proportion is slightly higher than the US’s 20 per cent.
In some places, legislative changes have helped. Countries such as Kenya, India and Malaysia have introduced quotas for women on corporate boards.
In economies where many businesses are family-owned, it is becoming more acceptable for daughters to take up the reins when leadership is passed to the next generation.
A key reason for the growing success of businesswomen in emerging markets is the increased educational opportunity for women, at least those who can afford a university education. In Asia, the number of top universities is growing. In the 2016 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, 289 Asian universities made it on to the list of 980 universities and 19 — including China’s Tsinghua — are in the ranking’s top 200.
Meanwhile, more women in developing countries are seeking business training. “It depends on the region, but certainly in the last 10 years there’s been an increasing number of women in business education,” says Guy Pfeffermann, founder and chief executive of the Global Business School Network, a non-profit organisation that supports management education in developing countries.
In recent decades, women have either achieved parity with men or are the majority in universities in emerging markets, says Ms Zahidi. “And we’re seeing the pay-off of that in mid-level and senior positions.”
Companies are playing a role, too. For example, Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women programme provides underserved women around the world with business and management education, as well as mentoring, networks and access to capital.
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Some companies in emerging markets are allocating investments to support women’s participation in business, just like their counterparts in rich countries, thanks to the growing recognition of the business benefits of gender diversity in the workplace.
Carmen Niethammer sees this at work among the clients of the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private sector arm. “You have companies that are building childcare centres in rural areas where infrastructure is not there,” says Ms Niethammer, who is head of employment at the IFC’s Gender Secretariat.
She points to India, where companies are investing in childcare facilities. “The IT industry is at the forefront of this,” she says. Even so, when it comes to the inclusion of women among the ranks of senior executives, some regions are advancing faster than others, particularly when it comes to corporate governance.
In 2015, the African Development Bank (ADB) found that while the percentage of board directors who were women in African blue-chip companies (14 per cent) lagged behind the EU’s 18 per cent and the US Fortune 500’s 17 per cent, they did better than those in Asia-Pacific (10 per cent) and Latin America (6 per cent).
Meanwhile, at middle management level, it is Latin America where women are making most gains, says Ms Niethammer. “They have started to bring [women] into middle management,” she says.
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In the 2016 When Women Thrive report from Mercer, the human resources consultancy, Latin America is the only region on track to achieve gender parity in professional-level positions and higher by 2025. It found women in the region were more likely than men to be promoted from every level, and twice as likely to be promoted from senior management.
Women in these markets still face obstacles to advancing their careers, including the need to care for children and other family members.
“One of the biggest barriers to women participating in the paid economy is the amount of unpaid work they have to do,” says Radhika Balakrishnan, director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. “However high up the ladder you are, that still lands on the woman.”