As Emerging Multinationals Take Off, Are They Leaving Women at the Gate?

Breaking the glass ceiling … balancing work and family … equal pay for equal work … there’s no shortage of public discussion about women and corporate life. Books like Amy Cuddy’s Presence and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In have become best-sellers. Many large employers have instituted mentoring and job advancement programs for women. (How effective these are is a separate issue, of course.)
Much of the conversation has been focused on women working in the United States, Europe and other developed nations. But what’s happening at emerging multinational companies in developing markets?
To Mauro Guillen, Wharton management professor and director of The Lauder Institute, it is obvious that emerging multinationals should make an effort to include women in their workforce. Noting the much-reported fact that a large proportion of today’s university and MBA students are female, he stated, “If you don’t hire, attract and retain women executives … you are discarding half the talent pool graduating from business schools Twitter .”
In Branka Minic’s view, having more women in managerial positions can bring added value to emerging multinationals. Minic is the founder of Future Work, a Miami-based consulting firm, and a member of the former World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Youth Unemployment. She cites a recent study inHarvard Business Review, which found that teams containing women have greater collective intelligence, and make better decisions, than teams consisting of only men.
But gender equality in the global workforce has been slow to take root. The January 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) report “The Industry Gender Gap” surveyed 371 leading global employers and stated, “Female talent remains one of the most underutilized business resources, either squandered through lack of progression or untapped from the onset.” The report said that although women are now more educated than men globally, their chances of rising to leadership positions are only 28% of those of men. Moreover, women make up less of the workforce overall, and continue to be paid less than men.
In a similar vein, a 2015 McKinsey report called gender inequality “not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge.” It estimated that $12 trillion could be added to the global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality.
Different Geographies, Complex Cultures
Emerging markets in particular seem slow on the uptake. Another WEF report — the 2015 Global Gender Gap report — ranked nations based on women’s economic participation and opportunity as well as education, health and political empowerment. Here the BRIC economies, for example, did not fare well. Russia ranks only 75th out of 145 countries. Brazil and China made an even worse showing at #85 and #91 respectively. And India, which many now consider the BRIC with the brightest prospects, hovers near the bottom at #108.
“If you don’t hire, attract and retain women executives … you are discarding half the talent pool graduating from business schools.”–Mauro Guillen“In the Western world … there are many technologies and benefits that women are already leveraging to be able to balance various responsibilities,” says Minic. “Also, men have changed dramatically over the last decade,” she adds, citing men’s increased participation in child-raising and taking care of the household. “But in the emerging economies, these changes have not taken yet, except maybe in some very, very modern cities. So I think that women face a lot more challenges if they work for emerging multinationals.”
In some regions, the barriers are very apparent. “In the Middle East and maybe North Africa, there are a number of countries where it is not well regarded if a woman works, or if she works alongside men … it’s even prohibited in some [areas],” Minic notes. In other regions, the barriers are more insidious: In the Industry Gender Gap report, unconscious bias by managers and a lack of work-life balance emerged as the top two roadblocks to gender parity across all industries.
An American in Korea
An American woman who preferred not to use her real name — we’ll call her Sarah — was hired at a large Korean multinational about five years ago after earning her master’s in international studies and her MBA from an elite institution. “The funny thing is, when I first went to business school, I told all my friends ‘Whatever you do, don’t work for a Korean company.’” Her reason was that the country has notoriously long working hours — in fact, the third longest (after Mexico and Costa Rica) out of 40 OECD-ranked countries. (The U.S. ranks 16th.) “You’re basically guaranteed not to have a good work-life balance [there], and nobody cares,” she says.
After working for over three years as a manager at the company’s Korean headquarters, Sarah is now employed in in one of its U.S. offices. She says, “It’s totally fine [working] here, but if you’re working in Korea that’s a different picture.”
She characterizes Korean culture as “very hierarchical, paternalistic, very traditional in a lot of ways,” noting that the overall status of women is “fairly poor considering how well-developed the country is according to all different kinds of metrics.” There is little workplace flexibility, she says, and the long working hours make it very difficult for a married couple to both hold jobs. “I really rarely saw couples in Korea where two people work for a major corporation…. And there’s this idea about men and their position in the family, so you’re not going to have a stay-at-home dad.”
Working from home is virtually unheard of, according to Sarah. “People don’t work from home in Korea.” She notes when her company introduced a working-remotely pilot program for the many thousands of employees in its home country, only 10 people participated.
Sarah emphasizes that her company hires plenty of women, many right out of college, but the real issue is retention and promotion. “They just think that over time these women are going to move up through the organization … but it takes more than just hiring entry-level women to actually later on have female executives.” Most women leave when they get married, or at the latest when they have a second child, she says.
A 2015 McKinsey report estimated that $12 trillion could be added to the global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality.
During Sarah’s tenure in the Korean office, the company proudly announced that it had doubled its percentage of female executives from about 1% to 2%. “A Korean girlfriend who worked in an adjacent team and I [said to each other,] ‘If that were our market share, it would be considered a real cause for consternation….’ You can’t brag about having 2% female executives.”
An American in South Africa
Rachel Balsham is also an American working for an emerging multinational, although a much smaller one than Sarah’s conglomerate (Balsham describes her firm as a “mature start-up”). She is the deputy CEO of the Johannesburg-based MFS Africa. The company connects mobile money systems in different countries, and facilitates real-time transfers from mobile phone to mobile phone. “Which is a huge thing, because inter-African remittances are about a $12 billion industry,” she notes.
Balsham describes her company as having “very good gender representation.” She says the CEO and CTO are men, but the head of key accounts is female. In addition, “there’s me; the senior software developer is a woman, and half of the tech team is female. We’re about 30 people and close to two-thirds are tech.” She says she also observes many women in leadership positions at MFS’s client companies, which include major mobile companies such as Orange, MTN, and Vodacom.
She describes her company’s dominant culture as “accommodating and very pragmatic…. We’ve had three people go on maternity leave in the last 18 months, two in customer support and one in tech…. It really hasn’t been something that causes gasps or hushed conversation or requires a working group.” She adds that the CEO and many other men in the organization are parents as well.
In Balsham’s opinion, newer companies such as MFS, and newer industries, may be easier places for women to work in the developing world. She notes that while at a top consulting firm in South Africa, where she worked before joining MFS in 2014, she heard complaints from female co-workers who had clients in extractive industries. These industries, she says, tend to be the more long-established, male-dominated ones in emerging markets. “I’m aware that some of my consulting colleagues were not treated as the senior person in the room when in fact they were, or assumed to be the secretary or the note-taker by their South African very old-school clients.”
“I don’t believe that everyone born after a certain point is less sexist, but I do think that norms are changing,” she says. “If the environment is moving in a given direction, the dominant norms are just going to be more in line with those trends.”
A Peruvian-American Returns
Rosanna Ramos-Velita says she knows very well what it’s like to experience gender discrimination on the job. After coming to the U. S. from Peru to earn a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, she was hired by the subsidiary of a top telecom company in 1984 to work on designing computer chips. In her lab in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she was the only woman and the only professional of Latin descent.
“We have a lot of mothers working for us, and these are very tough jobs … going out into the rural countryside to meet their clients.”–Rosanna Ramos-Velita
“It was a very difficult environment, culturally and professionally,” she says. “I had no idea why my fellow male counterparts were getting better projects than I was. And it’s the typical cliché: They were going out drinking on Friday with my boss, and I didn’t know why I wasn’t invited.” Ramos-Velita points out that the story is still relevant. “It hasn’t changed, unfortunately. You see the same discussion about women in technology.”
Today Ramos-Velita is chairman of Caja Rural Los Andes, a bank in Puno, Peru that specializes in rural microfinance. The bank has over 50,000 clients on either micro-credit or savings, and the majority of customers are women. “The way we do our model is we focus on families. And the key driver in a family is a woman.”
Ramos-Velita says her 500-employee business has a good representation of women both on the board (four out of five) and in management. But she is trying to find ways to make it easier for female employees with children to return to the workforce. “We have a lot of mothers working for us, and these are very tough jobs … going out into the rural countryside to meet their clients.”
Peru has very good maternity programs by law, she says, but she wants to do more. “I really want to create something innovative so that we take advantage of the cycle of life of mothers,” she notes. “Because it’s natural during their period of life to have children and to want to spend time with them, but then … to figure out a way they can come back, with the flexibility they need, and bringing the value that I know they have.”
Future Work’s Minic believes that emerging multinationals worldwide have “a tremendous opportunity” as they grow their workforce to make a real difference for women, in their own countries and the regions into which they expand. “Some very smart leaders, very strategic companies, [could] build their reputation as being the best places for women to work.”

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