Women cheered, some men booed, but everyone took notice when Christine Lagarde quipped in 2010 that had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters, the global financial crisis might have looked different.
It was only half a joke. As Ms Lagarde, France’s finance minister at the time and now head of the International Monetary Fund, later wrote: “When women are called to action in times of turbulence, it is often on account of their composure, sense of responsibility and great pragmatism in delicate situations.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it is an argument that emerging markets have recognised better than the developed world. Amid a growing international debate on bridging the gender gap, the rapid economic growth of emerging markets in recent years has greatly increased opportunities for women in business, giving them a boost over their counterparts in developed countries.
This would seem to contradict perceptions dominant in the west of women in developing nations. The more prevalent image is that tradition and social mores in many of these countries, as well as educational and economic disadvantages, limit women’s empowerment in business.
To some extent the perceptions reflect reality: although women lead Argentina, Brazil and Chile, 70 per cent of executives in Latin America say family pressures cause women to leave their jobs, according to a survey by McKinsey, the consultancy.
“Observers in the west tend to see third-world women as victims,” write Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid in their 2011 book Winning The War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution. “In a similar vein, business leaders tend not to have women on their radar screen.
“The fact is that no company can afford to ignore highly qualified female talent if it wants to compete in these fast-expanding economies – and win,” the authors say.
According to Grant Thornton’s 2014 Women in Business report, which surveyed about 6,600 privately owned companies in 45 countries, the proportion of senior roles filled by women across the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) exceeds 30 per cent, compared with about 20 per cent in the G7 group of industrialised nations, and higher than the 24 per cent global average. Some statistics are striking: in China more than 60 per cent of chief financial officers are women.
Across the Brics, the percentage of companies that have no women in senior roles has fallen from 39 per cent last year to 18 per cent this year. In the boardroom too, women in emerging markets score better than the global average.
This special report sheds further light on that progress, with data showing that in China about 30 per cent of entrepreneurs are women.
Six out of 24 self-made female billionaires worldwide on the Forbes 2013 list are from China (including Hong Kong), more than any other country outside the US.
In Turkey, meanwhile, 12 per cent of chief executives are women, according to the World Bank, higher than the EU average.
“Emerging markets do seem really to value some of the things that women bring to boards and senior roles,” says Francesca Lagerberg, global head of tax at Grant Thornton.
With large, fast-growing companies you go from [recruiting for] 50 to 500 posts. The need for talent overcomes barriers
“The approach to business is different and there’s a real recognition that innovation and creativity are sometimes more closely linked to female leaders.”
What lies behind the numbers? One factor is education: as the authors of Winning the War For Talent point out, women in emerging markets are graduating from universities and graduate schools at rates that match and often outstrip those of men.
Family and tradition can work to women’s advantage. In China, and in countries of the former Soviet Union, women’s participation in the labour force has been encouraged; in conservative societies close-knit extended families and affordable help can make it easier for women to work.
The need for women to contribute to the household income has been a driver of ambition – but more jobs also have been available.
Saadia Zahidi, head of gender parity and human capital at the World Economic Forum, says: “If you have large, fast-growing companies – say you go from 50 to 500 posts [in a company] – the need for talent overcomes barriers that may exist.”
Institutional backing for working women has also helped, with growing support for remote working arrangements, flexible hours and paid maternity leave.
Imposing quotas can be less controversial than in Europe. Ms Lagerberg says more and more business leaders in emerging markets say they back board quotas for women. “It’s telling that people engaged in this are beginning to see where it should go. It might be that quotas come in several years’ time, but business leaders are becoming more conscious about process,” she says.
There is still a long way to go. And the risk is that the progress achieved so far will not be accelerated as growth in emerging economies begins to slow.
Far too many women still face social pressures to leave their jobs after having children; their entrepreneurial drive is also stifled by constrained access to credit. The wage gap should also narrow. Even if they might receive equal pay to men when they join the labour force, women find the disparity widens as they move up the organisation.
Ms Lagerberg cites the need for more role models and mentoring to push women up the corporate ladder. “The more you see senior women in role modelling positions, the more you inspire others to come through. You need [mentoring] programmes with a specific diversity element.”
Other experts warn that improvements at the top do not necessarily mean progress at the bottom. The picture for senior women in emerging markets may be brighter than in the west, but women’s participation in the labour force is lower than in Europe or the US.
Ms Zahidi says that in rapidly growing economies such as Brazil, China and Indonesia, women are joining the labour force at relatively faster rates than men.
But in India, women’s participation in the workforce has risen only 4 per cent, to 34 per cent, in the past eight years. “In India, a policy was just passed [which means] all publicly listed companies have to have one female director on board … and there’s a trend to get more women in leadership positions.
“But this is also the country where a lot of the poverty and illiteracy is concentrated among females,” Ms Zahidi says. “Because of cultural implications you see a divergence between low- and high-income women.”
‘Change will be driven as much from an economic as from a social perspective. An economy cannot reach its full potential if it limits the progress of 50 per cent of the workforce.’
‘Chinese women do not feel inferior to men. You might put this down to communism – and that may be right to an extent – but far more important is the fact that women have always worked because they had to. It was difficult for women to stay at home, because it was impossible to support a family on a single income.’
‘Technology has great potential as an equaliser. It does dramatic things: removes barriers; makes geographic distances irrelevant; increases transparency and reduces corruption. It has potential, but we have to watch out for ‘digital divide’. There is a chance women could be left behind.’
‘Vietnam remains quite a traditional country with strong family values, so people tend to have different expectations and doubt our capabilities. If we do well, we are treated equally, but if something goes wrong, we receive greater criticism.’