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Sylvia Ann Hewlett: China's talent crunch and its suprising solution


An interview with: S.A. Hewlett
Interview by: Giles Metcalfe

Options:     PDF Version - Sylvia Ann Hewlett: China's talent crunch and its suprising solution Print view

Sylvia Ann HewlettSylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP), a nonprofit think tank, where she leads the "Hidden Brain Drain", a task force of 56 global companies and organizations committed to fully realizing female and multicultural talent. In addition, she directs the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Gender Gap.

Here, we discuss why women are the answer to solving China's "talent crunch".

The views expressed herein are those of the interviewee and, unless specifically stated, are not those of Emerald Management First or Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Emerald Group Publishing Limited is not responsible for any content posted by members of the public on this website or for the content of any third party websites. Any links to third party websites do not amount to any endorsement of that site by Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

GM: What was the background to you undertaking the study into how China can solve its talent crunch?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Of all the emerging markets, China is, without a doubt, pivotal to the global economy. With demand for talent far outstripping supply, bridging China's talent gap will require better ways of tapping into, engaging and retaining the full spectrum of the nation's qualified workforce. New research from the Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York-based think tank, finds that the solution is hiding in plain sight: educated Chinese women.

GM: What challenges does China face, and why do women hold the answer?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

The continued 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 cut-throat war for talent. According to Manpower's 2010 Talent Shortage Survey, 40 per cent of employers in China had difficulty finding the right people to fill openings, a 25 per cent increase since 2009; 92 per cent of the companies surveyed by Kelley Services say their competitive power is “affected” by the shortage of key talent, with nearly a quarter – 23 per cent – being “greatly affected.”

Women are the answer. Close to four million Chinese women are graduating from universities and pouring into the workforce each year, nearly the same rate as men. Women make up nearly 40 per cent of MBA students at such top-ranked programs as China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and Tsinghua University (nicknamed “the Chinese MIT”). The number of GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) applicants from the PRC has more than tripled over the past five years; with a ratio of 40 per cent male and 60 per cent female applicants, it is China's young women who are driving this trend.

GM: What characteristics make Chinese women such a potent talent pool? How do they compare to women in the workforce in other countries?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Determined to use their newly minted diplomas to rocket to the top, 65 per cent of the college-educated women surveyed by the CWLP consider themselves “very ambitious,” nearly double the rate of their U.S. counterparts; 76 per cent aspire to a top job versus 52 per cent of Americans. One H.R. leader in China notes, “We often find female candidates to be as competitive, if not more so, than their male counterparts.”

Chinese women are seen by many business leaders to possess distinct advantages over men, especially in skills such as communications and relationship-building, both instrumental to success in multinational corporations. They are also appreciated for their hard work and adaptability. “We have a cultural inheritance for multi-tasking – for being good mothers, good daughters and good leaders all at the same time,” explained a female Chinese CEO of a major media company. “That makes us able to sustain high performance in tough times.”

GM: How does Chinese cultural tradition impact on Chinese women’s career aspirations? What roles do childcare and eldercare play?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

There's a huge price to pay for traditional family values. 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 Chinese women surveyed by the CWLP, 95 per cent already have eldercare responsibilities. Every woman interviewed knows someone who put her career on hold to care for an aging relative. More than half (58 per cent) of Chinese women also provide financial support to their parents or in-laws – an average of 18 per cent of their annual income, the CWLP data show.

The pressure of being a good daughter or daughter-in-law can be crushing: “daughterly guilt” affects an extraordinary 88 per cent of the women surveyed. Adding to a high-achieving woman's burden, China's one-child policy, implemented in 1979, means that women in their twenties, thirties and early forties have no siblings to share the load. China's rapidly aging society will only intensify the problem

Motherhood further amplifies the issues. A typical story is that of one 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 acknowledged feeling torn between their career and their child: 86 per cent are affected by maternal guilt.

GM: In Germany, working mothers who place their children in childcare are often called a "Rabenmutter", literally “raven mother,” one of the worst insults that can be hurled at a woman*. Is Chinese society simply more progressive, or is it a case of “needs must”?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

The social opprobrium or raised eyebrows that accompany the notion, in the West, of separating mothers and children, often for long periods, doesn't exist in China. There's a long tradition of children being apart from their parents during the work week: Many of the women we interviewed spoke of being sent to live with their grandparents in cities to take advantage of better educational opportunities. Despite the high percentage of maternal guilt, many women don't hesitate to choose the same option if they think it will benefit their own child.

GM: Why are Chinese women so ambitious? Is it cultural? A reaction to the conditions they grow up in? Media depictions of the high life?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

One reason for their drive: China's one-child policy. As the only child, Chinese women now in their twenties and thirties were taught by their parents that they are just as good as boys – “if not better,” claims one executive in this cohort. “They definitely don't have an issue with self-worth.” One female CEO of a multinational media organization's Greater China operations is convinced that being an only child was central to her success. “My parents doted on me, that goes without saying,” she says. “But because I was 'the only,' I was also the target of my father’s fierce ambitions. If I’d had a brother, this would not have happened.”

Their soaring ambition is further propelled by the benefits of a “modern” lifestyle: a spacious apartment, a fancy car, money for sumptuous vacations, nice clothes and dining out – things they couldn't have even dreamed of possessing when they were growing up. That's why one manager in a MNC decided against an academic career, despite scoring the third highest ranking in biology in the national university entrance exam. In her third year of university, she was awarded an internship at a large German firm. “I made $3,000 a month. My parents” – professors at the national science academy – “made $600 a month.”

GM: What role does the Chinese education higher education system play in this?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Pressure to excel is instilled in the Chinese education system starting in first grade but it reaches its height in the gaokao, the mandatory national university entrance exam, which determines whether students can attend university and which ones they are eligible for. Often dubbed the “baton” that conducts the whole education orchestra, the gaokao wields such influence that students, parents, teachers, school leaders and even local government officials all work together to produce good scores. With a limited number of spaces available, “your life is made or broken by how well you do,” says a global leadership consultant. “If you make it into the top tier of universities, you're set for life. If you don't, you may be stuck forever.”

GM: You state that the average working week for Chinese women in multinational organizations routinely exceeds 70 hours. Why do they commit to these hours, and how do they cope?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Chinese women accept these arduous hours for a variety of reasons. One is that they are astonishingly loyal to employers that respond to their professional ambitions and personal needs: In contrast to a recent Towers Perrin study which found a mere 21 per cent of global workers to be engaged in their work, 88 per cent of Chinese women surveyed by CWLP consider themselves very loyal to their employers, and 76 per cent are willing to “go the extra mile.”

Another reason is that, much as they might like to take a break to care for their children or elders, they can't afford the financial hit. China's cities are becoming increasingly expensive – Beijing and Shanghai regularly rank high on international cost-of-living lists – and many women work because the best way they can take care of their family is by contributing to the household income.

A third reason to stay is that re-entry opportunities are virtually non-existent. Women sadly joke that the chance of finding a job after dropping out of the market is even smaller than that of finding a wealthy husband.

GM: Does discrimination exist in Chinese business?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Unfortunately, yes. While women have full equality on the books, enforcement is imperfect. It is not uncommon for employers to specify “men only” in job postings, or if they are considering women, especially recent college graduates, to cite demands for height, weight, and an attractive appearance.

Gender bias at work is so common, in fact, that 36 per cent of both men and women surveyed believe women are treated unfairly in the workplace owing to their gender. Problems of bias have been severe enough to make 48 per cent of the women responding to CWLP's survey disengage or consider quitting their jobs altogether.

GM: What obstacles face women trying to fulfil their business ambitions?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Ironically, it's not just male bias that can get in the way of women's advancement. When it comes to projecting the management style, communication abilities and executive presence required to 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 its worse for women and it hurts them more.”

One senior executive at an American MNC recalls that she had to learn how to “unlearn” the submissive demeanour she had been taught was socially acceptable. “When I came to the U.S., I wasn't aggressive about communicating my deliverables. While other team leaders always shared great stories about what their people were doing, I thought our team results would speak themselves. My team got upset with me for not letting everyone know about all the important things they were doing.” She credits her company's management training programme with helping her change her approach.

However, while training can help a reticent person come out of her shell, MNCs should note that in traditional Chinese companies, training is seen not as a perk but as a message that “you're a bad worker and we want to fix you.” One good way to entice Chinese women into a training forum is to bring them together as a group. That will provide an environment of safety where they can share their personal challenges apart from their male colleagues.

GM: How entrepreneurial are Chinese women?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Very entrepreneurial. In the decades since Deng Xiaoping instituted market reform, millions of women have profitably followed Deng's dictate that “to get rich is glorious.” Half of the 14 billionaires on Forbes magazine's 2010 list of the world's richest self-made women are from mainland China. A third of China's 875,000 millionaires, it is estimated, are women. “In privately owned Chinese companies, lots of CEOs are women,” reports Joan Wang, a partner in the venture capital firm SIG Asia Investment. “They think they can achieve better by doing their own thing, rather than going through a career path designed by men or foreigners.”

GM: Why is working in the public sector in China so attractive?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Government jobs generally offer shorter hours and more security than the corporate world, along with a supportive environment where a work unit is like a family, and even subsidized housing and education, serious factors in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, whose sky-rocketing living costs strain even a two-salary family budget. Government agencies are not automatically peopled by uncreative, obstructionist drones. Some, at least on the local and provincial levels, are trying to overcome a reputation for stagnation and corruption, and a significant amount of China's green technology and scientific research is happening within the public sector.

Another attraction: In 2010, more than 6.4 million university graduates entered the job market, up from one million in 1999. The number of high-skilled, high-paying jobs has not kept pace. As a result, the “iron rice bowl” is looking more and more attractive: 57 per cent of the CWLP survey respondents view the public sector as an attractive employer.

GM: Will recruiting Chinese women automatically give multinationals a competitive advantage in the Chinese market?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

Educated Chinese women have much to offer prospective employers. As they catch up and, in some cases, exceed 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. 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 also 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 per cent 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 reflect on the marketplace.”

However, merely recruiting and hiring talented women won't automatically confer a competitive advantage to their employers. Organizations have to establish the practices and processes for managing talent which allow highly qualified and ambitious women to flourish and contribute as fully as their male peers. In China, companies have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leapfrog the competition by creating an environment that attracts, retains and sustains the best and brightest women. Those forward-thinking companies that learn to tap into the vast potential of female talent in China will certainly gain a lasting competitive advantage and ensure continued growth, now and in the future.

GM: You were instrumental in founding the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force. What are the task force’s aims?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

The Hidden Brain Drain Task Force focuses on realizing talent across the divides of gender, generation, geography and culture. An understanding that the full utilization of the talent pool is at the heart of competitive advantage and economic success unites the 63 global companies that comprise the task force – representing four million employees and operating in 190 countries around the world.

GM: What’s next for you?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett:

The work we have done on female talent in emerging markets – Brazil, Russia, India, China and the UAE – has been compiled in a book. Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution will be published by Harvard Business Press in September 2011. For more information about our work, including summaries of our ground-breaking research reports, see

June 2011.

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