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Worldwide Locations

Women and the Workplace

Indian women work at a fluorescent light assembly line at an Ajanta plant in Morbi, some 265 km from Ahmedabad, on March 7, 2010. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian women work at a fluorescent light assembly line at an Ajanta plant in Morbi, some 265 km from Ahmedabad, on March 7, 2010. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Vishakha N. Desai

Originally published in the Times of India, Sept. 15, 2010

NEW YORK, Sept. 15, 2010 - Even as Western Europe and the US struggle to emerge from the global recession, China and India are surging ahead. China is projected to become the world's largest economy within the next decade; India could leapfrog Japan into third place in individual country GDP rankings as early as 2012. One of the chief engines of these explosive economies: educated women.

Educated women are pouring into the professional workforce in China and India, with profound implications for national and multinational corporations. Yet even as employers rely on this growing cadre of "white-collar" women, many have little understanding of the complicated career dynamics of this rich tranche of talent. Misconceptions abound, from cultural cartoons to western wannabes.

The ambitions of female talent in the top two emerging markets and the challenges they encounter are complex, fundamentally different from their western counterparts and significantly nuanced, according to a recent study from the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy (published in the Harvard Business Review). To begin with, despite many similarities, accomplished women in China and India are not interchangeable.

Chinese and Indian women demonstrate stratospheric levels of aspiration—76 percent and 86 percent respectively aspire to a top job, double that of their counterparts in the US. But while 85 percent of Indian women consider themselves "very ambitious," only 65 percent of Chinese feel the same. This may be partially due to the fact the concept of female ambition is seen through a negative prism in China.

Furthermore, while women of both nationalities demonstrate impressive levels of loyalty to their employers, 85 percent of Indian women say they are willing to "go the extra mile," compared to 76 percent of Chinese. Lastly, while ambition holds up throughout an Indian woman's career lifespan, it inexorably sinks in her Chinese counterpart.

The first broad-based generation to assume the right to a career confronts entrenched social mores that both sustain and sabotage them as they create new roles. Communism's egalitarian legacy left the expectation that Chinese women would work, regardless of marital or maternal status. In contrast, more than half of Indian women experience pressure from their spouses and in-laws to quit working when they get married. Even after having a first child, only 35 percent of Chinese women were pressured to "drop out," while 52 percent of Indian women were criticised for continuing their career.

Next: "Cultural constraints limit women's mobility and hamstring their career potential."