To outsiders, the Chinese economic juggernaut seems unstoppable. Insiders, however, know that the continued success of the world’s second-largest economy – and that of multinational corporations pinning their financial future on its vast market – faces a substantial obstacle: an intensifying war for top home-grown talent.
A new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy spotlights a solution that, up to now, has received almost no attention: educated Chinese women. More than 125 representatives of multinationals and local organizations – both men and women – gathered in Beijing recently for a conference presenting the data. For many, the research findings were startling, as were its implications for their own talent challenges.
To begin with, the study found, Chinese women are graduating from universities at nearly the same rate as men. Women also represent nearly 40 percent of MBA students at such top-ranked programs as China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and Tsinghua University, aka “the Chinese MIT.”
Chinese women consider themselves very ambitious at nearly twice the rate of their U.S. counterparts – 65% versus 36%. Having been born under China’s one-child policy, today’s 20- and 30-year-olds received the full force of their entire family’s hopes and dreams.
“They definitely don’t have an issue with self-worth,” noted one executive, a comment backed up by CWLP statistics: 83% are eager to be promoted and 76% want the top job.
Furthermore, as Denice Kronau, Siemens’ Chief Diversity Officer, points out, China’s career women have a wealth of role models, starting with their mothers: 82% of the women surveyed had mothers who worked. They also have what Pully Chau, Chairman and CEO, Greater China Draftfcb, calls “a cultural inheritance for multi-tasking. We’re used to being good moms, good daughters and good leaders. That makes us able to sustain high performance in tough times.”
But while the CWLP report describes the many strengths educated women bring to their employers, conference participants were quick to identify the forces that threaten the full utilization of this vital tranche of talent.
“There’s a huge price to pay for family values,” observes Cezary Statuch, Vice President Medical Emerging Markets, Bristol-Myers Squibb. Nearly all Chinese women – 95 percent – already shoulder eldercare burdens, obligations which will only increase in synch with China’s rapidly aging society. “Daughterly guilt” affects an extraordinary 88% of respondents. Maternal guilt hits 86%. “It’s harder for women to balance marriage, children, eldercare and careers, and, as a result, it will be harder for employers” says Kelvin Koh, Director of Greater China Research, Goldman Sachs.
Extreme jobs have become the norm. Survey respondents in full-time jobs average 71 work hours a week at global multinationals and 72 hours a week in China-headquartered companies.
The situation is getting worse: 31% report working more hours currently than they did three years ago, an average of an additional 18 hours per week. On top of this are crushing travel demands, with 30 percent of the women surveyed reporting a large amount of domestic travel as a regular part of their work.
The toll is tremendous. Attendees heard about an executive woman at a multinational technology firm who plaintively requested, “I just want to have one meal with my family every day.” When her request was ignored, she saw no option but to quit. “Something clearly needs to be done or this will deplete the female workforce early in their careers,” warns Kelvin Koh.
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