I think multinational companies like to recruit women in China,’’ an ex-pat female senior executive in Beijing explained to me recently. ‘’They are more likely to have the language skills, a cooperative management style and are enthusiastic about working for foreign firms which are more likely to promote them.’’
Some of the research confirms this impression, putting China way ahead of the U.S. and making most Western countries look like a bastion of backwardness. An example is the latest report from consulting firm Grant Thornton, which puts China’s senior management at 51 percent female.
Now some of this data has to be taken with more than a grain of salt, especially since last year’s report from the same survey had just 25 percent of Chinese senior managers as female. Even China can’t possibly change that fast. Yet it does seem to reflect the reality of what I have seen in many multinationals’ statistics. Foreign firms are tapping into a vibrant pool of high-performing female talent in China in greater numbers than they do in most Western countries. This is also true in a number of other emerging countries.
International companies are discovering that they can often cherry-pick the very best female talent in countries where the local firms still discriminate against women. They also discover that the best male talent would often rather work for local firms which may offer better long-term prospects and tempting job roles without having to leave the country. So the choice, as one manager put it to me, is simple: ‘’In terms of local talent, it’s between first-rate women or second-rate men.’’
Smart, highly educated, ambitious women are increasingly learning to prefer the opportunities that global companies offer them over the sometimes-stodgy cultural norms of local firms that are reluctant to promote them. And interestingly, the result is that multinational companies end up with better gender balance in new markets than they ever managed to get at home.
(Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of 20-first, one of the world’s leading gender consulting firms, and author of “HOW Women Mean Business.”)