In 2015, 20 years after 189 countries adopted a blueprint to achieve equality for women, UK’s The Guardian newspaper reported the United Nations as saying: “A girl born today will be an 80-year-old grandmother before she has the same chance as a man to be CEO of a company – and she will have to wait until she is 50 to have an equal chance to lead a country.”

Although the discussion around gender equality in government, the workplace and society is not new – and many may feel that the conversation is getting rather tired – the above quote highlights that while women have made significant progress within this sphere, they are nowhere close to achieving an equal standing within society, and especially not as leaders.

Since the days of feisty feminism, courtesy of the 70s and 80s, are over, women need to employ a fresh approach to driving the numbers of female leaders and role models in society. In our book Women Leadership in Emerging Markets, we set out to tell a different story, by changing the lens through which we view women in leadership within the emerging market sphere. We looked to identify not only the barriers, but the opportunities being offered to women, and then seek the best solutions for change.  

Up until now, western feminism has focused on the glass ceiling. This concept, however, does not exist for many women within emerging markets. In fact, many of them are still stuck in the proverbial basement, with no way out. It is for this reason that any disruption to the status quo needs to be dealt with more holistically, and across all segments and layers of society.

Emerging market barriers

The first step to creating change is to understand where girls, and then women, are encountering barriers on their leadership journey. Although we recognise that there are many issues shared by women around the world, women in emerging markets have more societal hurdles holding them back. These barriers, our research shows, are driven by culture, tradition and religion.

In our book we interviewed 53 top-tier business leaders, 46 women and seven men, from a number of emerging markets, including the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) along with people from Poland, Malaysia, Malawi and Uganda, who straddled a range of professions including accounting, consulting, law, engineering and medicine. What emerged was the fact that although the various countries were unique in their challenges, the slow progression of women in leadership roles followed a number of similar themes: the feminisation of poverty, lack of access to birth control, lack of education, a lack of access to finance for both further education and entrepreneurship, and lack of employment opportunities, to list just a few.

It is for this reason that we wrote a book specifically focused on women from these worlds. Our aim was not to drive home a feminist agenda and push women’s rights to the exclusion of men. Instead we set out to give a voice to the women in emerging markets, and to inspire them through the voices of our interviewees. We sincerely hope that the resilience of the 46 women we interviewed, who are true pioneers and role models, will help motivate many more women.

Exit points

Before we can set about attempting to change the status quo and take up these opportunities as women, it is important that we understand the exit points for women in emerging markets. This requires us to ask what factors determine whether or not a woman will go the distance. This discussion needs to take place without making value judgements about whether women chose, or not, to move into positions of leadership. One of our primary messages in this book is that women need to have a choice about all aspects of their lives, but integral to that choice is having equal opportunities to advance if they so desire.

Our research led us to develop a conceptual framework of a woman’s leadership journey. This framework gives a very clear indication of the various exit points on the leadership journey where women will opt out. Understanding these exit points is vital as it gives a very clear picture of where changes need to be made to enable more women to reach top echelons of leadership.

Factors influencing women include parental role models, teachers and access to finance. Issues surrounding contraception and family planning and their choice around when to start a family is another challenge that sees a number of women exit the leadership journey. Corporate culture and flexi-hour support also influence a woman’s decision to remain in the corporate space. And once women become more senior they then start focusing on leadership goals and styles, and it is only here that they start to encounter what we term the sticky floor or ladder, and the glass ceiling. 

Unlocking doors

Once we understand these exit points, we see that at the root of the gender-equality problem is the need to start changing mindsets early on in the lives of young girls. This also tells us that society must stop looking at gender equality through siloed lenses and look at it rather in conjunction with race and class, and then stand back and note the intersectionality of it all.

Through our research we identified three areas where work needs to be done. Collaborative efforts need to take place between three tiers: government or the macro-level, the meso- or corporate level, and the micro- or personal level. Perhaps, however, the biggest responsibility in driving change lies in the hands of women themselves. They need to start believing in themselves and their abilities more to lead authentically. They need to realise that women can have it all – motherhood and leadership – and they need to start asking for what they want, stand up for what is right and negotiate better packages for themselves. They also need to start educating all children from an early age around issues of gender equality.

Summing this up is the force-field analysis in Figure 1 below, showing the overall forces needed to drive change, and those that are encouraging the status quo.

Figure 1: Force-field analysis of workplace gender inequality in emerging markets.

A win-win

“One reason people resist change is that they focus on what they have to give up instead of what they have to gain,” said Pastor Rick Godwin. This is especially true when it comes to addressing gender inequality. Research tells us that organisations with greater female representation in leadership roles have a noticeable impact on the competitiveness of businesses, so why turn away from a proven business advantage?

Secondly, it is important to note that gender equality is not something to do just for the sake of having more women in leadership. Rather it is about having the right calibre of women in decision-making roles, women who can help to create a different ethos of doing business. John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio’s book The Athena Doctrine, shares how their survey of 64 000 people from around the world found that “traditionally feminine leadership roles are now more popular than the macho paradigm of the past.” Women and men bring different aspects to a leadership team and, working together, they complement each other.

And finally, gender equality in the workplace is seeing that men are increasingly seeing similar benefits to women, including paternity leave and greater work-life balance; ideals espoused by their female counterparts.

Women Leadership in Emerging Markets: Featuring 46 Women Leaders by Shireen Chengadu and Caren Scheepers, R558,

“...women need to employ a fresh approach to driving the numbers of female leaders...”

“...ask what factors determine whether or not a woman will go the distance”



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