Stories From the Field: Global Challenges for Women

April 18, 2013Imagine living in a place where you are not identified by your own name alone, but in relation to a man: you are not simply you; you are known formally as the “wife of” or “daughter of” someone else.

Imagine being a successful businesswoman but unable to speak of your success in public for fear of drawing attention to yourself and your family as potential targets of violence and crime.

Imagine being intelligent, talented, and ambitious, but unable to realize your full potential because your husband, mother-in-law, professors, or government do not support your career.

These are just a few of the challenges women in a number of emerging markets around the world face in their workplaces and wider communities.

Two weeks ago, Catalyst’s Research Center for Career Pathways convened a group of academics, business practitioners, and policy makers from a range of disciplines, industries, and nations—including Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the U.S. —for an inaugural symposium: “Career Paths in Emerging and Mature Markets—Global Trends, Gender Gaps, and Game Changers.” The event, held in Bangalore, India, and hosted by Dell, the Center’s lead sponsor, was designed to identify cutting-edge paths of inquiry for future study that will allow businesses, media, governments, and individuals in these markets to gauge women’s progress and develop action plans to advance women into leadership.

In addition to discussing the challenges women face in emerging markets and opening up new avenues of research, policy, and practice in these areas, the participants shared compelling stories about global obstacles to women’s advancement, as well as those specific to women in emerging markets. These stories imbued our conversations with a sense of depth and personal connection and lent context and color to the entire event.

Here are a few of the many stories that resonated with us:

One businessperson spoke of engaging with male colleagues who couldn’t understand why women’s groups exist around the issue of violence against women in Mexico:

“I have asked male colleagues to think of ten women they know. Then I ask them to pick seven of the ten women to be physically assaulted. Who would they choose? It makes them realize how disturbing the rate of violence against women in Mexico is.”

Most of us are aware of the gender stereotypes that lead people to “think leader, think male.” But it’s one thing to understand this intellectually and to know in the abstract that it occurs, and quite another to live the reality. A woman with a senior role at a consulting firm in India told the following story:

“Often my male clients would refuse to meet with me alone, even though I was leading the project. They would ask, ‘Isn’t there anyone more senior, a man maybe, who could be present at this meeting?’ So time and again I would have to ask my male manager, who had nothing to do with the account, to come sit in on the meeting. He would reluctantly join as a silent male representative, while I would give the presentation and field all of the questions.”

It isn’t surprising that bias and stereotyping of this sort exist in emerging markets. But the reality is that even in progressive developed countries, including those frequently lauded for their commitment to diversity and cultures of equality, stereotypes about women and leadership still persist. A researcher and business school professor in one such country said:

“A few years ago, I was teaching an MBA class with both male and female students. I organized a formal mentoring program to connect the students with successful businesswomen. One very successful businesswoman who owns several companies hosted a barbeque at her house for the 14 students, but only five showed up and the rest didn’t even bother to say that they weren’t going to come. These students, our future leaders, probably did not feel that this business leader and eager mentor would have anything useful to offer them, simply because she was a woman.

These stories provide insights “from the field” that will aid us in developing strategies to promote gender equity—and they inspire us all to be catalysts for change.

What experiences have you had that reflect the challenges women still face around the world? What successes have you had in overcoming them?

Please join this important conversation by sharing your story below!

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.