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In a global economy, can you innovate without women?

In a global economy, can you innovate without women?

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Companies in search of talent are looking to women for help. But who will help them succeed? Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett sounds off at The Economist's Human Potential conference.

NEW YORK CITY -- As globalization rears its head, women of the world are asking: what about us?

The global pool of highly educated female workers is limited in some areas, forcing multi-national companies in need of qualified talent to look more broadly, occasionally challenging corporate cultures in emerging economies that may not support the cultivation and retention of female talent.

What's more, developed nations packed with educated female workers such as the United States have their own problems -- namely, that men at the top of the corporate ladder continue to hire replacements in their own image.

The one thing that's clear: it's not gender itself that's the problem, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Speaking to The Economist editor Matthew Bishop in a fireside chat at the magazine's Human Potential conference, Hewlett said there's much that companies can do to leverage the emergence of a majority-female workforce.

CULTURAL CUES

First employers must understand the landscape, which is different in each country.

"Fifteen percent of CEOs of the largest 250 companies in India are female," she said. "In the U.S. it's 3 percent."

"Half of all the self-made female billionaires in world are Chinese," she added.

Part of the challenge is that prejudice against women, subtle or overt, is rampant. But it's unfounded, she said -- especially in emerging economies like Brazil, China and India.

"[Women's careers] are not knocked off course by child bearing," she said. "Childcare does not clobber you in the way it tends to in New York and London."

And the hunger for success is just as present in women as it is in men, Hewlett said. Take Chinese women, for example: of those who are successful, those age 31 and younger are often only children, she said.

"They didn't have brothers," Hewlett said. "They were the full recipients of their father's ambition. As a result, the aspiration of Chinese women is off the charts."

GENDER ISSUES

But hurdles persist. Overall, women in the United States climb "wonderfully" past the lower and middle rungs of career ladders, but get stuck around age 38.

It's not children that prevent them from climbing higher, she said.

"In the U.S., at age 40, 41 percent of professional women in this country do not have children," she said. "The figure in Germany is 46 percent. In Russia and Japan, [there are] equally serious levels of decisions not to have children. Clearly, it's not the nanny problem that's knocking them off track. It's other things."

One problem: men generally don't trust women to fill their shoes, Hewlett said.

"It's very hard to give up power," she said. "It tends to be handed over to mini-mes. People who look and act like you. Because they're going to keep things on track."

RELATIONSHIP CAPITAL

With comparable education, experience and performance, women still get stuck. Part of the problem is that women, minorities and even local talent don't have access to the "relationship capital" to allow for continued success, Hewlett said.

A sponsor -- a superior who will take a bet on a person, advocate for them and help them foster relationships -- can help make the "transformative difference" to a protégé, Hewlett said.

That's in contrast to a mentor, who doesn't really have his skin in the game, she said.

"Women are over-mentored," Hewlett said. "Women have three times more mentors than men do. But they only have half as many sponsors."

While a mentor can offer a one-way street of friendly advice and perhaps a shoulder to lean on, they don't have a voice at the table where the next promotion is provided, Hewlett said. A sponsor is often two levels up in the hierarchy.

"The protégé needs to earn that sponsorship," she warned. "You can't just force-match. You really need to have a deep [belief in their talent]."

"The only way to get those top spots is for someone to talk positively about you at a table where you're not present," she added.

Sponsors derive a lot of benefit from having great protégés, she said, recalling that a chief executive once asked her: "How many people do you have in your pocket?" -- meaning how many sponsors she had over the years.

"There are all sorts of folks out there who owe you one," she said. "That's a little cold and calculating, but it shows the quid pro quo -- the depth of this [two-way] street."

One CEO who worked to build corporate infrastructure for this kind of support is PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi, whose "Power Pair" program ensured that women of color had opportunities to facilitate dialogue and build relationships with immediate and skip-level managers.

APPEALING TO WOMEN DIRECTLY

It's a well-known statistic that women of equal talent, experience and authority receive, on average, less pay than their male counterparts in the U.S. In a down economy, when the bottom line matters most, how can companies such as investment banks attract women who are leaving them in droves?

It starts by looking at other job perks, such as time for a sabbatical or other non-monetary ways to compensate female workers.

"Morale has to do a lot with the quality of the challenge," she said.

Citing the credit rating agency Moody's, which recently received considerable criticism for its failure to act during the global economic crisis, Hewlett said the opportunity to do meaningful work was one way to attract or retain female workers.

Women were found to care twice as much as men that their place of employment was under fire in the public sphere, she said. So Moody's put in place a pro bono effort to provide credit ratings for microfinance ventures, stemming the loss of female workers from its ranks.

"Women loved the idea that they were involved in something that was going to heal the world, that was extraordinarily good," she said. "They were super-enthused. The idea that there can be career development opportunities that are somewhat philanthropic resonates with women."

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure