A White House report puts it bluntly: "Today, younger women are more likely to graduate from college than are men and are more likely to hold a graduate school degree."
For the past decade more American women than men have earned undergraduate and Master's degrees; and in the past three years, they've outpaced men at the doctoral level, too.
Indeed, women's gains in education have outpaced men's over the past 40 years. Yet in the workforce women are not reaching the heights of their chosen industries. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In, has brought national attention to the bleak numbers: In the U.S., women hold only 14 percent of the top corporate jobs, Sandberg writes, and that number has not changed in a decade.
One might assume that this is the case everywhere in the world. But in the emerging economies of the so-called BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — women are surpassing their American and European counterparts in reaching the top rungs of corporate leadership.
"In India, 11 percent of CEOs of the top companies are female," economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "The figure here is 3 percent. In Brazil, 12 percent of CEOs are female. It's also a country with a female head of state. So we have to understand that in some ways, women in these emerging markets are pointing the way."
Hewlett, the author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution, attributes part of this success to the excitement of being in a rapidly growing economy, and the opportunities that are afforded by periods of economic transformation. "I think in the U.S. there's a lot of gender fatigue," she says. "We're surrounded by flat-lined growth, high unemployment, and women are losing heart."
Although women are doing quite well on the lower rungs of career ladders in the U.S. and Europe, they often "leave or languish" in their 30s, as Hewlett puts it. Frequently the trigger is a lack of child care options — another problem that women might assume is universal. But not so, says Hewlett.
"We found, for instance, in India, that the combination of ... extended family and low-cost domestic help meant that child care was really not a problem," she says. Women in the BRIC countries are able to return to work sooner after having children, while many women in the U.S. disengage from the workforce completely while their children are young. "That means that they lose about 18 percent of their earning power permanently, because it's so hard to get back in."
Still, better child care alone will not close the gender gap in the United States. Hewlett says that what American women need most is a change in the narrative. "I remember very clearly going to a Wall Street Journal conference, and Andrea Jung, the then-CEO of Avon, was speaking. She's an incredibly impressive person," Hewlett says. And yet, instead of talking about the joys of her success, "she chose to talk about what she had given up."
Although all careers require some form of sacrifice, Hewlett says, "no male leader does that. I feel that many of us are still mired in the expectations of the 1950s." And, as she puts it, "we need to get over that."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
As swiftly as our world is changing, the lives of women may be changing even faster. We'll be reporting on those changes in the coming weeks. The change is especially dramatic in the leading nations of the developing world, the so-called BRIC countries, B-R-I-C, Brazil, Russia, India, China. Author and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett gives the example of a bank executive in India.
SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: So she said to her bosses at Standard Chartered, why don't I set up two branches that are staffed exclusively by women, from the senior financial advisor to the security guard? We will make them dynamic places for women to come. We will offer advice on finance in a different way. We'll much more holistic.
And we'll change the decor. We'll have a diva club so if you take your account there, you know, you get a spa package and not something that would appeal to a man. Well, at the end of the first year, these two bank branches were the most profitable in India.
INSKEEP: That's Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose new book is "Winning The War For Talent In Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution." She told our own Renee Montagne about differences between BRIC countries and the United States.
HEWLETT: Here, you know, women are doing quite well on the lower and middle rungs of career ladders, but oftentimes they leave or languish around age 35, 40. Only 3 percent of women make it to CEO level, and in that executive band of leadership, they've been stuck at kind of 14 percent for a decade.
So the picture in the U.S. and also in Europe, in these mature markets, is that there's a lot of stalling out. In India, China, Brazil, Russia, it's a very different picture. When we went into this research, I had a hunch that they were doing pretty well in these markets. I lived and worked in Brazil. You know, I saw it up close, but I understood that back in the States, we like to think of the developing world as somehow behind us on the women front, that they haven't gotten it nearly to the extent we have.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I think you're right. I think most people would think India, Brazil, women are behind.
HEWLETT: Absolutely. In India, 11 percent of CEOs of the top companies are female. The figure here is 3 percent. In Brazil, 12 percent of CEOs are female. It's also a country with a female head of state. So we have to understand that in some ways women in these emerging markets are pointing the way.
MONTAGNE: It is somewhat surprising to find that women in these emerging economies, in these BRIC countries, express more ambition than European or American women. What are the various components of that?
HEWLETT: Let's dig down into the figures a little bit around ambition. So you know, in India, 86 percent of women with degrees are shooting for a top job. The figure in the U.S. is 36 percent. In China it's 76 percent. In Brazil it's 80 percent. So really, right across these BRIC countries the figures are quite startling. This ambition is maintained. It's not a kind of flash-in-the-pan at age 25.
They've kind of leapfrogged their sisters in the West and there are some very interesting reasons behind this.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about some of them. For instance, in an emerging economy, why would that give women, say, more opportunity?
HEWLETT: Well, you know, Renee, if you're in an economy that's growing, say, 6 percent a year, there are many more opportunities around you. You also feel, as many say Indian women do these days, that they're at a special moment in history. They're part of this transformation of that economy to a developed power and they're as excited by that as men are.
I think in the U.S. there's a lot of gender fatigue. We're surrounded by flat-lined growth, high unemployment, and women are losing heart.
MONTAGNE: Let's talk about something that is key in this country. Many professional women cite inadequate childcare options or maternal leave, you know, as reasons that they're not pursuing the heights in their businesses. Why would that not be the case in these BRIC nations, these emerging economies?
HEWLETT: We found, particularly in India and in China, children did not kick women off the career track to nearly the extent they do in the U.S. We found, for instance, in India, that the combination of near an(ph) extended family and low-cost domestic help meant that childcare was really not a problem. Whereas back in the U.S., you know, a third of all women will take a 2.3 year break and really disengage from the workforce.
And that means that they lose about, you know, 18 percent of their earning power permanently because it's so hard to get back in.
MONTAGNE: You've written elsewhere about the need to change the narrative of ambitious, successful women in the U.S. because the stories we hear, for the most part in media and in public conversations, they talk about the sacrifices women have to make, and women talk about those sacrifices, rather than what they, say, gain from realizing their ambitions.
HEWLETT: You're absolutely right. I remember very clearly going to a Wall Street Journal conference, and Andrea Jung, the then-CEO of Avon, was speaking. She's an incredibly impressive person. She had been head of that company for eight years. So instead of talking about the joys of success and what it felt like to be such an admired world leader with extraordinary leverage and influence in the lives of, you know, four million employees, she chose to talk about what she had given up in terms of being close to her children or spending time with her children, because actually she did, in fact, seem very close to them.
And no male leader does that. I feel that many of us are still mired in some of the expectations of the 1950s, that we are expected to be self-sacrificial in our public voice. As though it's unseemly for a woman to, I guess, glory in power. We need to get over that.
MONTAGNE: Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, she's author of "Winning The War For Talent In Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution." Thank you very much.
HEWLETT: Thank you, Renee. Fabulous conversation.
INSKEEP: And we want to continue that conversation with you. What kind of career advice do you wish you had had? We put that question to our own Susan Stamberg, the first American woman to anchor a nightly national news program.
SUSAN STAMBERG: Because I was so often out in front and certainly working harder than any of the men around me just because I knew I was being watched and I needed to be really good, and also feeling competitive with any female who might have been after the same job, I didn't reach a helping hand out to other women.
INSKEEP: There's more from Susan Stamberg, as well as a photo from her earliest days in radio, at our website, NPR.org. And by the way, when you visit the new NPR headquarters, you will hear her voice in the elevators. Going up? she says. While you are at NPR.org, let us know what advice you'd give yourself, your younger self, about work.
Later, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, how single women are reshaping the American housing market as our series Women Changing Lives continues. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.