Petrobras state-owned oil company CEO Maria das Gracas Silva Foster makes a speech during the Women's Forum Brazil 2012 in Sao Paulo, Brazil last year.
Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images
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 chose 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."