When Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw set up Indian biotechnology company Biocon Ltd in 1978, female entrepreneurs were so rare that she said a bank offered her credit under a special programme meant mostly for the disabled and the country’s poorest castes.
“They had a very patronizing attitude towards women," Mazumdar-Shaw said. “There was a cap on the amount of loans they were giving to women. I didn’t take it, of course."
A lot has changed in the last 36 years. Today, there are 22 female chief executive officers of publicly traded companies in India, the developing country with the second-most women holding CEO or equivalent posts, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. China is No. 1, the data shows.
Buoyed by wider educational opportunities, laws mandating female participation in corporate governance and government support for children and families, businesswomen in emerging nations are narrowing the gap with their more developed counterparts. Ten years ago, there was just one female director of an emerging-market-based company. Now there are more than 1,500, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
They clearly have a way to go, however. The percentage of Indian companies headed by women, 0.5%, compares with 24 women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, or 4.8%.
Globally, businesses with women in decision-making positions tend to show stronger stock performance and a higher return on equity, according to a Credit Suisse Group AG report, “Women in Senior Management," published in September.
“If you are a woman employer, they will think, ‘Will the company last?’" said Mazumdar-Shaw, 61, who now serves as Biocon’s chairwoman. “The moment you start succeeding, you debunk all those credibility perceptions."
Under Mazumdar-Shaw’s leadership, Bangalore-based Biocon’s market value has almost doubled to $1.4 billion since 2004.
The rate of women attending universities and getting college degrees around the world is now higher than men, according to research from Yale University.
India’s so-called Companies Act of August 2013 required all businesses trading on the stock market to have at least one female director. Currently, about 6 percent of publicly traded companies in the nation have women on their boards.
Laws in Norway, Spain and France requiring companies to have a quota of women on their boards have boosted female representation at senior management levels.
At 41%, Norway has the highest number of companies with female board directors, according to a survey by Corporate Women Directors International, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Malaysia introduced a 30% female quota for senior roles in large companies, enforceable by 2016, while Brazil is considering imposing a 40% requirement for women on the boards of state-owned enterprises by 2022. About 5% and 10% of companies in both countries, respectively, have women on their boards, data compiled by Bloomberg shows.
In most developing countries, the figure is below 10% and in the majority of Middle Eastern nations it is under 2%, the data shows.
The proportion in the U.K. and the US has increased over the past four years to 17.9% and 13.7%, respectively, according to Credit Suisse.
China, South Africa and Poland are among the nations with the highest ratio of females in top management in the developing world, the Credit Suisse data shows.
More than 550 publicly traded companies in China, or about 21%, have women on their boards. Ceetop Inc. and China Teletech Holding Inc., both based in Shenzhen, are two of the four companies in the world with all-female boards.
The one-child policy and strong family support networks, which ease child-care responsibilities for mothers, have helped women climb the career ladder in China, according to Fianna Jurdant, a senior policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“I’ve been working with Asia for about eight years and what I’m seeing is that gender balance in the boardroom wasn’t even a topic on anyone’s agenda five or six years ago and now there’s a lot happening," Jurdant said.
Slowing growth in emerging markets since the 2008 global financial crisis spurred many developing-country governments to encourage companies to bring women into senior management, according to Jurdant.
At 8.6%, developing Asia has the highest proportion of companies with women on their boards among emerging-market regions, while developing Europe has the lowest, with 1.1%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The global average is 12.7%, according to Credit Suisse.
Vera Kurochkina, a member of the board of Russia’s United Co. Rusal, the world’s largest aluminium producer, said the situation is improving in the nation, where about 3% of companies have female board members.
“We are witnessing a new trend in a modern corporate life of Russia with an increasing number of women in the boards," Kurochkina said by e-mail. “This trend will continue to be supported by more corporations in Russia as women continue to play a more and more active role in corporate life."
The pool of women being considered for board positions needs to be widened, said Ripa Rashid, senior vice-president at the Centre for Talent Innovation.
“I know a lot of women who are on multiple boards in China and Southeast Asia because there are so few women who are qualified and have clout, which is the same phenomenon that Norway had at the beginning of its journey," Rashid said.
Rates in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan have dropped since 2010, with 6.6 percent of Turkish companies employing women in senior management, 5% in Indonesia and 1.5% in Pakistan, the lowest proportion worldwide excluding the Middle East.
While board diversity has increased in almost every country and every industry, the roles occupied by women in top management are for the most part skewed to “areas of less influence with lower promotion opportunities," the Credit Suisse report said.
“Over the past couple of decades, better educational opportunities in emerging markets like India have enabled a large number of women to gradually push open the doors of economic inclusion," Biocon’s Mazumdar-Shaw said. “Notwithstanding the great strides, the grim reality is that women are still oppressed in most parts of our society."