Blame it on the bossa nova. For decades, the stereotypical Brazilian woman was the "tall and tan and young and lovely" inspiration for the international hit song, "The Girl from Ipanema." Today's garota de Ipanema, however, is more likely to be carving out a career than prowling the praia.
Brazil's metamorphosis into the world's sixth largest economy has introduced a vast array of educational and professional opportunities inconceivable a generation ago. Women comprise 60% of the country's million-plus university graduates, leading the BRIC countries, the U.K., and the U.S. in the "achievement gap" over men. According to "The Battle for Female Talent in Brazil," new research from the Center for Work-Life Policy, more than half are the first in their immediate family to graduate from college, on top of which an impressive 31% have graduate-level degrees.
"When you look at who's coming into the workforce and what they can mean for the development of human capital, it's a no-brainer that women are a competitive advantage," says Valentino Carlotti, president of Goldman Sachs Bank in Brazil.
But corporate headhunters are having a problem. It's not just that there's a cutthroat war for talent in the expanding economy. It's that so many highly qualified women are giving the cold shoulder to the private sector. The CWLP survey found that 65% of educated Brazilian women view the public sector as very desirable to work for, head and shoulders above their counterparts in other BRIC markets. Only 49% put Brazilian companies at the top of their list, and even fewer (39%) opt to work for a U.S.-based multinational.
Their reasons have little to do with power, prestige, interesting projects, or advancement, and everything to do with job security, benefits, and work-life balance. The emphasis on job security — a primary consideration for 79% — is not surprising in an economy that not too long ago experienced triple-digit inflation and has a history of booms and busts. Salaries may not be as hefty as in the private sector, but thanks to one of the world's most generous pension systems, employees can retire at their full salary and receive the same pay-scale increases as their working counterparts.
Equally attractive are the family-friendly benefits and generous amounts of time off for vacation, medical reasons, and maternity leave. Working wives and mothers appreciate the civil service's legal maximum workweek of 44 hours — plus overtime pay of 150% of one's base salary — something that's barely given lip service in private companies.
And if the majority of public sector organizations aren't as dynamic and complex as their private sector counterparts — or offer as many opportunities for career advancement — they promise a comfortable safety net that supports women weary of deflecting the slings and arrows of a society in transition.
Living in a culture that continues to put marriage and motherhood ahead of career aspirations, Brazilian professional women are confronted with a deeply rooted ambivalence about their right to be ambitious. According to a 2008 survey of values and attitudes toward women in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, being ambitious is considered the most important individual value in every country — except Brazil. In Brazil, being ambitious rates as the least important individual value. The most important is being polite, making it all the more difficult to push ahead. "It's okay for a woman to be ambitious, but it's not encouraged," concurs a female senior manager at an international financial firm.
But just because it's frowned on to show ambition doesn't mean that today's female college graduates aren't ambitious. In fact, the CWLP survey shows that 80% of college-educated women aspire to a top job — more than in China and Russia and far outstripping their U.S. counterparts (52%).
A government job once meant parking one's ambitions at the door — one focus group participant went so far as to say that it "stains resumes." But that perception is changing, and the public sector now promises increasing possibilities to nurture ambition and to do so in a way that avoids criticism. The 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics offer opportunities to work on big public projects that are fast-tracked and high-profile. As Brazil takes a more prominent position on the global stage, state-owned flagship companies such as Banco do Brasil and energy giant Petrobras are becoming talent magnets. In fact, a 2010 survey of university students ranked Petrobras as the top employer of choice, beating out even Google.
And what better role model is there to express just how far women can soar in the public sector than Brazil's first female president, Dilma Rousseff?
As the tug-of-war between the public and private sector for top female talent intensifies over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how each side will change to attract the best and the brightest. But in any case, the ultimate winner will be Brazil's educated and ambitious women.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 12/19/2011.