Studies reveal that for over 30 years, more women have been successfully completing graduate programs as compared to men. In the last decade, they are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men. In India, girls constitute 47.6% of total enrolment in higher education across the country and the gross female enrolment ratio has increased in the last five years - from 23% in 2013 to 25.8% in 2017-18.
However, progress in education notwithstanding, India continues to have one of the lowest female labor workforce participation (FLFP) rates in the world, at just 33%. The statistics only worsen as we go up the corporate ladder. 50% of all working women in the country leave the workforce between junior and middle management levels. In a recent survey by gender consulting firm ProEves studying Indian and multinational companies, the share of women in senior positions is a mere 12%.
Many factors contribute to this glaring inequality. Women continue to play the primary “nurturing role” at home, caring for children and elders and often torn between work and family commitments. For women to grow at work and take on challenging assignments, family consent and support remains a key factor across different strata of the society. As a result, educated and capable women often quit their jobs when faced with demanding challenges at the workplace. Women who stay employed and seek career advancement continue to face discrimination at the workplace as a result of the subconscious bias, leaving them with little incentive to push forward in their careers. Even the most capable and efficient working mothers continue to be passed up on for promotions or roles with greater responsibilities as they are perceived to be incapable of doing justice to the task at hand while balancing the demands of motherhood.
What can corporate India do to change this statistic and encourage more women in senior and top management positions?
bring down barriers and break the glass-ceiling:
In our article on designing gender sensitization training for employees, we talk about how Indra Nooyi, ex-CEO of Pepsico, has acknowledged that her toughest challenge at work was to overcome not being treated equally by her male colleagues and having to “claw her way up” in the organization. The barriers, some conscious and others unintended, to women progressing at work are many. Even the most promising of women professionals are often viewed as emotional, less strong and “more complicated” than men.
Companies need to address this sub-conscious bias by ensuring transparent and clear gender-based hiring mandates across all levels of the organizations. Creating a diverse pipeline and inclusive hiring team that seeks out strong women leaders and encourages their growth in the system will add to the effort.
Skills, achievements and commitment to the task must be the hiring criteria as against charisma, popularity, or networking abilities which sometimes tend to tip the weighing scale more in favor of men. They must also find subtle ways to tackle the proverbial “boys clubs” which is a reality across the middle and senior layers of most organizations. Women are often left out of these, feeling excluded and less valued in middle management - despite their achievements at the workplace. One way to counter this is to set up female mentoring or executive network groups for women aiming for more challenging opportunities and senior positions.
make inclusivity and work life balance the norm:
Encouraging women in senior roles needs to go beyond just setting a diversity target. The focus must be not on providing incentives to “women”, rather, to incentivize promising professionals to work better and lead a better, more balanced life. To this end, companies must make their workplaces truly inclusive. Whether it is ensuring gender neutral breakout areas, workplace design, policies that enable quality family or personal time, creating a safe, harassment free work environment; they must all be designed keeping the greater health of the organization in mind.
For instance, companies need to rework their employee policies to make them more gender neutral, thereby giving everyone equal visibility in the organization and equal opportunity to honor personal commitments away from it. Novartis has taken the lead in rolling out a global initiative of 14 weeks of parental leave policy (at a minimum), regardless of gender - effective from the first day of employment. Companies must also make flexi-working and return to work practices the norm, not just an “allowance” for promising female professionals. They need to also do away with encouraging “presenteeism”, thereby taking the focus away from the means and measures of delivering on work and concentrating instead on the performance and results delivered.
create opportunities and role models:
There just aren’t enough women at the top and this lack of senior female representation leaves working women with fewer role models to emulate. The latest Women in the Workplace report states that women also have limited access to senior leadership either formally or via informal meetings. This puts them at a disadvantage as such meetings help increase visibility and opens doors to relevant opportunities. Women also lack access to experienced mentors who can guide and help them navigate the dynamics within the organization to progress in their careers.
According to the McKinsey/LeanIn report, partial career mapping might also prevent women from getting into managerial or senior level roles. To address this, companies are matching senior male leaders (mostly male) to rising female talent to discuss development plans, stretch assignments, promotions, and networking opportunities. Firms are also considering implementing quotas for equal representation of women in senior roles and on the corporate board to this effect.
Encouraging women in senior roles and embracing diversity must be on the corporate agenda for every Indian organization. It not only drives efficiencies and effectiveness within the organization but also contributes positively to the emotional and financial growth of the organization, families and the country as a whole.