At first glance, the employment gender gap in India appears to have improved over the past 25 years. Enter any large office complex in Gurgaon, Mumbai or Bengaluru, and one sees an encouraging representation of women, which suggests that positive change is indeed taking place in the Indian workplace. One wonders what this scene was like 25 years ago.
Achla Sawhney, who spent 18 years in banking, straddling the pre- and post-liberalization years, provides that perspective. “I never felt any discrimination whatsoever, but yes, the workplace dynamics then—the wining and dining, the networking—were harder for women to balance along with household responsibilities,” she says. Sawhney, who worked as a senior executive in a nationalized bank as well as in a couple of large multi-national banks, adds: “Amongst forex traders in the industry, there were all of two women during most of my tenure. So, there were far fewer women, and rarely was the matter discussed as an organizational priority. Today, there is more ambition and confidence amongst women, perhaps also helped by greater participation of men in household responsibilities, as well as greater organizational focus.”
To the extent that education is an indicator of the increasing role of women in economic growth, we have seen improvement. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) of girls in elementary education has improved dramatically, from 66% in 1991 to 97% in 2014; so too has the GER of girls in higher education, from 7.5% in 2002–03 to close to 20% in 2012–13 (just a shade behind boys at 22%). In fact, women account for 51% of all post-graduates in India today.
Yet, statistics reveal that improvement in education hasn’t chipped away at the gender disparity in employment. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2015 ranked India at 139 out of 145 countries on the economic participation and opportunity gap. India’s overall female labour force participation (FLFP) rate remains low and has, in fact, dropped from 35% in 1991 to 27% in 2014. For comparison, as per World Bank data, the world average is around 50% and South Asia is at 31%. According to a 2015 International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper (Women Workers in India: Why So Few Among So Many?), in urban India, the recent FLFP rate is even lower at less than 20%; within this, segments such as graduates are around 30%, which although higher than the national average, have seen a decline since the 1990s.
The modern workplace, which should ideally lead the way in terms of participation of women, isn’t too far ahead. A global comparison made in 2014 by Catalyst, a non-profit that promotes inclusive workplaces for women, says that women account for only 24% of senior management roles globally. A 2015 survey made by the same non-profit in India shows that women held 19% of senior manager roles, but only 14% did so at the executive level. Not surprisingly then, India is ranked among the worst of 48 countries in terms of female leadership. (The ranking is from an extensive study by human resources consultant Development Dimensions International and non-profit researcher The Conference Board, which sampled 2,000 organizations.)
A widely covered IMF estimate points out that shrinking the gender differences in employment could expand India’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 27%. Unlocking this potential definitely requires an increase and shift in the composition of overall employment opportunities as well as questioning of societal strictures. But are there ways in which the modern, organized Indian workplace can set the example?
A look at some of the largest employers in India provides insight into how organizations are investing to support female employees. Diversity targets have helped elevate the issue, thereby pushing organizations to identify women with high potential and ensure that they are provided opportunities to accelerate. Another positive move is the increasing openness of organizations to extend paid maternity leave beyond the grossly insufficient three months mandated by law, which in itself is lined up for change sooner than later.
These measures are a much needed improvement over the past 25 years. However, to translate these to sustained improvement, there needs to be a deep organizational belief in the benefit of increasing women’s representation in the workplace, as well as supportive day-to-day actions and behaviours. Without these, the effect of all policy measures will remain superficial and even counter-productive.
Five major behaviours can help corporate employers make this change.
Question the ‘ideal worker’ definition: In most organizations, 24×7 responsiveness and long hours at work are deeply embedded as qualities that define the ideal worker. These stereotypes are becoming irrelevant not just where work involves global teams and ubiquitous connectivity, but a society where women carry the larger share of household responsibilities also makes such workplaces less aspirational. Global gender research by Bain & Co. suggests that women’s employee Net Promoter Score —a measure of satisfaction—is significantly lower when they perceive a typecast definition of the “ideal worker”. Balancing multiple priorities or creating a more productive team environment are increasingly better indicators of performance, and need to be elevated as qualities of the workplace star. Benefits will extend not just to women, but to men as well.
Create and celebrate female role models: A report by Catalyst, titled Leadership Gender Gap in India Inc., suggests that 26% of women (versus less than 10% of men) feel held back in their careers because of an absence of role models. As women look for examples, they see significantly more men than women, making the path to leadership more difficult to identify with. In such environments, sponsorship initiatives—aimed at identifying ambitious up-and-comers—are crucial for developing the next level of female role models in organizations. Sponsorship works best when leaders in the organization—including senior female and male leadership—champion the cause personally.
Encourage flexibility across the workforce: It isn’t uncommon to hear of flex options across workplaces today, including sabbaticals and the opportunity to work from home. Yet, there’s a perception that using flex options is perhaps an inhibitor. It’s important to allay negative perceptions associated with utilizing flex options, by making them more broad-based and encouraging their use for both men and women. At Bain in India, among broader flex options, we have recently implemented a 10+2 model, which allows any employee—male or female—the option to work 10 months in the year and take two months off. The benefits are much larger, including enabling fulfilment of one’s personal aspirations and helping individuals avoid burnout.
Create awareness about unconscious biases: Organizations need to proactively coach employees on biases that unconsciously play out through body language, day-to-day behaviour and word choices. These often go undetected and stand in the way of hiring and retaining the best talent in the organization.
Continue the affinity groups: Affinity groups and their mission continue to be as relevant as ever. At the same time, the methods must evolve. They need to be a platform for proactive solutions, be more inclusive, and must bring male colleagues to the table, as peers, thought leaders and co-beneficiaries of the mission.
The effect is strong. Sulakshana Sarathy, who works in the strategy department at Godrej Industries Ltd, corroborates from her experience: “Small things, such as having a designated women room (especially great for breastfeeding mothers), to larger-impact ones like a six-month maternity (leave) and also, a variety of flex policies and work from home (options) that benefit both men and women suggest to me, more than anything, their commitment to making me stay here and keeping me happy at the job.”
It’s been stated before—the productive employment of more women offers a material benefit for the individual, the family and the nation. Though 1991 might have been the starting point for Indian economic liberalization, a lot more needs to be done.
As the country commends itself on world-leading economic growth and aspires towards a $20 trillion economy, organizations need to take women along to make this goal a reality. Societal change will be the largest needle mover, but a constant push through the government, organizations and individuals is critical to bend societal norms for the better
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