Glancing around on a normal working day in the city, there is an overwhelming feeling that the Indian woman has finally come into her own. As one sees her on the way to work, smiling down from the billboards, or views advertisements and products targeted at her needs, one cannot ignore her any more.
And nowhere is it more apparent than on college campuses and at job interviews. Any company hiring young people will certify the growing number of women opting for professional careers in India today.
However, if we were to balance this number against the number of women leaders in India today, the scales would tilt deeply. While CEOs, boardroom directors and decision makers in Indian companies have been increasingly sensitive to the issue of women executives in the workplace, they remain hesitant to change the corporate profiles of their top management to reflect a greater level of diversity.
According to the India Spencer Stuart Board Index 2009, women represented only 3.9% of the total number of directors in 2008 in the companies surveyed, compared with the UK where this figure was 10.5%. Family businesses have a better track record—companies such as Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd, Godrej Group and Parle Agro Pvt. Ltd have consciously groomed daughters to take on leadership positions.
In an environment which accepts the benefits that women bring to the workplace—a higher emotional quotient, better balance in stressful situations, the ability to forge strong client and customer relationships, and a high effectiveness in crisis management situations, to name a few—the sharp fall in number during a woman’s career path is disquieting.
In India, initial support at the family level is critical. It has been seen that family environments where sons and daughters are treated on an equal footing are the source of confident, enterprising women who pursue their education and careers. However, one finds that the greatest fall happens at the middle-management level, where they interrupt career progress as a result of marriage and motherhood.
The lack of a facilitating environment that supports flexible work hours and working from home are major reasons why many women choose to opt out of full-time work and sometimes leave their careers completely.
In addition, options for women looking to re-enter the market after a long gap are few and far between. There is also a reluctance to bring on board women because of the existing mindset that they would not be able to handle irregular hours and travel. This needs to change.
Fortunately, companies such as ICICI Bank Ltd, Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. Ltd (HSBC) and General Electric Co. (GE) are taking steps to ensure that performance and capability dictate the career path of women executives within their organizations. Whether it means giving extended leave to women for maternity, providing a flexible work environment or updating women managers regularly during maternity leave, these companies have made conscious efforts to retain and support the talent they have groomed.
In a country such as India, where household responsibilities generally fall on the woman, another challenge they face is balancing work and home. While some have great support systems in the form of parents and in-laws, the nuclear family phenomenon has made this rare. As a result, many women find this balancing act difficult and at times, it is a lonely road that women have to travel.
Companies have found that providing crèches or day care facilities within organizations has not been effective, what women require is support at home. At times such as this, women find that having a shoulder to lean on at work is very comforting. As one woman leader explained, “What is really important is to help each other, and also to make sure that within our own organizations, we make it possible for young women to succeed and get to know each other.”
Surveys have shown that women do not want positive discrimination at the workplace, only an enabling environment. In our discussions with women leaders in India, one individual said: “One of the early challenges we faced was asking for separate washrooms for the women!” Today, the issues are broader—sensitizing male employees, having no distinctions between maternity and paternity leave, and providing the option to choose flexible work environments to all employees equally.
An increasing number of leaders are also supporting mentoring for the next generation, and not just at the workplace.
There is a growing realization that the key to bringing in more women in the workforce will lie in getting involved at the education level—in schools and colleges. There are also increasing cases of foreign universities that are offering scholarships for management courses especially for female students, with a view to encouraging education for women.
While all initiatives to support women in leadership positions are commendable, change will be sustainable only if it comes from the top. Apart from supporting change in mindsets, organizations need to include more women in leadership and board positions in order to make a real difference. By taking risks, experimenting and implementing new diversity initiatives, organizations can invent a new internal framework with unique opportunities for their women.
Anjali Bansal is with the Mumbai office of Spencer Stuart and leads the India practice.
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