The glass ceiling appears to be shattering—at least in the information-technology sector. Among companies facing an acute talent crunch, recruiting and retaining women through special programmes, flexible schedules or family-friendly policies has become more than a good human resource practice. It is now a matter of survival.
For example, IBM India Pvt. Ltd, the fourth largest employer in the Indian IT industry, sends recruitment teams to suburban residential complexes for a woman-only hiring programme that seeks to bring experienced women back into the workforce. Services firm Infosys Technologies Ltd, which set up a Women’s Inclusivity Network in 2003, offers connectivity at home and part- time working options to retain women at work. Vaahini, a networking forum at Accenture India Pvt. Ltd, offers mentoring and counselling options for women employees across all levels of the company.
The results of this concentrated focus on women are fast becoming evident across cubicles and meeting rooms in most IT companies. By the end of fiscal 2008, the IT and IT-enabled services sector, which includes business and knowledge process outsourcing industries, will employ 35 women for every 65 men. By 2010, women will make up half of the workforce in these sectors, up from a fourth of the total employee base currently, according to a survey by the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom).
Binding ties: A balanced gender equation helps retain top talent, says Accenture’s Rekha Menon.
Much of the strategy is driven by the understanding that diversity within a firm is essential if companies are to compete effectively in a global marketplace. Companies today sell products and services to people whose needs and preferences vary. “If the workforce and leaders (belong) predominantly (to) one gender and have never had to understand different needs, they will not be able to succeed in this new environment”, says Ranjani Ranganath, senior managing director at the global development centre of Cisco Systems, Inc.
Hiring more women is also seen as a way to bridge the talent crunch that the IT industry is facing. By 2010, Nasscom estimates, the industry will face a shortfall of at least 500,000 professionals.
By focusing on bringing more women into the workforce, the IT sector is hoping to bring the gender ratio closer to the overall mix in the country’s population. “Forty-nine per cent of Indians are women, so there is no reason why women must account for just 26.4 % of the workforce in IT companies,” says Shalini Sethi, who heads the talent scouting firm, Emploi Globale Consulting Pvt. Ltd, in Bangalore.
This ratio was even lower in 2005, when women made up just 24% of the IT workforce; the gradual increase is attributed to the concentrated effort by the IT sector to woo more women. “Nobody is doing women a favour, there is a talent crunch in the industry and women are a very valuable talent pool that needs to be tapped,” says Pradeep Narayanan, chief delivery officer, 24/7 Customer, who heads the recruitment function. 24/7 Customer, a Bangalore-based outsourced contact centre and BPO services provider, has a total employee headcount of more than 5,000—1,350 are women.
Companies hiring more women also find that after marriage and motherhood, women tend to be more stable and loyal employees. And, that counts for a lot in an industry where attrition rates hover between 30% and 35%. “Once a company provides a safe work environment with need-based flexibility as well as growth opportunity, women rarely feel the need to change jobs,” says Kalpana Margabandhu, director, IBM India Software Lab, who has switched jobs just once in a 25-year career. Since joining IBM India in 1993, Margabandhu has balanced a fast-track career with raising a family, and now heads the Women Leadership Council in IBM India. “Women who take a break for family reasons are valuable resources that can be hired back with focused mentoring and counselling,” says Margabandhu, who initiated a woman-only hiring programme, across age groups, to woo such women back to IBM.
“Seven years ago, when I tried to re-enter the workforce after a break to raise a family, I met a lot of resistance, as I was viewed as someone on the slow track,” says Nirmala Menon, who founded Interweave Consulting, an 18-month-old firm in Bangalore that helps companies structure gender inclusion and diversity management programmes.
IT companies are looking to change that image and assure women that flexible schedules won’t mean they are off the fast track. At Infosys, the belief that diverse groups are more innovative than non-diverse groups, and that women bring a unique style and attitude to the workplace, has been fostered mainly by N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder and chief mentor of Infosys Technologies, which recorded annual revenues of $3.1 billion in the year ended 31 March. It employed 30 women for every 100 men at the end of March, up from about 22 women for every 100 men just seven years ago.
In fact, employers now seek out women for the unique skill sets that they bring to work. “A high emotional quotient helps women managers reach out better to their teams and perform better at hardcore negotiations with customers,” says Meena Ganesh, chief executive officer of Tesco Hindustan Service Centre, the global services arm of Tesco Plc., the world’s third largest retailer. In a 22-year career, Ganesh has worked with blue-chip companies such as NIIT Ltd and Microsoft Corp. before co-founding Customer Asset.com.
Women employees’ abilities to build teams and handle crises have also been highlighted at the three-year-old Microsoft Corporate Challenge Series, a high-end simulated stress test that runs over three days and three nights, where India’s top companies compete for honours every year. Every seven-member team must include two women to qualify for this competition; Accenture India won in 2007.
“Women are a stabilizing presence in a high-pressure situation and tend to be the glue that binds teams together,” says Prem Bhatia, chief executive of Sports Media, the organizers of the event. This year, of the 40 teams that participated at the event, five teams were led by women.
To reinforce the image of Accenture India as a woman-friendly place to work, the company offers flexible working hours as well as telecommuting options for employees who can work from home and extended maternity leave. It also allocates shifts taking families into consideration.
“Kids-at-Work Day is a way the company gets employees and families together to bind with the company,” says Rekha Menon, executive vice-president, India geographic and human capital and diversity, Accenture India, who feels a balanced gender equation helps retain top talent and brings diverse points of view to the table.
Women also boast skill sets that are regarded as vital when dealing with new customers across borders. “I think of the time my dad bought our first TV. He bought what he liked and brought it home. Something like that is a family decision today. I drive a car, buy different clothes suited for countries I travel in, things my mother never did,” says Cisco’s Ranganath. She adds that companies which do not employ people who practise and understand the preferences of women will not be able to design, build and sell what women with spending power actually want.
Globally, a quarter of all new hires at Cisco Systems are women, while 19% of the Cisco India workforce currently is made up of women. The company’s Women’s Action Network invites women in engineering colleges to spend a day at the firm learning about technology, touring Cisco Labs and speaking to top executives. “The idea is to spread awareness and make Cisco a natural choice, when they finish education,” says Ranganath. Women at Cisco can also bring along a friend to spend a day being mentored and coached by Cisco’s senior male and female executives, a form of referral hiring.
New environment: Diversity is essential, says Cisco’s Ranjani Ranganath.
All this focus on women is clearly working well at entry-level positions at most IT majors. In Infosys, the gender ratio is 35 women for every 65 men at the entry level, against a general company average of 30:70. “However, we see that at the higher roles, it drops quite a bit, and the drop is very significant at the leadership level.” says T.V. Mohandas Pai, member of the board for human resources for Infosys Technologies Ltd. He feels losing women at senior levels when companies have invested a lot in training them is a cause for concern.
According to IMRB International, a market research firm, of the total 25-30% women employed by IT companies, less than a tenth are in middle management, while a tiny 5% occupy senior-level positions. However, in smaller companies such as 24/7 Customer, women do occupy senior positions, heading critical functions such as operations and client interactions.
Says Rajesh Kurup, associate vice-president and research services director, eTechnology Group, IMRB International: “While the IT and ITeS sectors have been more successful in attracting women at entry to junior levels, they have been as good or as bad as other sectors in building women leaders.”
IBM, Infosys (Graphics)
Cisco, Accenture (Graphics)
(Rajeshwari Sharma contributed to this story.)