Indian firms open boardrooms to women but few mid-career dropouts return

A new law may have forced firms to open boardroom doors to women but years of sidelining them has led to a high dropout rate among professionals


Around 530 out of 5,711 listed firms have been fined by the BSE for not having at least one woman director by the deadline. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Around 530 out of 5,711 listed firms have been fined by the BSE for not having at least one woman director by the deadline. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

New Delhi: Tanu Anand, an Indian international tax accountant with 13 years experience with multinational firms in India, Singapore and Hong Kong, lost hope of resuming her high-flying career after having a baby last year.

“I sat at home for eight months rather depressed and very low in confidence. All of a sudden here I was, this person with all this international experience with top firms, sitting there with no opportunities or prospects,” said Anand, 36.

“I went for many interviews, but they wanted to put me on a slow career path because I had a baby. There was no balance where I could be a good mother and a good employee. I honestly thought of giving up and starting a bakery.”

A new law may have forced India Inc. to open the boardroom doors to women, but years of sidelining them has led to a high dropout rate among professionals like Anand—resulting in a shortage of women to fill such positions.

Around 530 out of 5,711 listed firms have been fined by the BSE for not having at least one woman director by the deadline. Other companies appointed relatives such as wives and mothers-in-law who are seen as proxies.

Research by Catalyst, a non-profit focusing on women in business, finds the shortage is due to the fact that far more women drop out of the corporate workforce early on in India than in other countries.

Catalyst’s 2013 report “First Step: India Overview” found that nearly half of Indian women drop off the corporate employment ladder between junior and mid-levels, compared with 29% across Asia as a whole.

The main reason cited is the lack of support given to women who want to return to work after having a baby, such as extended maternity leave, crèche facilities and flexible hours.

“...the pipeline is not available. There are not enough women in senior management currently to occupy all the positions that are opening up for women,” said Shachi Irde, Catalyst India’s executive director.

“Organizations have to focus on inclusion at all levels right from the beginning to ensure that they have a healthy pipeline to move up the ladder.”

Invisible and unrecognised

Studies conducted by Catalyst, Mckinsey, Credit Suisse and others repeatedly show that board diversity leads to better performance in terms of productivity and profitability.

A 2012 report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, for example, found that stocks of large cap companies with at least one woman board director outperformed those with all-male boards by 26% over a period of six years.

Yet, despite increased efforts by companies and governments around the world to lift the number of women in senior corporate roles, their presence remains stubbornly low.

Women hold just 12% of boardroom seats worldwide, and only 4% of board chairmen are women, according to a June report by Deloitte after studying almost 6,000 firms in 49 countries.

In India—despite the prominence of a few businesswomen such as Biocon managing director Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, ICICI Bank CEO Chanda Kochhar or HSBC country head Naina Lal Kidwai—the lack of women on boards is even more pronounced.

Just 7.7% of board seats are held by women in India, compared with 17.5% in South Africa and 15.6% in the UK, the Deloitte report showed.

As in other countries, Indian women climbing the corporate ladder face the usual unconscious gender biases, being perceived as unambitious, not capable enough, or misplaced home makers, experts say.

“Bosses often think that due to family commitments, women cannot stay late in the office, attend events where they can network or take on extra projects. As a result, women are often passed over for promotions,” said Sarika Bhattacharyya, co-founder of Biz Divas, a non-profit promoting female leadership.

“Women themselves are also not visible enough, even when they are ambitious. As a culture and as a gender, we have always been told from a young age to be humble and not boast about our achievements.”

Untapped talent

Anand’s fate changed in May when she saw a Facebook post from multinational Genpact, looking for qualified, experienced women wanting to return to work but within a flexible environment as part of their “Career 2.0.” programme.

In less than two weeks, she went through six gruelling interviews before being offered a job as an assistant vice president under a flexible working arrangement.

“The way it is today is that I work hard to strict deadlines but I work with my own flexibilities. If there are no meetings, then I can take my work home. This gives me the opportunity to oversee my young child as well,” she said.

Research conducted by Genpact estimates there are 1.5 million qualified Indian women like Anand, who have dropped out of corporate jobs largely because they cannot find suitable employment after starting a family.

“We thought as part of our initiative to bring in gender diversity, let’s introduce a programme aimed at attracting these mid career level women who have taken a sabbatical and are looking to get back into the mainstream,” said Urvashi Singh, senior vice president of human resources at Genpact.

“We are getting some really, really good talent and we are really excited about this. We have had a terrific response on social media.”

The Career 2.0. programme, launched on Facebook in May, has resulted in more than 1,000 applications and more than 10 women being hired at middle and senior levels such as assistant vice president.

Catalyst’s Irde says that initiatives like these, together with mentorship programmes and policies such as child care facilities and flexible working hours, are key to boosting the number of women breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling.

“There is a growing realisation in India Inc. to have diversity in the workplace—whether it is in the boardroom or any other level of management,” said Irde.

“There are enough women there, but you need to look beyond the traditional sources of recruitment to find them.” Reuters

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