We recently celebrated International Women’s Day. As usual, there were tributes to the many women who have achieved excellence in many fields, especially in the corporate world. There was also a refrain about the relatively few numbers of women in the senior levels of companies and the disappointingly low representation on boards. Why does this ratio continue to be so low in an increasingly equal world?
The corporate approach towards providing greater opportunity in the workplace has typically focused on two issues. First, there is a belief that certain facilities need to be provided to enable women to participate more meaningfully in the workforce. Consequently, there is now no shortage of Indian companies which provide creches, paid family leave, etc., to retain their women employees.
A second approach has focused on how frequently women are seen at senior levels of organizational hierarchies. Just about 10% of board positions in Fortune 500 companies are held by women. The number in India is even smaller. Boards of these companies frequently lament about the lack of diversity among their senior ranks, but have found it difficult to truly redress this imbalance. These discussions sometimes overlook the fact that large organizations need to address issues relating to the complexity of their structures as well as inefficiencies in certain common management styles if they are to make it worthwhile for women to stay the course long enough to reach the top.
Large corporations have within them certain levels of complexity, inherent in the need to deal with large numbers of people and the natural bureaucracy of their structures. Due to this, many skilled managers—young men and women alike—today are choosing to move into consulting, financial intermediation or self-employed professions, an option that combines lucre without the hassles of managing this complexity. While this particular argument appears to be gender-neutral, the costs of complexity seem to fall more strongly on women employees.
Several first-rate woman MBAs and chartered accountants I have worked with have mentioned that, especially upon attaining motherhood, it was not really worth their while to spend so much time managing people and bureaucracies when they were anyway short on time, and needed to balance work and home.
The basic structure of large organizations appears to involve a large amount of less than productive investment in time for which they appeared to get no return. Managers need to work to get this mix correct if they are to retain women workers, especially in middle management roles.
Achieving this will ensure that companies have access to reasonable numbers of female talent who might otherwise look to work in smaller companies or prefer to remain self-employed. If companies want more women at the board level, they also need to ensure that it is possible for the rules of engagement at work to allow women executives a fair chance at senior leadership roles.
In a well-intentioned attempt to achieve total fairness, companies have responded by creating a level playing field, one where by and large, overt discrimination is now absent. Ironically, by judging men and women by equal standards at work, companies implicitly make it more challenging for qualified women to rise up the hierarchy.
It is useful to understand why one might arrive at this counter-intuitive conclusion. In many organizations, there is great attention to detail, knowledge of minutiae, long hours spent with teammates and clients and perhaps pubcrawling with colleagues to demonstrate oneness with the organization. Since certain family responsibilities continue to be unequally placed upon women, lady executives may sometimes choose to give a miss to these softer elements of their jobs. Organizations must consider whether there is scope to make other elements of the work context more efficient so that women can find the time to undertake these essential activities.
Agreeing on how to do this is more tricky. Few organizations would agree that their long-held style of management could be inefficient. The most obvious causes of such inefficiencies are a disproportionate focus on process over output, an inordinate amount of time spent on debate instead of execution, elaborate planning for ever more hypothetical situations or a lack of clarity about objectives or organizational objectives. These common inefficiencies result in perhaps as much as 50 to 60% of worktime being spent fruitlessly. Avoiding this could provide the slack that will enable more women to participate in the softer aspects of corporate life, aspects which tend to become important at senior levels of the hierarchy.
So, boards and senior managers who agonize about diversity need to ask not for the artificial creation of diversity, but for greater efficiencies in the workplace which will create the slack necessary in the system to enable women to fully participate in all the elements of their roles required for their success.
Govind Sankaranarayanan is chief financial officer, Tata Capital Ltd. He writes on issues related to governance. The views expressed in this column are personal. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.