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Business News/ Companies / The missing women in the workforce

The missing women in the workforce

We look at the challenges women in the workforce face and the measures needed to improve gender diversity and inclusion

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/MintPremium
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Over the years, India has seen a new generation of women enter the workforce, lean in, crack the glass ceiling and scale new heights.

Three of Fortune’s 50 most powerful global businesswomen are from India. Women have made it to the top of banks and women overall now account for 26% of the workforce, up from 16% two decades ago.

And yet, barriers remain.

If the information technology (IT) sector employs one million women who account for 32% of its total workforce, they remain conspicuously absent in other sectors such as shipping and logistics, manufacturing, broking, telecom, pharmaceuticals and even consumer goods. With less than 15% women employees, these sectors struggle to attract women.

It is partly because of the nature of the job. Sales, for instance, are a significant part of the consumer goods, telecom and pharmaceutical sectors. Since it involves extensive travel to remote and sometimes unsafe locations, it is often not the first preference for women. These jobs can also call for extensive after-office hour networking—drinks with the boys, for instance—where women face barriers they don’t necessarily even want to cross.

In traditionally male-dominated sectors such as shipping and manufacturing, the very absence of other women employees proves to be a deterrent. And something as basic as women’s toilets is woefully lacking at warehouses and this is also a disincentive to women.

But the biggest culprit remains the mindset of male managers who seem to be caught in a time warp. “People at the trading desk use a lot of bad language. It does not look nice in front of ladies," said the director of a small-sized firm into institutional equities and investment banking.

It’s a vicious cycle. Companies that hire fewer women are less sensitive to needs such as crèches and flexi-hours, and this then becomes a barrier for newer women recruits.

“I went on a break for maternity and when I applied for a job again, companies did not even consider my application," was a common complaint heard at a recent conference on women’s workforce participation.

Nearly 48% of working women under 30 years of age need to take a break at least once in their careers, says Saundarya Rajesh, founder, AVTAR Career Creators, which conducted the conference.

This results in women missing at middle- and senior-management levels as they are not unable to return to their careers where they left or the companies will not take them back.

Unsurprisingly, the representation of women across junior, middle and senior levels stands at 30.3%, 16.4% and 10.6%, respectively, the lowest among other Asian markets for all three groups, according to the Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2014 study, conducted by Community Business, a non-profit organization for corporate responsibility strategy, diversity and inclusion.

Even if women do manage to come back to work after a break, they find it hard to climb up the corporate ladder.

Will her domestic responsibilities come at the cost of the job? Can we trust her enough to invest in her? It’s a bias that results in women losing out on critical roles. “About 26% of women get global exposure roles compared to 53% of men. This is because managers even unconsciously decide that a woman would have domestic responsibilities and hence is not even on the radar for those roles," says Shachi Irde, executive director of Catalyst India WRC, a non-profit organization that helps expand opportunities for women.

To understand and appreciate the problems, Mint is publishing a series on sectors that don’t have even have half of the average women in the workforce. The stories will look at the challenges they face and the measures needed to improve gender diversity and inclusion.

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Published: 16 Nov 2014, 11:54 PM IST
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