New Delhi: When Swati Bhattacharya quit her job as national creative head of JWT, it was not because the ad agency lacked gender policies or even empathy. “They were very good to me throughout my pregnancy, when my kids were young and even when I was going through a divorce," she says.

But there was a sense of “benign neglect", she says. “They were good to me but had no answer for my ennui. We don’t work only for the money, we need more than a raise. I had a great designation but every evening I would return home wanting something more."

So, 22 years after she joined the agency, after negotiating a workday that ended at 5.30pm, after navigating out-of-town shoots with her daughters and maid in tow, Bhattacharya put in her papers to head Mama Lab, a Dentsu project that links brands with mothers and requires her to work only thrice a week.

Bhattacharya is among the uncounted women who quit jobs despite professional success, despite scaling new heights, despite being coveted by their workplaces. Perhaps the answer to corporate India’s retention problem, particularly where mid-career women are concerned, lies in two recent reports, one by Catalyst India WRC, a part of the not-for-profit, Catalyst, which works towards extending opportunities for women and business in India and globally, and the other by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Thomson Reuters report goes beyond data to focus on how women feel and fare in the workplace. Released on 29 October, the report asked women what were the main challenges they faced at work.

Conducted in 19 countries with a total sample size of 9,501, the report found work-life balance, equal pay and harassment at the workplace are the top three challenges in G20 nations.

For Indian women, work-life balance was the most important challenge. Flexible working hours was also flagged by 42% of the women polled. A significant 27% said they faced harassment at work, with 53% saying they would report this harassment.

On a more positive note, 61% of Indian women polled said they were confident they were earning the same as their male colleagues for doing the same job, while 53% said they had the same access to business networks as men.

The Catalyst report, India Inc: From Intention to Impact, looks at 42 firms that together employ more than 400,000 people to find a gap between corporate initiatives to improve gender diversity programmes and their implementation in the workplace.

For instance, the report finds, men are three times more likely to be hired and promoted than women at every level. Moreover, executive-level women leave at a rate that is twice as high at 28% than their representation (14%) on average in organizations.

Like Bhattacharya, sometimes they leave to explore new avenues. “I didn’t quit only because of my daughters who were then aged 15 and 10. I quit because I wasn’t doing what I wanted," she says.

“There are many positive signs of companies implementing a variety of policies for greater gender inclusion," says Shachi Irde, executive director, Catalyst India WRC. “But the cultural and mindset shift is taking much longer than anticipated, and this is what is largely contributing to the gap between policy and implementation."

Initiatives to attract more women in the workplace include a widening of recruitment strategies and an effort by organizations to create safer workplaces by offering safe transportation to women who work late shifts and zero-tolerance policies to sexual harassment at the workplace.

But this is not enough. “While such measures get women into organizations," states the report, “Once there, more systemic, culturally ingrained issues that affect women’s workplace experiences and career trajectories such as gender bias, family support role, and shifting demographics continue to demand attention and focused effort."

The good news, finds the report, is a majority of organizations it surveyed go beyond wider recruitment and safe workplace practices to include local needs and strategies. For instance, 64% firms surveyed had a dedicated staff working towards the development and advancement of women staff. However, even this initiative can fall short as a majority of firms do not hold senior leaders accountable for gender diversity roles and objectives. “Holding leaders accountable for translating intention into impact can be a crucial game-changer in India Inc," states the report.

But women employees themselves can sometimes contribute to the gap between policy and implementation, finds the report.

For instance, even when firms offer flexi-time arrangements, women staff don’t always feel empowered enough to ask. “What are the restrictions? What is the process of approval? When these questions aren’t clear, managements tend to err on the side of caution," says Irde.

What might help overcome this diffidence are policies that are gender-neutral. If taking time off to care for children or the elderly is a policy available to both men and women employees, women would not hesitate in availing of them, says Irde.

For women returning to work after maternity leave, a shortage of child-care and support for elder care proves to be daunting. “A lack of organizational support for post-leave care-giving responsibilities raises questions about the extent to which India Inc is fully supporting women’s ability to successfully integrate work-life needs," the report said.

Interestingly, none of the Indian-headquartered organizations and just half the Indian subsidiaries surveyed offered leadership training programmes specific to women. “There needs to be greater focus on the pipeline of developing women leaders. Companies need to monitor how women employees are progressing to ensure women are progressing at the same rate as men," says Irde.

Women-specific leadership training programmes will also ensure women—smaller in number at the workplace—have a voice. The Catalyst report joins a growing list of recent global research that establishes links between gender and workforce participation.

In September this year, the McKinsey Global Institute conducted a 95-country study to conclude that the full participation of women in the workplace would result in a 26% increase in world gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025. Earlier, International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde said GDP in India would expand 27% if its women participated in the workplace at the same rate as men.

Another study, released last week by IMF Direct, the IMF’s global economy forum, also finds strong links between gender inequality and income inequality across time and across countries of all income groups.

In most countries, income inequality is caused by the fact that more men than women work and also get paid more for similar work, finds the study conducted by Sonali Jain-Chandra, Kalpana Kochhar and Monique Newaik.

Catalyst’s Irde, too, believes the Indian government must look beyond the grassroots imperatives of education and empowerment through microfinance, important as they are. “There’s a lot that can be done in terms of gender inclusion in the workplace such as improved infrastructure for child-care and the elderly or giving tax breaks to firms that run creches," she says.

“Most corporates assume women can manage on their own or that their role is over by just granting maternity leave or even paternity leave. In fact, the real problems begin when women return to work, leaving at home a three-month-old baby."

For Bhattacharya, there has been no time for regret in the year since she quit her job. “At JWT, I was a skill," she says. “Now, I am a voice."


Have a dedicated team working for the advancement and promotion of women employees

Hold senior leaders accountable for gender diversity roles and objectives

Be clear about communicating flexi-time arrangements

Have gender-neutral family leave and flexi-time policies

Provide support for post-leave care responsibilities

Offer leadership programmes specific to women employees