Around International Women’s Day, which has fallen on Sunday this time, a growing number of firms plan special indulgences for women employees—some give a half-day off, others offer spa discounts or movie tickets. The hoopla might suggest a growing focus on women in the workplace.

Tall claims and canny public relations aside, have companies really been able to change the status quo and plug the gaps for Indian women in the workforce—be it on pay, equal participation, or career progression well into senior management?

“Validate yourself, I ask companies who tell me things are changing. Anything other than data is opinion, anecdote or window dressing," says Poonam Barua, founder-chairperson of WILL Forum India, an eight-year-old, New-Delhi based organization which works to bring together senior women from corporate India. Much like any other metrics, the way to do so, she believes, is through benchmarking, disclosure and transparency of gender data.

In early 2013, WILL Forum developed and launched a benchmarking toolkit—based on parameters like leadership commitment to gender mainstreaming and corporate disclosures on gender profiling—to evaluate how companies fare in their diversity effort. These parameters are based on its 2008 handbook, 50 Best Practices For Women In The Workplace, with inputs from more than 600 women managers. Companies have been given percentage scores against each parameter after a dipstick survey on 80 questions conducted over three months.

Thirty companies have chosen to undergo the voluntary benchmarking exercise over the past two years. Sodexo India was the first company to do so. Since then, Genpact, Capgemini India, Thomson Reuters India, KPMG India, MSD pharmaceuticals, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Tata Consultancy Services and Monsanto India have undertaken the exercise both to evaluate progress and identify improvement areas, says Barua.

“What gets measured, gets done," says Bengaluru-based Shachi Irde, executive director of Catalyst India WRC. Catalyst works to expand opportunities for women in business across North America, Europe and Asia. In 2010, Catalyst had released the “India Benchmarking Report" that surveyed the impact of strategies to promote women’s development and advancement in 56 companies. It measured aspects such as reporting and tracking mentorship programmes, the level of leadership of mentoring champions, and gender awareness training for both men and women. It is working on the 2015 edition of the study, and plans to release the findings in August. “Companies who want to be known as being women-friendly have begun to come forward—to share data as well as be audited," Irde says.

The benefits of benchmarking

“We are constantly assessing our value proposition to employees. We created internal tools to benchmark ourselves three years back. So when WILL told us about their Gender Quotient Index, we wanted to do it," says Anjali Singh, senior vice-president of corporate strategy at Genpact. Singh is also part of Genpact’s Global Diversity Council.

Genpact is considered fairly mature when it comes to commitment and initiatives to promote women in the workplace—37% of its employees are women and the figure for women in senior management is 22%. In its WILL benchmarking last year, it found that 100% of its employees believed the company had a defined, sustained diversity focus and 90% approved of the company’s efforts to build an enabler policy for women.

Gayathri Ramamurthy, lead of Capgemini India’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiative, adds that external benchmarking helps in understanding the industry context and fosters the sharing of best practices.

Last year, the Indian arm of Capgemini, a technology, consulting and outsourcing company, got the WILL Forum to benchmark its India operations—28% of the employees are women. One of the findings of that exercise was that 85% of the employees believed women were able to break through the male networks in the company.

“Data is a remarkable way of bringing facts to the table. The benchmarking exercise showed us that we were in the right direction, but also identified that there was a lot more to be done," says Ramamurthy.

Though the tangible impact on corporate performance and business value flowing from diversity initiatives isn’t easy to quantify, Ramamurthy and Singh say benefits accrue both to clients and employees.

“The invisible value of it is huge," adds Singh. “Recently, one of the big four consulting firms that we work with told us they would like to understand our diversity principles because they haven’t been able to do what we have."

Are home-grown companies trailing?

“Foreign MNCs (multinational companies) have taken the first step forward in promoting gender diversity because their global mandate is to do so. Indian home-grown companies have been slow to put their hands up," says Irde.

WILL Forum’s Barua is more strident in her criticism. She cites the preliminary findings of the WILL Gender Quotient Index, part of their soon to be released 3M, Building Sensitive, Sustainable And Sensible Leadership handbook: Of the 10-15% companies that came close to the top level of maturity on gender quotient (30-40% women in the total workforce and at least 20% women in the top level of senior management and executive boards), nearly 90% were Indian subsidiaries of foreign multinationals. “Most Indian promoter-driven companies, even the largest business houses, aren’t listening yet. Those with global stakeholders are worried about the problem, not that they are doing much about it even then," says Barua.

Across India’s large chunk of small and medium-size enterprises, basic levels of diversity awareness aren’t evident, let alone systems to benchmark and audit. Even in the IT and ITeS (information technology and information technology enabled services) industry, where more than a quarter of the workforce consists of women—higher than in banking and consumer goods companies—the figure for senior management is less than 10%.

Tech Mahindra, for example, has 27,000 women in its 98,000-strong workforce. But its 12-member executive management team (listed on its website) does not have a single woman and there is a lone woman director on their 10-member board.

“There is a leaking pipeline," admits Rajeev Dubey, president of group human resources, corporate services and after-market, and member of the Mahindra & Mahindra Group executive board. “Training interventions and grooming efforts are on to increase the number of women in our executive management."

He adds that Mahindra Group, where 20% of the workforce comprises women, formally launched its Group Diversity Council in November 2012. Dubey did not disclose the number of women in senior management. “Our D&I journey has just begun. It’s going to take us some more time to make public disclosures of our data as well as the steps taken to attract, retain and engage women," he says.

The big picture, says Barua, is that not much has changed from 2007, when she founded the WILL Forum. Everybody is happy with women as “worker bees" but won’t address the depth of the problem. “I can take figures from five-seven years back for some Indian firms, and nothing would have moved," she says. “We were at 8-10% women in senior leadership then, and now."

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