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Home / Opinion / Views /  Top business roles need greater gender diversity

A recently-released report by Grant Thornton, Women in Business 2021, places India in third position worldwide—after the Philippines and South Africa—on the count of women in senior management roles. According to its findings, our companies are likelier to have a woman running either the entire business or a significant function of it than firms in most other countries. Last year’s Egon Zehnder Global Board Diversity Tracker reported that India had improved on gender diversity in company boards over the eight years from 2012 to 2020. If these trends are true, they augur well for Indian enterprise. After all, a Harvard Business School report of 2018 said a study had found a clear correlation between women in leadership positions and corporate profitability. Though theories exist of why gender-balanced businesses perform better, we need not prove any causation to accept its value. Indeed, in a world where male privilege is so taken for granted that men in authority scarcely even seem conscious of it, gender parity is a worthy aim in and of itself. Some progress has been made. But is our work done? Far from it.

Many of India’s numbers turn out to be less impressive on closer examination. Take company boards. Many women directors in India are members of promoter families. Among those who are independent, a significant fraction hold directorships in more than one company, making female participation in corporate governance look stronger than it is. Recall that the Companies Act of 2013 made it mandatory for all publicly-listed firms to have at least one woman director, and, as with several such initiatives, compliance in letter tends to run ahead of its adoption in spirit. Few firms have gone beyond a single reserved board seat to accommodate more women as directors. Various research studies hint of tokenism, as women are found to be less likely than men to be included in key committees and have less influence over major decisions than their male counterparts. It is a rare business that has broken out of male ‘groupthink’ and optimized the potential of diverse perspectives.

What can be done? Rather than simply tick boxes on a diversity agenda, firms should activate mentorship modules for women leaders. They should also frame policies that enable recruits to keep their jobs and ascend the business hierarchy without any penalty for time needed on children. Pregnancy provisions, upskilling modules, flexi-time permits and an office crèche for toddlers could reduce the drop-out rate and help create a talent pool for top jobs. At the start of last year’s covid lockdown, it looked as if work-from-home (WFH) would let women balance the demands of work and home better. But, given the lopsided burden of domestic duties that our cultural conditioning imposes on women, it did not ease everyone’s life equally. Still, our workplaces ought to offer a WFH option, and opting for it must not be taken as any reflection on job commitment. One reason that India is seeing a drastic decline in women’s participation in its overall workforce is a preference among households for women to invest time in aiding the education of their kids. Though such drop-outs are presumably far fewer among upper socio-economic clusters, employers cannot ignore this factor. If effective gender diversity is to be achieved, firms must diversify their pathways for women to attain C-suite jobs.

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