Sunday, March 18, 2012

Gender Diversity in India: Number Game or Talent Paradigm?

On March 8, 2012 India, like the rest of the world, celebrated the International Women’s Day. The day as usual was marked by several events and media outpours. Celebration of one assigned day for women, however, does not solve the challenge of ensuring gender equality in our social life and enabling gender diversity in all aspects of political, economic and business life. India, like in many other aspects, presents a paradox in its approach to women. At one level, the social firmament is male dominated, requiring women to be domestically oriented and followers of male members in building families. At another level, however, women are respected and accepted for their leadership in education, employment and governance. The role of women in differentiating the Indian society is also well acknowledged. When qualitatively optics tend to be confusing, and even somewhat misleading, metrics help clarify the true situation.

Indian women in nation building

India ranked 98 in women’s participation in parliament, based on a worldwide survey. While India’s Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the first female President of the United General Assembly and Indira Gandhi was the first woman Prime Minister of India, the overall representation in India’s parliament has been low. Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament of democratically elected representatives, has 59 woman members, constituting just 10.8 percent of the total membership while Rajya Sabha, the higher house, has only 25 members, representing 10.3 percent. These numbers compare adversely with the global average of 19.1 percent for representation of women in parliaments. Interestingly, small (and some of them affluent countries) seem to have significantly high levels of women representation in parliaments as these statistics show: Cuba, 43.2 percent, Iceland, 42.9 percent, Netherlands, 40.7 percent, Finland, 40.0 percent, and Norway, 39.6 percent. Even more interestingly, the Arab States have more than doubled the membership of women from 4.3 percent in 1995 to 11.7 percent in 2010. Against these trends, India has yet to ratify the Women’s Reservation Bill that sets apart 33 percent of parliament seats for women.

It is, however, creditable that Indian women politicians have been able to withstand the challenges of India’s democracy and rigors of electioneering and able to secure parliamentary and ministerial positions. It is also appreciable that Indian women have been able to secure significant leadership positions in the Indian administrative and economic services. However, it is surprising that the representation of women in the Indian corporate sector has been significantly low. According to Catalyst India Benchmarking report for 2010, only 17 percent of Indian companies offered target leadership development programs for women. Another study by Women in Leadership (WILL) Forum shows that Indian companies have much lower women representation in senior positions compared with multinational firms. According to the Community Business Survey conducted by Cranfield University, School of Management Studies (“Standard Chartered Bank: Women on Corporate Boards in India 2010”), out of the 1112 directorships on the BSE-100 companies, only 59 are held by women. This represents just 5.3 percent of the total directorships. This percentage compares poorly with other countries: Canada at 15 percent, US at 14.5 percent, and UK at 12.2 percent, Hong Kong at 8.9 percent and Australia at 8.3 percent. Of the 323 executive directorships only 8 are held by women, representing just 2.5 percent. If these statistics are titrated for the women directors who happen to be members of the promoter families, the representation of women professionals on corporate boards and as executive directors would be abysmal. It is gratifying that two of the largest private sector banks have women as the CEOs. While proving the feasibility and potential of women in organizational leadership roles, such rare instances prove an exception rather than a rule.

The climb on a corporate ladder, leading to the apex of the organization, whether it is the C-suite or the Board is steep, tough and all-consuming. Given the conservative attitudes in India to women employment and empowerment as well as the family-shared preferences for bringing up children and taking care of the elders, the low statistics are not surprising. It is actually of some comfort that an advanced country such as UK had also similar low figures in the late nineties. Even in a highly empowered country such as the US that has been practicing gender diversity for decades, the proportion of women dwindles in terms of the climb to the top. According to statistics in the Website Women on Business ( while women make up 50.6 percent of “management, professional and related occupations” they comprise only 14.8 percent of Fortune 500 board seats and a mere 2.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2.2 percent of Fortune 1000 CEOs. Despite the low overall numbers, the record of India for women in certain sectors such as information technology, banking, medicine and financial services is certainly quite impressive. A large IT organization has, for example, women taking 50 percent of the positions at the entry level. The difficulty is that the percentage drops to 20 percent for the middle level and to low single digits at the top levels.

Attitudes and policies

This drop-off in women representation in corporate climb seems to be related as much to individual attitudes as to the corporate policies. Within India itself, multinational corporations have a better representation than Indian corporations. While large Indian companies had 5 to 6 percent women in senior positions, some multinationals have 15 to 20 percent women at the same level in 2010, the WILL study shows. During the same period while a select Indian bank had around 20 percent women participation in its total workforce, in comparison a select multinational bank in India had around 40 percent women representation in its total staff strength. The WLL study also shows that 84 percent of Indian subsidiaries of multinationals have adopted women's advancement strategy, compared with only 37 percent of India-headquartered companies. Clearly, directed and emphatic corporate policies can help double the representation of women in the Indian corporate sector notwithstanding all the individual and familial limitations. If, in addition, specific initiatives are taken to offer more distinctive and differentiated policy support, the impact could be positive and exemplary.

Fundamentally, policies towards women executives should have a long term perspective. Given that child bearing is the most challenging obstacle in the path of women’s taking up of jobs or staying on in employment, policies must focus on mitigating the impact of this particular tender period. The customary paid maternity leave periods of say 4 months for the women employees would need to be supplemented by additional paid paternity leave periods for the spouses and partially paid leave periods taking the combined child protective period to a year. In a career span of 35 to 40 years, investment of two years of leave on two children would emerge to be a worthwhile one for the individuals as well as corporations. By combining such extended (beyond the 6 month) periods with work-at-home options as well as online informal educational options the employees could even supplement their competencies and reinvent themselves as well. This coupled with policies on flexible working hours and safe on-station and off-station travel policies can help the women employees compete with men employees and push their envelope of performance. That said, major attitudinal changes in male members in terms of family development are also essential to ensure an equitable balance.

Empowering families

The role of the husband and the family, especially the elders, in supporting long term career development for women is critical, especially given the joint family system and lack of public or private geriatric care systems in India. The onus of child development and geriatric care almost entirely falls on female members of a family in India. By sharing these responsibilities of grooming and teaching children, and of supporting and tending the elderly, husbands can take a vast load off the women members and enable them perform with continuity and confidence in the job environment. Many of the women directors covered in the Standard Chartered Bank study felt that the role of the family in determining the career success of women in India is critical – in terms of providing support at a very practical level and also in terms of acknowledgement and recognition by family members of the role of the women outside of the home. Having the support of the older women in the family (particularly the mother-in-law and the mother) as well as the husband and children was seen as extremely important. If female members who have reached board positions have such limitations to cope with, the challenges facing the normal working women can be even more daunting. The family, as a whole, needs to be completely aligned and harmonious, with equitable allocation of responsibilities amongst all the members, for a woman to be self-actualize herself to the fullest extent in the career.

It is often hypothesized in the Indian context that considerations of supplemental income and lifestyle motivate female members to take up employment, and their families to support the. This, however, is a simplistic view. The real unexpressed motivation, however, is in terms of intellectual and economic independence. The typical Indian girl child is today much better educated than ever. It would be tragic if only one half of the talent base of a family is leveraged for economic development of the nation. An economically independent and professionally networked female employee is often able to bring to her family more enriched perspectives, and also develop her children in a more competitive manner. Professional engagement also helps the women to keep in touch with contemporary developments and even upgrade their competencies with additional qualifications. Families that support full employment could be contributing to national development to a greater degree than is apparent.

Public-private support

The governments as well as public-private partnerships have a great role to play in supporting gender diversity. The role of government sponsored communication in managing family welfare has been substantial in India. Apart from health related communication, the government communications can focus on the positive aspects of employing women in terms of supporting meritocracy and not as a matter of gesture. The themes could include how patience and attention to detail as well as the multitasking capabilities which are an integral part of a woman’s psyche could bring about certain special competencies to jobs that require such capabilities. Other themes could include how women could be good in seeking and giving advice, and also being high on integrity and principles. The female directors surveyed by the Cranfield University stated that their constant teaching of the good and the bad to the children helped them to take right approaches as part of the decision making processes. Overall, the thematic emphasis could be on the participation of women correcting the skew of a male-dominated decision making system and bringing the all-round family welfare at the centre and core of social and economic development.

Infrastructure support can be another great way by which public-private partnerships could support gender diversity. Most prominent would be to set up baby and child day care centers wherever clusters of industries and businesses are situated. This would have a salutary impact in motivating women to reach out to the geographic areas where their skills are needed most. The transport systems should be made female commuter friendly by providing more ladies-exclusive rail coaches and buses. Private cab services must also institutionalize female cab services with alarm systems and GPS fortified taxies. Rather than follow the model of limiting nighttime travel for women protection, night patrolling should be made more pronounced with more women patrol crews and more self-help groups active across all residential and work communities. The rapidly increasing fitness centers must incorporate self-protection as a part of the stay-safe, stay-fit curriculum for the female members. While offering all financial incentives for girls to complete their collegiate and professional education without interruption, the school and college curriculums must focus on the nation-building role of women, and bring out case studies of how women can transform families and societies.

Self-employment as paradigm shift

With India's talent crunch and with women representing a huge untapped talent resource, it is important to leverage the vast valuable pool of talent that the women represent. Surprisingly, nearly 70 percent of women graduates of even elite institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) do not reportedly pursue a higher career. Many women, however intelligent and qualified they are, tend to subsume their ambitions and dreams in the interest of family and society. All the guidelines discussed above could enhance the participation of women at work and enable greater initiatives in career building but it is still doubtful if the fundamentally rigid organizational and family structures which are built around fixed concepts of time can fully utilize the talent of women. A paradigm shift in favor of self-employment could potentially help educated and creative women set up and run enterprises that are better aligned with their time systems. A large number of service businesses and online ecosystems are ideal platforms to combine their home and work environments and still weave businesses around their core competencies.

As Indian economy develops further, research and development and service industries would gain prominence. Higher levels of affluence may boost service businesses such as fashion design, advertising, hospitality and media, to quote a few. Genuine and sustainable competitive advantage would accrue by women focusing on businesses of lasting value creation, not merely those driven by conspicuous consumption. All domains which provide knowledge services and deal in intellectual property creation should be domains of choice for the contemporary Indian woman. Starting a business is probably the best way of starting at the top for women and stay on there.

Leveraging talent

Gender diversity is more than providing more jobs to women or having more women in organizations. Diversity centered on talented women leads to diversity of culture, thinking processes and differentiated business approaches. It not only opens up a larger talent pool but also leads to enrichment of thought and experience. However, for gender diversity to succeed in a sustainable manner it must be based initially on certain special efforts including training and mentoring of the women employees but eventually on deployment of equally and equitably high standards in education, recruitment and performance management. A few organizations in India have demonstrated as to what it takes to get women on the top of a structure of meritocracy; there is no reason why more organizations cannot be adept in advancing gender diversity. Quite apart from professional employment, entrepreneurship would be an area for women to self-actualize themselves by developing micro and small enterprises around their core competencies. In the long run, it could be the preferred route for women to demonstrate their leadership capabilities.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on March 18, 2012

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