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NTPC drive for women execs: Ticket or token?

Richa Mishra | Updated on March 11, 2021

Glass ceilings: History was created when Nishi Vasudeva became the first woman to take charge as the Chairman and Managing Director of a navaratna company in 2014   -  PRASHANT NAKWE

Help women move up the ladder, experts say

* On March 7, India’s largest integrated power company, NTPC Ltd, announced its plans for recruiting only women executives as a special drive across its areas of operations

* In January 2021, Soma Mondal became the first woman to head the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL)

* In 2014, history was created when Nishi Vasudeva became the first woman to take charge as the Chairman and Managing Director of a navaratna company, the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd

* Women comprise a tiny fraction of the workforce in most PSUs

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It came with its share of applause. When, late on March 7, India’s largest integrated power company, NTPC Ltd, announced its plans for recruiting only women executives as a special drive across its areas of operations, there were loud cheers all around.

“It is certainly a great idea,” said Nirmala Menon, CEO and founder of the Bengaluru-based HR consultants, Interweave Consulting. “Appealing to the good sense of people and trying to change mindsets is a long journey, so intentionally giving them opportunities and enabling them with the right policies is a great way to make gender balance happen.”

In some quarters, though, people are waiting and watching, for women reaching the top in Public Sector Undertakings (PSU) is not quite a new story. Yet, most top PSUs still have a single-digit representation of women.

In 2014, history was created when Nishi Vasudeva became the first woman to take charge as the Chairman and Managing Director of a navaratna company, the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. After graduating from the Indian Institute of Management Kolkata, Vasudeva had joined Engineers India Ltd, and, after a 34-year exposure to the petroleum sector, had demitted office in 2016.

In January 2021, Soma Mondal became the first woman to head the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL). A 1984 graduate in electrical engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Rourkela, Mondal started her career as a Graduate Engineer Trainee at NALCO and later became its Director (Commercial). She joined SAIL as Director (Commercial) in 2017, and rose to become its Chairman in four years.

Were these just one-off cases then? And has NTPC truly taken a path-breaking step?

“Generally, these begin as a new initiative and, if done right, the results are out there for everyone to see. It is about levelling the playing field — it may seem like women are getting a special privilege because of an exclusive drive but it is a necessity,” Menon said. “Left to market forces, the numbers [of women in high posts] are not changing.”

According to Prabir Jha, a former civil servant who now heads an HR group called the Prabir Jha People Advisory, it is “sensible” for companies to create plans, policies and programmes that enable more women representation in the workforce.

“However, more than representation is the true inclusion of various demographics to build a stronger meritocratic talent system. This creates a strategic impact. Unfortunately, companies are lost in outdoing the other in a policy race rather than ensuring strategic talent impact,” he added.

Jha may have a point here, for it is still not clear how NTPC wants to implement the drive. The PSU, however, states that the move will further enhance “gender diversity”.

Even after all these years, women comprise a tiny fraction of the workforce in most PSUs. “To attract more woman applicants, the number of innovative initiatives has been taken,” the NTPC said in a statement. For example, the application fee at the time of recruitment has been waived for women employees.

Other undertakings are looking at the issue, too. While SAIL and GAIL (India) Ltd said they did not have any specific recruitment drives, they did work towards gender parity. ONGC said it was an equal opportunity employer, with gender-inclusive approaches structured in its various HR practices including in recruitment, training, postings and leadership development.

“The enabling policies and practices have led to a steady increase in the gender ratio from 6.7 per cent in 2018 to 7.4 per cent at present; it has also resulted in a very low attrition of women employees, which is at 0.5 per cent,” said Alka Mittal, director (HR), ONGC. Mittal herself was the first full-time woman director in ONGC.

According to Mittal, ONGC was committed to ensuring that more women joined the organisation and reached senior leadership positions. “Since 2015, over 600 women have joined the company as fresh recruits, 66 per cent of whom are in engineering and scientific fields. At the same time, more women are growing into senior management positions, from a female-male ratio of 1:57 in 2017 to 1:27 in 2020.”

The corporate sector is watching the developments with some interest, too. “The NTPC announcement made on International Women’s Day came as a pleasant surprise to denizens of the corporate world,” said Swati Thakur, Associate — Advisory Services, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) India. “The Maharatna company is showing its commitment towards ensuring gender diversity in the organisation. It appears to be a genuine effort on part of NTPC in creating inclusive workspaces and making its work environment more women friendly. A recruitment drive of this nature is bound to attract more women applicants aspiring to have successful careers in the public sector,” she said.

It has to be, however, seen how the drive finally leads to inclusiveness. “I don’t really think it will boost gender diversity, but it will encourage women employees in government undertakings,” said UD Choubey, former Director General, Standing Conference of Public Enterprises, an apex professional organisation representing Central government Public Enterprises. “Today, there are only about 11 per cent women employees in PSUs, which is much lower than 20 per cent in developed countries. Moves like this will enhance this number.”

A larger issue is of encouraging those who are already employed, he said. “Most women are employed at lower levels. The system should be such that they are encouraged to move up the ladder to executive levels.”

The intent, clearly, is good. But like many Women’s Day announcements, it should not be a token salute to gender equality.

Published on March 11, 2021

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