Variety

Board, game for diversity?

Saundarya Rajesh | Updated on April 18, 2013 Published on April 18, 2013

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Some weeks ago, at a conference where I was speaking on gender diversity, I put up a slide. It showed a simple and popular board game. One that relies not on the capacity to think or strategise, but on sheer happenstance.

Even before I could make any association with the Indian woman’s career trajectory, a loud rumble of agreement ran around the room. A smattering of applause, some sighs, a hundred heads nodding... The gathering of men and women (over 80 per cent were chief executive officers of multinational companies) visibly concurred that the Indian woman professional’s (IWP) career graph was a lot like… yes, you guessed it… a game of Snakes and Ladders.

If you happen to be an IWP, check if this applies to you:

Study well, get within the top 10-20 per cent of your class, land that coveted job? Check.

Get married, have children, manage to stay afloat in the swirling waters of the workforce? Check.

If you have remained in the workforce, as one of the 98 lakh educated, employable women in India, then congratulations! It has been ladders, ladders all the way for you.

But if you have, citing work-life imbalance, taken a break and joined the ranks of over 1.5 million IWPs who have quit the workplace and are trying to pick up the pieces of their once-flourishing career, then how many snakes have you been bitten by?

Don’t get me wrong — I am your archetypal 1990s’ Indian woman, all for the harmonies of wedlock, experiencing motherhood and being the happy family girl… but hey! What about all that effort that went into making you more than just the procreator? What about the UN slogan of ‘Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities — Progress for All’?

The 102nd anniversary of International Women’s Day just went by on March 8. The horrifying Delhi rape incident has shocked us and revealed the long road ahead to a better score on the human development index. Yes, there has been progress compared to, say, five decades ago. More girls are completing high school. More than 42 per cent of all college graduates in India today are women. The IWP participation in the workforce over the past three decades has seen an uptick by over 13 percentage points. That’s good news.

But when we look at countries such as China at 71.1 per cent, Singapore at 63.41 per cent and South Africa at 47 per cent on the women’s workforce participation index, India’s 28 per cent seems pathetically low. What makes the difference? What are those ladders that have helped women in those countries stay the course of their career paths?

The answer lies in the ‘career strength indicators’ of woman professionals. Research by FLEXI Careers India in September 2011 showed that the four key career strength indicators of IWPs are

Level of work-life stability;

Level of engagement with the organisation;

Potential for growth in career; and

Potential for longevity in career.

Each indicator adds to a different dimension of the woman’s pursuit of a vocation and is impacted by one or several career enablers. These enablers are a combination of organisation-led and self-led factors which ensure that the woman professional stays productive and engaged at her workplace, and contributes to the country’s economic development.

Career enablers for the woman professional include skill-building programmes, a robust anti-sexual harassment policy, the presence of an inspiring peer group, mentors, a reliable day-care centre and liberal doses of flexibility. Equally critical is the presence of supportive family members, as also a clear social understanding of the need for a woman to have an identity away from the home.

Take the case of Vijayalakshmi (name changed) — a gold medallist in Chartered Accountancy, with four years of fast-track performance at an MNC. Marriage and a kid later, this brilliant manager who received the Chairman’s Award for best performance had to quit the workplace in the absence of two enablers — flexible working and day-care centre. Vijayalakshmi is today a full-time homemaker, definitely missing the excitement of her work environment, but very clear that the workplace can have her back only if it offers the enablers she seeks.

Of course, no one is questioning the choice made by some Indian women to leave the workforce of their own accord. But if she leaves the workplace willy-nilly due to the absence of enablers then we have only ourselves to blame for a poor return on the investment made in the Indian girl child.

Let us work to make the career arena of the woman professional not a frustrating game of snakes and ladders, but an inspiring chessboard!

The writer is Founder-President, AVTAR Career Creators and FLEXI Careers India

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Published on April 18, 2013
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