Where are the women in the workplace?

M Muthiah and Aparna Vasanth | Updated on August 31, 2019

Only 4.9 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have women at leadership position.   -  Getty Images

As someone who has been in HR for over 30 years and has worked in many large organisations, I have had a fair bit of opportunity to both work with fantastic women colleagues and bosses, and rue their loss when they chose to leave the workplace. Many studies reveal that the women leadership found to be equal or more effective than their male counter parts a recent study women scores more than men in competencies like taking initiatives, resilience, practicing self-development etc, and the truth remain so still globally corporates struggle to have inclusive workforce.

Globally women at leadership position are very less and only 4.9 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have women at leadership position. India has one of the lowest labour force participation by women, when compared to countries across the globe, just under 18 per cent in 2017 compared to 82 per cent for men (ILO, India Labour Market Update, July 2017 (August 8, 2017). A global study by Deloitte identified Indian women as holding 12.4 per cent of board seats and just 3.2 per cent of board chairs in 2017 (Deloitte, Women in the Boardroom: A Global Perspective – Fifth Edition). This study surveyed large Indian publically listed organisations that had a turnover of ₹3 billion or more.

I can attest to the veracity of these facts, based on personal experiences. In a large manufacturing organisation where I was heading HR, we tried many strategies to raise our gender ratios. We made it a point to try and hire more qualified women in entry level jobs, from Graduate trainees to Engineers on the shop floor. Support systems and policies were set in place and we hoped, we would gradually be able to increase the women workforce from a measly 2 per cent to a level of 16 per cent which is much below our target of 30 per cent which took 5 years.

The hope however remained just that, a hope. Though our hires were excellent, settled well into the organisation and grew well within the system, it was an uphill task to keep them in the workforce. Marriage and motherhood claimed many victims. It was not that the women employees were unwilling to work, in most cases family pressure and lack of societal support led to the job being sacrificed at the altar of motherhood.

Seven years later now, though we have at least made it to about 20 per cent, we are still miles away from our set targets. It is the same with having women representatives on the company Board. Though the Companies Act of 2013 mandated that companies must have at least one woman director on board, the ground realities of this are not quite what the government envisaged. This is a much needed rule, and one that will ensure that Boards tend to take in a gender perspective, yet the disturbing reality is that it is very tough for most organisations to find an appropriate Woman Director to serve on the Board. With so few women in leadership levels, organisations are left wondering who to appoint.

The pressures on women are many, and frankly are quite mind boggling if examined by a male of the species. Right from childhood, women are trained to put the needs of their family ahead of themselves. “What will your mother-in-law say?” is a mock scolding used by mothers of teenage daughters for every transgression, long long before marriage is even on the horizon. It is drilled into a girl’s head that she must serve – serve her husband, serve the family, serve the extended family, serve everyone’s interests…save her own.

Perhaps that is the biggest mistake the traditional India upbringing does, this supreme focus on training the women to be servile and the men to be dominant. Thankfully, the newer generations are definitely not bringing up their children that way.

In her wonderful book “Lean In”, Sheryl Sandberg describes how women often tend to settle for non-leadership roles doubting their own capabilities and holding themselves back, while men exhibit raw ambition to reach the top. While this may be a controversial point, it is true that women tend to be more self-effacing than men, and often rate their achievements lower than a male colleague with similar accomplishments. Women should realise the importance of using their education.

Leaving aside the personal equation, the family pressures are also immense. In the early days of the job, women have to contend with parental pressure to not travel, to not stay out late, to not pick plum postings in cities too far from their hometowns. In our sector, manufacturing, there are added complications. Despite countries like China, Vietnam and Russia having all-women super factories and a huge women worker population, in India ‘factory jobs’ are seen as the last resort for young engineers.

Parents much rather prefer their girls work in IT and Services, than Manufacturing simply because they do not have to be on the shop floor or get their hands dirty. The same does not in the least apply to their sons, whose factory job offers they delight in. If not for parents, in-laws post marriage pose the same issues. Add to that, the cultural bias in parts of India where women working post marriage is considered a mark of lower social status.

Once motherhood enters the picture, things get worse. Young mothers are expected to shoulder the greater part of childcare along with household management. Add to that the pressures of a full-time job, and you can see how things fall apart. We still remember the pain we felt at having to let a star woman sales manager go, because she couldn’t convince her family to support her post motherhood.

In many developed countries, the community support for childcare is immense with organised day-cares and creches, many subsidised by governments or employers. The legalities of such childcares are also well thought-out, offering young mothers a safe space to leave their children. In India, this sector is mostly disorganised. While several childcare facilities exist, the lack of laws on their management make them a not so agreeable option for young working couple. The best are obviously prohibitively expensive.

Company run day-cares are gradually coming to the fore, though still restricted to larger organisations and metros. That leaves a working woman with the option of relying on her in-laws or parents to care for her child while she is at work. Though many of my colleagues do this, it takes its toll with grandparents unable to handle the energy levels of toddlers relying on devices to keep kids occupied and in one place. How do we go about finding the answer to this conundrum? The answers are not all available or obvious.

At an individual level, we must bring up our girls with greater self-awareness and confidence. A strong can-do attitude coupled with a quiet confidence in their abilities can go a long way towards making women at the workplace, stronger individuals. At a family level, it becomes necessary to examine our own conditioning, our own stereotyping and beliefs that most often unconsciously influence our behaviour when we are dealing with our children. By being gender sensitive and constantly aware of the way we portray genders in our relationships, language and actions, we can help bring up children who do not see gender as a definition of a person. It also means supporting our girls to chase their dreams the way they choose.

At a family level, it also means going beyond stereotypes such as “working mothers are bad mothers” or “our family prestige is lowered if a daughter-in-law goes to work”. It behoves us to look at running a home and children as shared responsibilities as equal partners in a marriage than leave the onus on our wives.

At a society level, we can start by being cheerleaders for our women workforce, unlearning gender inequality and correcting our perceptions of what women can bring to the workplace. At an organisational level, there is lots that can be done and thankfully, is being done. More flexible policies, office day-cares, the recent Maternity Benefits Act etc have helped ease the strain on women employees. There is more though!

Organisations can take steps to build more gender parity, to consciously build capability in their women workforce, while sensitizing both genders to the other. They can work on tackling unconscious bias and increase awareness on the many benefits of gender diversity, while also building strong support networks for women in the workplace to be able to rise higher up the ladder. Perhaps all this, combined with the millennials significantly more progressive views on gender, will lead to more equal workplaces in the years ahead? We can only hope.

Published on August 31, 2019

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