Are women on top?

As policies for women at work slowly get better, Nasrin Modak Siddiqi digs deeper into the corporate world to find out the ground reality...

There is a cultural shift with focused efforts to foster gender diversity in Indian companies who are mindful of the need to revamp the organisational culture and workplace environment.

At the last round of interview at the Global Payments Asia-Pacific India office in Mumbai, the interviewee told the panel that she was willing to stay back in office till 9 or 10 pm to complete work and that the company shouldn’t think twice about her candidature because she is a woman. The desperation in her voice hit the HR Manager, Aditi Datta. “It made me think that as women, we still have a long way to go when it comes to equality at every stage of our careers — from recruitment to reaching the top — it’s not always easy for all,” she adds.

Space for everyone

Most offices these days do have women in senior roles, who beautifully balance their home and work. Setare Irani Degamwala, head, people and culture, IdeateLabs, says, “More companies these days are being understanding towards women and are realising that by holding on to age-old beliefs and practices, they have missed out on excellent talent.”

Adding further, Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder and EVP, TeamLease Services, says, “There is a cultural shift with focused efforts to foster gender diversity in Indian companies who are mindful of the need to revamp the organisational culture and workplace environment to become more acquiescent to women employees. The first wave of change included — programmes to support women with young children, flexible work options, and technology-enabled systems to help women navigate their careers and professional development — this helped in breaching some fundamental barricades that kept women from the workplace. The next shift was tipping over invisible barriers and collective mindsets including policy regulation to amend gender diversity at the topmost echelons of the organisation, extended maternity benefits and mandatory crèche facilities, etc.”

She further adds, “In particular, senior leadership commitment to propel women participation in organisations went a long way. The third wave currently is driving women workforce to break the conservative male bastion by stepping into roles that are predominantly male-dominated. These efforts are slowly beginning to show results. Companies are seeing an increase in participation of women in the workforce and improved retention rate, though not significantly.”

Deeper troubles

And yet, when Datta gets emails from recruitment agencies where the job description mentions ‘preferred male candidates’ it makes her wonder, “What is the specific job profile which only a male can conquer. Today, we see women taking up physically strenuous work, too. They are delivery agents, rickshaw drivers, bouncers, and standing at the cash counters for hours. Why still the bias?”

Her company has more than 100 employees, of which 30% are women. Of the 20 managers, seven are women, independently managing their departments. “I think the ratio can be better. We select the candidate based on the competency but I’ve seen that the attrition rate in women is the least, and that they are more productive, organised, focused and disciplined at work. This may be because they have multiple roles to play and need to organise their time accordingly. A working lady has too much on her plate — from waking up early to ensuring the household chores are complete before hitting the bed, there is very little time for themselves. After marriage, the pressure to start a family, look after it, and contribute to the household expenses could be a dampener, too. Living in metros can get stressful, making them deal with anxiety and panic attack, while many lead this life, without realising it’s a matter of concern and not normal.”

For this, Degamwala emphasies on having tie-ups with professional counsellors. “A lot of women deal with depression just because they feel like they are unable to keep up or match what they feel are high standards. Helping them deal with it is of paramount importance. Companies must understand that a happy employee is a productive employee — so, in a way, this cost to the company is an investment in production,” she adds.

Mommy woes

Degamwala, who is also a mother to six-year-old Arshan, says, “As HR heads, we need to be cognizant of the fact that all of us have bad days. Nannies are notorious leave-takers. Kids fall sick and somehow families are unable to manage without their presence for festivals or special days. Having simple yet thoughtful policies like flexi-time or work from home help immensely.”

What women want

Chakraborty points that misdirected societal moralities and a dominant patriarchal influence continues to force Indian women in both urban and rural societies to make conformist choices regarding their education as well as career. “An estimated 66 % of the work done by Indian women is unpaid labour as against 12% pegged to Indian men, putting a disproportionate burden of domestic and homecare responsibilities on them. The demand for equal opportunity stems from this reality. While in absolute terms, there are more women in urban areas getting jobs, it’s still poor relative to the number of women who are seeking jobs vis-a-vis finding employment.”

The current challenge that faces corporate India is the attention to issues that affect women at workplace — but this is largely restricted to a few sectors like technology, BFSI, e-commerce taking the lead. “Others lack the same level of commitment. Making workplace better for women has to be viewed from the perspective of what women truly want rather than what the organisation wants,” says Chakraborty.

An estimated 66 % of the work done by Indian women is unpaid labour as against 12% pegged to Indian men.
An estimated 66 % of the work done by Indian women is unpaid labour as against 12% pegged to Indian men.

Datta adds, “Women do not require women-centric policies, they are physically and intellectually prepared to take on any role. They need help managing the time with the families and the workplace. No matter how much we progress, ultimately, it is the woman who has the major responsibilities when it comes to looking after her home. What we need is a strong support system.”

Degamwala, too, believes, “A woman, whether married or not, always plays a dual role. Her second job begins once she reaches home. At work, most women do not ask for extra frills and fancy policies; they feel the need to be treated with respect and be allowed a space to showcase themselves. And they are willing to earn their place.”

Long road ahead

An interesting point to be noted is that at the entry level, most organisations do not distinguish between genders. “Over a period of time, this distinction widens as women are not able to move up in a career as fast as men, and pay parity also increases — this has to stop,” says Chakraborty.

A larger part of the problem is that while governing policies advocate better gender balance in management teams and boards, women representation is not consistent and, that equality is yet to gain adequate currency in spite of mandated reforms. “Women in informal wage employment are even more marginalised than workers in the formal economy and are paid lower wages than men on average. Formalisation of the informal economy can significantly benefit them and provide legal and statutory benefits and also help reduce the gender pay gap and empower them to better-defend their interests,” says Chakraborty.

For this, she believes that the onus for change to a large extent also rests on the collective female population. “Indian women should now foster amongst themselves a sense of equality rather than one of either victimhood or entitlement. Collective bargaining for equal rights and taming discriminatory practices starting from home to society to the workplace has a huge potential to reduce gender inequalities,” she adds.

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