Compare the headlines in the Indian media about women on top to stories in the media abroad. When Arundhati Bhattacharya becomes chairman of the State Bank of India or Farah Khan delivers the superhit film ‘Happy New Year’, there is little surprise. But when Marissa Mayer is appointed the head of Yahoo or Patty Jenkins packs a punch with the Hollywood film ‘Wonder Woman’, the reactions are very different.
In India, as soon as a woman breaks the glass ceiling she is accepted. Her gender becomes irrelevant. If you look at the Indian corporate world from outside, the Indian gender equality picture is not bleak and dismal. There are women at the top of almost every profession. This is true for PSUs, private corporations, and SMEs. In some cases, women have climbed to the top of the corporate ladder because they shared a famous surname; in others, through sheer achievement and merit. Fact is, in neither case does your gender come in the way of people accepting your ability and talent. Of course, you have to first reach the top to cross that hump.
Perhaps one reason for the huge difference in attitude towards women in senior positions in the West and those in India is that in India, gender is subservient to power. It is common knowledge that Indira Gandhi was addressed as “Sir,” by many of her colleagues.
Yet, even when the first hurdle, an acknowledgement of the woman’s ability, has been crossed, several other factors weigh against women in the corporate world.
The first problem is the attitude people have towards women seeking to balance their work and family; predictably, these tend to be rather patriarchal. A McKinsey report, The Power of Parity, Advancing Women’s Equality in India, identifies two clear arguments working against working women which revolve around, ‘When a mother works for pay, the child suffers’, and ‘When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women’.
This clearly reflects in the numbers entering the workforce. As many as 25 per cent of new entrants in management are women, but by the time you reach mid-management levels, that figure drops to 16 per cent. The figure further drops to 4 per cent when you reach senior or top management. This drop usually coincides with a pregnancy and when a child begins formal schooling. Government have begun to insist that organisations create spaces for creches inside their premises, in the hope that this step may lead to a more productive female manager.
The second assumption is that working women are still responsible for household chores. Most working women juggle two full-time jobs – one paid, and the other unpaid. Those of us with a family support system and/or paid help are the lucky exceptions; most women are sole earners. According to a survey by the Organization for Economic co-operation and Development (OECD), the average Indian male spends 19 minutes a day on household chores, while women spend 298 minutes a day.
That’s how a rigid nine-hour workday gets in the way of smoothly running the home. Unfortunately, most corporations, including those in the service sector, balk at the idea of flexible working hours or the option to work from home. The usual question asked is “How will you monitor them?”, which stems more from a deep-rooted distrust of people than a problem with flexible working hours. The truth is that a flexi-work policy can help women achieve better work-life balance and help them continue in the workplace.
The third issue is the lack of role models and mentorship. Women managers, like their male counterparts, need mentoring to rise to the top. It really helps if the mentor is another woman, who has faced the same set of issues while climbing up the ladder — a jealous spouse, guilt about neglecting the home and dealing with professional failure. Common sense indicates that if women juggle two jobs, the opportunity to network diminishes. In a world where opportunities are increasingly found only through networking, a lack of those opportunities becomes a major impediment.
Finally, there is the question of safety. There are parts of India which are perceived as being unsafe for women. According to a report in the ‘Times of India, IIM Calcutta had a 30 per cent intake of women this year, while IIM Rohtak, in the wake of the Jat violence, only had a 14 per cent intake. This when, until a couple of years ago, the ratio of male to female students was almost equal.
Clearly, unsafe cities drastically reduce opportunities for working women, so the question is, can corporations do anything to mitigate this sense of physical insecurity?
Truth is corporate India isn’t as much sexist, as lazy. It looks for external solutions for issues that should be part of its operational DNA. Gender parity, equal opportunity or creches don’t need to be mandated by government. You don’t need laws to treat people nicely, or as equals. Good companies who want happy employees to stay and thrive as the company grows, know what they have to do. The problem is that there aren’t enough of these to go around.