This could be the best of times for the women workforce in India. Recently, a study undertaken by Korn Ferry, a global people advisory, and National University of Singapore Business School’s Centre for Governance, Institutions & Organisations (CGIO), revealed that India has made ‘significant improvement’ in broadening female representation on the board of top 100 companies listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange.
As per the joint study, female board representation increased from 7.3% in 2013 to 8.6% in 2014—it was 5.8% in 2012. For 2015, it is estimated at 12%. The highest number of female board members, at 17.5%, were in the telecommunication services, followed by 11.6% in information technology and 9.6% in financials, the study said.
Indian companies have been swift to respond to the Companies Act (2013) by drawing on their existing networks. The Act stipulates that every listed company—or a public company with paid-up capital of Rs 100 crore or more, or a public company with a turnover of Rs 300 crore or more—shall have at least one woman director on the board.
Traditionally, however, India has been notorious for its striking inequality at the workplace. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2015 ranked India at the 139th position out of 145 countries on the economic participation and opportunity gap index. India’s overall female labour force participation (FLFP) rate remains low and, in fact, dropped from 35% in 1991 to 27% in 2014. As per World Bank data, the world average is around 50%, while south Asia is at 31%. As per a 2015 International Monetary Fund working paper titled Women Workers in India: Why So Few Among So Many?, the FLFP rate in urban India is even lower—less than 20%.
This, at a time when women are taking giant strides across the world. Take, for instance, Theresa May, who is taking over the job of British Prime Minister from David Cameron, with the monumental tasks of extricating Britain from the European Union and uniting a fractured nation.
“India has one of the world’s largest gender gaps when it comes to labour force participation… (In 2014), women accounted for close to 30% of the total labour force and generated a mere 17% of the share of GDP. Many women leave the workforce, as they move up the ladder due to family commitments and other priorities,” says Bhasker Canagaradjou, head, Ipsos Business Consulting, India.
However, several institutions in India are now taking unprecedented initiatives to make the female workforce a substantial part of their setups. In March, digital imaging solutions leader Canon India announced that it will expand its female workforce from 12% currently to 20% by 2018.
Telecom equipment-maker Ericsson has similar plans—it wants to have 30% women in its workforce in the next four years, up from 22% at present.
Even the government machinery is at work. A few months ago, women and childcare development minister Maneka Gandhi had made a proposal to mandate that private- and public-sector companies in India provide daycare facilities for the children of women employees.
But is the ground reality as bright?
Pitching a greater role for women in the armed forces, defence minister Manohar Parrikar on July 4 mooted the idea of stationing women on warships and raising an all-women battalion. If that happens, India will join the small club of countries in the world, including the US and Israel, to have such a system. “There is a thinking that soldiers will not listen to a commanding officer who is a lady because they are not trained to do that. I don’t agree, as the only restriction today is infrastructure,” Parrikar had said at an event. He said induction of women through the National Defence Academy and allowing girl students in sainik schools could also be considered.
The proposal came only a few days after Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh (pictured above) created history by becoming the first women fighter pilots to be formally commissioned by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Apart from the three women fighter pilots, around 350 women officers were granted permanent commission last year.
But there’s still a lot to be done. On July 14, Wing Commander Pooja Thakur moved the Armed Forces Tribunal after being denied permanent commission in the IAF. As per her lawyer, the Armed Forces Tribunal reportedly admitted the matter and has sought IAF’s response within four weeks.
The Indian Army has just 3% women, the Navy 2.8% and the Air Force has 8.5%. “The rate of Indian women joining the armed forces is lowest compared to other emerging or developed nations. Discrimination, low acceptance and poor comfort levels among women soldiers are major barriers faced in the sector,” says Canagaradjou of Ipsos. “Though the numbers are very small, change is surely happening,” he adds.
Maternity Break is one of the biggest reasons women fall out of the corporate workforce. But things are changing for the better now. On Women’s Day (March 8) this year, global consulting services company Accenture India launched a programme aimed at female alumni on a career break for two-three years. The company revamped its rehiring process, making the process simpler for such women.
Tech major Intel runs a ‘Home to Office’ programme to enable women professionals to resume their careers after a break necessitated by life events such as motherhood, etc. Similarly, ‘Back in the Game’ is an initiative launched by electronics major Philips India that provides a platform to women to return to the organisation post a break in their careers. There are many other such examples. “Nestlé India has increased maternity leave from 18 weeks to 24 weeks. Companies like IBM, Standard Chartered and SAP have started in-house daycare centres to help working women take care of their children without sacrificing their careers,” says Canagaradjou of Ipsos.
Online marketplace Snapdeal, too, has launched programmes such as a special drive to recruit women returning from maternity breaks, as well as women with special needs. “Things are changing rapidly with changing mindsets. Companies have also realised that having a healthy gender ratio makes sense for business,” says Saurabh Nigam, vice-president, HR, Snapdeal, adding, “We have a special mentorship programme for women employees in the middle and senior management levels to expand their network, connect with senior leadership and hone their skills for advancing to the next level.”
LAW & MEDICINE
As per UK-based Chambers & Partners, which ranks lawyers and law firms, there has been a steady rise in women lawyers’ listing in India—from 12.5% in 2010 to 17.34% in 2015. “We don’t see any particular trend to suggest a targeted campaign to hire women lawyers in firms. Companies, however, as a whole, are aggressively pushing to close the gender gap and improve diversity. This change in the hiring strategy of an organisation can also be felt in its legal team’s recruitment activities,” says Trupti Kulkarni, head, internal systems, Vahura, a recruitment firm that specialises in legal talent.
But why are women lawyers in demand? They are seen to adapt better and faster in the corporate world, explains Kulkarni. “They are generally seen to have a natural temperament to adjust to the corporate culture and have a detail-oriented approach, which is helpful when assessing legal issues/risks. This intuitive approach is particularly helpful when it comes to dealing with contractual and employee-related issues,” she adds.
In contrast, women in medicine have not been too lucky. Even though in 2014-15, women constituted 51% of all MBBS doctors, a recent article published in The Lancet journal said only 17% and 6% of all allopathic doctors practising in urban and rural areas, respectively, were females. The majority of women passing out were not found to be practising medicine.
A recent paper by Dr Rakesh Chadda and Dr Mamta Sood of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies noted that medicine has been a male-dominated profession because it demands long working hours that are disadvantageous to women who, even today, struggle to juggle career and family responsibilities.
WOMEN ARE increasingly trying to break the barrier in sporting disciplines that are traditionally considered male bastions. Take, for instance, motorsports, which otherwise does not have much of a history in the country. Young champ Mira Erda has been karting since the age of 10 years and describes herself as ‘India’s speed queen’ on her Twitter account. But the initial years were quite tough, she says. “The first few years were very tough. It was hard for people to accept a girl in a race. But with time, as I kept on winning races and they saw my confidence, they started respecting me. Now, they see me as one of them,” says the 16-year-old Vadodara girl.
Although men and women compete on the same platform in racing, says racer Sneha Sharma (pictured above), the former are at a natural advantage because they are physically stronger. “Initially, I wasn’t quite welcome… But with time, my driving has spoken for itself,” says the 25-year-old, who happens to be the ‘fastest woman racer in the country’, a feat she achieved driving a Mercedes E63 AMG at 260 kmph, when she was just 18 years old, as part of a ‘Mercedes Young Start Driver’ programme in 2009.
Social stigma, sexual harassment, lack of recognition and support are major obstacles witnessed by women sportspersons, especially in sports such as wrestling and kabaddi. But things are changing now. A case in point is the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge that was introduced this year at the Pro Kabaddi League. “Many corporates are now encouraging and supporting women athletes. With many women sportspersons becoming popular across genres, there is a wider acceptance among the conservative family system to accept sports as a hobby/career option for their girl child,” feels Canagaradjou of Ipsos.