India makes firm strides on women in the workplace

by Shuchita Sonalika

Against the backdrop of International Women’s Day on March 8, an Indian industry expert weighs up the role of women in the workplace in order to achieve women’s economic empowerment.

According to UN Women, when more women work, economies grow. The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) finds that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. Even after decades of progress towards making women equal partners with men in the economy and society, the gap between them remains large.

India has made strides in advancing women in the workplace; the year 2017 especially has been a transformational year. We have a record number of women in the Indian government today, including the first female Minister of Defence, Nirmala Sitharaman. Though at six out of 27, we have some way to go. A little-known fact to highlight: in April 2017, all Chief Justices at India’s four major High Courts (Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras) were women. While men may jeer at our driving skills, India boasts the maximum number of pilots, with 12 per cent female commercial pilots against a global average of 5.5 per cent.

Dr Neelu Rohmetra became the first woman ever to head an Indian Institute of Management (IIM). Dr Tessy Thomas, the ‘Missile Woman of India’ hailed ‘Agniputri’ broke Twitter as the first woman to head an Indian missile project. Indeed, we welcomed Ms Shobana Kamineni as the first female President of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in its 123-year history! If you are in need of more inspiration, I highly recommend ‘First Ladies’, a remarkable publication of India’s Ministry of Women & Child Welfare.

Challenge ahead

No doubt, there are tremendous systemic constraints and challenging social norms in India which inhibit the full and equal economic participation of women. At 17 per cent, India has a lower share of women’s contribution to GDP than the global average of 37 per cent, which is the lowest among all regions in the world. India stands to gain the most with the potential of bringing an additional $2.9 trillion to annual GDP in 2025 by fully bridging the gender gap in the workplace, which is 60 per cent higher than business-as-usual!

Aren’t we all guilty of disempowering women at some stage? From taking domestic work for granted, to encouraging women to be risk-averse, selecting male colleagues for leadership roles, being indifferent to gender pay gaps, commenting on women’s appearance and attitude instead of their work, and so on. Every bias contributes to an ever-widening gender gap.

But there isn’t a “silver bullet” to close this gap. There is an important role for government, business, civil society, academia – and women, themselves – to effect change. A recent meeting I attended at Wilton Park, a think tank of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), looked at creating an enabling environment through strategic initiatives and partnerships and focused on three areas for impact: opportunities for financial, digital inclusion and entrepreneurship for women-owned and women-led enterprises; addressing adverse norms, discriminatory beliefs and limiting practices that affect women’s economic participation; and the unrecognised care economy.

Bridging the gap

Today, drawing from the depth of knowledge and insights of more experienced women and mentors, I can now reflect that the business community has a huge role to play in bridging this gap. Indicators suggest that gender parity at work influences and enables greater parity in society. The first step in this challenge is recognising that this is not a “women’s issue”. Rather, this is a business issue, an economic issue, a social issue, a local, regional, national and a global issue. You don’t need a huge infrastructure or a women’s division to bring about a more level playing field. Here is an attempt to distil some thoughts for practical, business use.

So, what can we do? How can we learn and adopt best practices to enable, encourage and empower women in business? Where are our role models? And on the ground-level, what can businesses do? Apparently, a lot.

  • Self-audit: One of the first things you can do is start asking the right questions. Just ask. In other words, do a self-audit. What is the male-to-female ratio in your organisation? Is there a male/female pay gap for the same jobs in your organisation? I recently asked at a meeting with at least 20 businesses, “Do you have women in senior management or leadership roles in your organisations?” and I was met with pin-drop silence with all male representatives looking at each other, trying to find the best answer. Asking makes you aware.
  • No ‘Manels’ and No Interruptions: No more all-male panel discussions. We have seen that a bit too often. And I am guilty of doing this myself, as charged! “There aren’t any women” is a lazy excuse. Make an effort to identify and incorporate women in your panel. Your discussion will be richer for it. Also, stop interrupting or cutting women short when they are making a point. I cannot tell you how many times I have experienced this. It is belittling, disrespectful and annoying. If you do this, check yourself.
  • Meeting Timings: This is one of those limiting practices that don’t even cross our minds. Is the timing of meetings conducive to enabling women participation? Do you do early breakfast meetings or late-night receptions (I’m not saying this is how it should be, but these are times when women, largely more often than men, must head home to fulfil family commitments, getting mornings organised for the family or preparing dinners or tucking kids in bed)?
  • Support Network: When you look around – is the work environment around you calibrated towards enabling male and female participation? As businesses, we can create support networks to help women learn from each other and from other men. By doing this you, are instilling a corporate culture, which enriches the work environment to be more respectful, inclusive and diverse. It is for this reason that CII started an Indian Women Network (IWN), a network for them to discuss their experiences and challenges to become better professionals at work; as well as to emphasise the importance of creating gender parity for women in Indian business and society.
  • “‎You can’t be what you can’t see”: This was my favourite phrase from Wilton Park and has stuck with me since. Let’s not underestimate the role of role models. We have dynamic women on the global stage, but what about women around you? Take a moment to identify women that you can look up to – who may be a few steps ahead of you, who you can relate to, and you can aspire to be. Ask to be mentored. And also ask how you can be a mentor to others. There is a raft of resources that can come floating your way.

Shuchita Sonalika is Director and Head – UK, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

2019-04-24T14:45:10+00:00March 16th, 2018|2017/2018, Global Edition- March 2018, Spotlight, Year|

About the Author: Shuchita Sonalika