Shweta Gupta, a 28-year-old executive at a Mumbai-based multinational company, still remembers the day she was interviewed for the job four years ago.
“I was asked about my marriage plans and whether that would impact my professional life. Though I bagged the job, I was made to feel the job was thrown at me because I was a woman and not for my qualifications or ability,” Gupta (name changed) recounted.
She is not alone. Discrimination against women at the workplace manifests itself in various forms and at all levels.
The politically incorrect and never-publicly-admitted truth is that work-life balance is almost considered a taboo for the working Indian woman.
“To maintain her professionalism, a woman employee is expected not to display much attachment to her family or home. Doing so is considered a weakness,” said Dev Bharat, director, Executive Access, a leading human resource consultancy.
But it’s not only employers who, willy-nilly, discriminate against women employees. Societal attitudes and family pressures are also often decisive factors in this tale of gender prejudice.
Many women are forced to give up their jobs after marriage, at childbirth or to look after elderly parents and parents-in-law.
Worse, in cases where they want to rejoin the workforce after a gap of a few years, they have, very often, had to settle for lower salaries and lesser designations than their male peers.
“We have lost high quality talent and highly qualified women workers due to family and social pressures. Fortunately, things are changing for the better,” said Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of apex industry chamber Confederation of Indian Industry.
By discriminating against half its population, especially when it is battling a severe skills shortage, India is doing itself injustice. Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director, UN Women, has been quoted by Bloomberg Businessweek as saying that India can ramp up its growth rate quite dramatically if it can correct the skew against women in the workforce.
Government data shows that only 5.8 million women are employed in the organised sector, making up 20% of the total workforce. Worse, the number shrinks significantly at senior levels.
HR experts said while more women are being hired, in several cases, they are being pushed into a few specialised roles like HR and communications. For example, it’s rare to find women in “men’s jobs” like (product) sales that typically involve extensive travelling, especially into the hinterland. Many women are also reluctant to go on tours with male colleagues.
The ministry of corporate affairs is doing its bit. It has directed all listed companies to ensure that there is at least 30% representation of women on their boards. The idea is simple. Companies will now need to recruit more women.
But what is corporate India doing to address the issue of gender diversity and inequity?
“Things are changing, albeit slowly. Participation of women in the workforce is increasing and this will contribute to our growth,” said Godrej Group chairman Adi Godrej.
Some, like Shell India, Citibank, HSBC, Maruti Suzuki India, Infosys and Bharti Airtel, among others, have already introduced human resource policies that provide women a level playing field.
“All women can opt for flexible working arrangements, part time working and working from home if it suits them for any length of time,” said Yasmine Hilton, chief executive woman officer, (that’s what Shell India calls its current country head). She added that Shell understands that many women have dependent parents; so, several policies have been introduced to take care of these issues.
Sensitising its predominantly male workforce to women’s needs is something that most companies-multinational and domestic - have taken up. Citibank, for instance, has instituted a diversity council to deliberate on various issues, including those pertaining to its female employees.
As a policy, Citibank reserves its ground floor parking area in Mumbai for pregnant employees, irrespective of their seniority level. Not even the country head is allowed to park in these slots.
“We offer our female executives special executive coaching sessions to help them move up the corporate ladder,” said Vikram Tandon, head, HR, HSBC India.
This proactive approach to gender diversity can only benefit India as its economy tries desperately to claw its way back to a high growth trajectory.
These companies are making a difference
India Inc is taking innovative steps to encourage women at the workplace
Variable hours, part-time work and tele-working options
Extended leave of up to an extra 3 months (after the regulation 3-month maternity leave)
Enhanced monetary benefits for referring women employees across all levels
Flexible work hours and the option to work from home
Psychological counselling for women to cope with stress
Giving women employees advice on physical well being and health
* Women comprise 35% of Infosys's 155,000-strong workforce
Extended maternity leave of six months
Diversity councils to sensitise employees about women’s issues
Three months maternity leave for mothers who adopt children
Flexible timing, part-time work and work from home options
Psychological counseling via an employee assistance programme for female staff
2-year sabbaticals for female staff who wish to take a career break
Job share facility where the role can be performed by two employees
Insurance cover for dependent parents
Special protection against bias or uncomfortable questions during appraisals
Special skills development training for high performing women at middle levels
Day care centres for children in select cities
Maruti Suzuki India
Gives opportunities to employ women as they are grossly under-represented in manufacturing industries
Takes special care to recruit women engineers so as to increase the gender diversity of its workforce