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Opening the door to women

Only a handful of Indian women have been able to fight gender disparity at work, reports Rupashree Singh.
None | By Rupashree Singh
UPDATED ON OCT 17, 2006 02:32 PM IST

Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi hit the headlines recently when she became the Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo, the first Indian woman to head a Fortune 100 company. Names like hers, which immediately come to mind are HSBC's Naina Lal Kidwai, ICICI's Lalita Gupte and Kalpana Morparia, Lakme's Simone Tata, Thermax's Anu Aga, Apeejay Surrendra's Priya Paul, Microsoft India's Neelam Dhawan and Biocon's Kiran Mazumdar Shaw.

But this hardly makes for a 'feel good factor' as, they are only a handful, who have been able to break the glass ceiling that exists in the corporate world.

Women have been able to fight age-old social norms and prejudices to prove their worth, yet there is an enormous gender mismatch across industries. The higher a woman rises, the more evident the disparity.

A fact that was reiterated in a recent study by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) of 149 Indian companies, which revealed that though there is a ratio of 16 per cent of women managers at the junior level, senior management constitutes only four per cent.

In the higher leadership positions like that of the CEO, there are none. Though the female work force in mid-sized companies is 18 per cent, it falls drastically to four per cent in large groups (Rs. 100 crore and above). In addition, more than 25 per cent of the women executives have faced gender discrimination of some sort during their careers.

Though India does not have an Equal Employment Opportunity Act like many other countries, there are other Acts in place. Raj Birbal, Senior Advocate and Vice President, Supreme Court Bar Association cites a few:

• Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 which provides for payment of equal remuneration to men and women workers for the same work.

• Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 which provides for maternity benefits.

• Employees State Insurance Act which provides for claims of benefit commencing before and after confinement. Maternity benefit in case of sickness arising out of pregnancy is also incorporated in the Act.

• The Factories Act, 1948 which provides for crèches wherein more than 30 women workers are ordinarily employed; no woman can be allowed to work except between 6 am and 7 pm.

• Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 which states that in every establishment where 20 or more women are ordinarily employed as contract labour, there shall be two rooms for their children under the age of six.

Though all organisations would openly claim to be equal opportunity employers, probably not blatant, but gender disparity does exist in some low-pitched fashion almost everywhere. The reason: women have been regarded more pliable than their male counterparts.

When quizzed, Prabhat Agarwal, Co-Founder, Parsec Loans, replies, "All our employees have equal access, on the basis of their merit, to employment, promotion, transfers, study leave, training and development, higher duties and so on. We undertake a range of measures to eliminate direct and indirect discrimination and to create a positive environment for the women who work with us."

Traditionally, senior roles in HR and corporate communication have been on the platter of the fairer gender - a situation that suited their male seniors best and enabled them to exercise a dominant power equation. Agrees Muralidhar Rao, COO and President, NIS Sparta, "I would not completely disregard this. However, as per my experience, gender bias-based decisions happen in companies, which have a very unhealthy male-female ratio or in industries where gender plays an important role in achieving certain kinds of tasks."

It has been noticed over the past few years that women are more vociferous about cases of sexual harassment than workplace discrimination. Advises Birbal, "The time has come when women employees must form a group and not be at the mercy of trade unions dominated by men.

However, cases should not be made frivolous by reporting sexual harassment against your boss if you are not promoted." Finally, it is all about woman power!

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