Is Gender Parity at Work Places Still a Pipe Dream?

Is Gender Parity at Work Places Still a Pipe Dream?

The year was 2014. A HR head of a large IT MNC was commenting on the sidelines of a large diversity event organized by Citibank. While she had delivered a stellar keynote on diversity on the stage, when caught on an informal one-to-one she acknowledged that diversity is still an esoteric concept in India.

“It is great as long as you put diversity on brochures and plaques. As soon as you talk about implementing hard measures for diversity, corporates stat getting shivers.” She admitted that the tech industry in India is still predominantly chauvinistic and there are clearly perceptible biases against women in tech.

The HR head voiced unpalatable truths that plague most of India’s corporate. While the number of women graduates and women at entry level are rising, there is a marked fall of the percentage of women at mid to senior management level. India's corporate sector sees only four percent women at senior positions compared to the average of 11 percent in Asia, a McKinsey report reveals.

An article in Business Standard quotes, Sahana Sarma, principal, McKinsey & Company, attributed the "double burden syndrome" — the challenge of balancing work and family — in playing a key role in the decrease.

"In India, the number of women at the entry level is 25 percent and in the mid-level management, it comes down to 16 percent. In the senior management level there is a sharp drop to four percent," Sahana added.

In an interesting LinkedIn post, Supriya Goswami, Director of Marketing at InMobi, comments on how more than 50% of MBA HR grads are women but there are only a handful of them at the helm of HR functions in corporates. Supriya cites several reasons: biases at work, lack of partners who support their wives’ careers, women struggling to balance home and career for the gradual decline of women in the corridors of power.

If one does a root cause analysis of the lackadaisical attitude of many Indian corporates to diversity in India, a deeper problem emerges. Many senior managers are still burdened with age-old patriarchal mindsets. A VP at India’s largest IT MNC said on condition of anonymity that investing in women often doesn’t pay off. “At some point she will leave to get married or have a child.” Such attitudes are not only shocking but detrimental to the company’s balance sheet. Global studies show the positive ROI of diversity initiative. A global McKinsey report titled Diversity Matters clearly establishes that Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Possibly the next time you stand up for the cause of diversity at your organization, arm yourself with enough data about the bottom-line impact of D&I. Till then we have to live with smart women not getting enough support on the way to the top. Or do we? While a long term change in societal mindsets will take time, each woman, her family and organization can take small steps to break down biases. Women themselves have to play more proactive roles. In her powerful book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg speaks about women being more open to opportunities. Traditional gender tutoring from childhood often make women more passive while a little bit of assertiveness at work could make her career more fulfilling. In today’s date it is also important that one chooses a supportive partner. Having the right support at home can help women take far more initiatives at workplace. When Sudeshna Dutta, senior manager at SAS left for a stint at the US leaving a 1 year old and 5 year old at home, her husband took over. He applied for a 4 week leave and stayed full time at home. “I was not really helping Sudeshna. I was helping us as a family. As a family partners should support each other.” He quipped. Such mind-sets are more the exception than the norm. Sheryl Sandberg, has said that the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.

Organizations need to also work on bringing systematic changes to empower women and build a winning workforce. But even before lobbying for extended maternity leaves or more crèches, we need to lobby for the change in mind-sets. With Gen Y entering workforce in large numbers we may see an emergence of a more positive, gender-balanced attitude. A lot of 20 or 30 something men have been raised by working mothers making them more sensitive to diversity. Organizations have to enable these Gen Y men and use them as ambassadors for gender diversity at work. They will also have to work closely with middle and senior management and establish the clear ROI for diversity. After all legislations can only have limited impact; long term change can only happen if we change our attitudes. And that change begins with each one of us.