Urmila Sampath from Mumbai had a successful career as an accountant with a multinational company, where she had climbed to the position of senior manager. But just over two years ago she decided to quit her job to stay at home and look after her young daughters.
“As a mother, it's difficult to manage kids and work,” she says. “It's also hard since a lot of Indian men have not grown up in an atmosphere where they are trained to manage home-related work.”
Ms Sampath is not an isolated example. The participation of women in the workforce is dismal in India - and this is limiting economic growth, research reveals.
Women's participation in the labour force declined to 24 per cent in the financial year to March 2016 from 36 per cent a decade earlier, according to Indian's Economic Survey, a government document. In the UK and the US, female participation in the labour force stands at around 46 per cent, while in China it is approaching 44 per cent, according to the World Bank.
India has one of the biggest opportunities to boost economic growth by increasing the number of women working in the country, with the potential to add $770 billion to its gross domestic product by 2025, representing an 18 per cent increase on what it would be otherwise, according to a recent report by consultancy McKinsey.
There are a number of factors that are keeping women away from the workforce in India or prompting them to drop out – with the country's patriarchal culture being a major one, experts say.
“Societal norms in India influence the perception of females in the home environment where they generally play the main nurturing role,” says Neha Jain, the associate director at Michael Page India, a recruitment agency. “This has made it challenging for women to manage both professional as well as home responsibilities. Unfortunately, this has led to a number of female professionals trading off their careers prematurely to concentrate on family life. They feel burdened with the need to constantly prove themselves both to society and at work.”
Other issues fuelling the trend of women not working include “concerns about safety in addition to the inadequate availability of childcare and lower wages which is a constant struggle for women on top of their household duties”, she adds.
Females in India say that discrimination against them in the corporate world is definitely a problem.
“Though the corporate offices are bridging the gender gap slowly, still many companies hire men over women,” says Smruti Alinje Bhalerao, the founder of Prittle Prattle, a public relations firm in Mumbai. “One of my clients gave a project to a male competitor because that job required frequent travel and they thought it would be easier for him to do it.”
However, there are some companies in India that are taking steps to address the gender gap.
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“I have always done a couple of things wherever I have worked from a human resources standpoint to create the right support system,” says Swathi Reddy, who is based in Hyderabad as the head of human resources at Foyr, an interior design company. “That includes very, very simple things, like having flexible hours for women. We have a very clear check and balance on the number of females we hire to the number of men we hire, so there is a very strong effort to hire women.”
But she describes it as “a failing effort” to get women into leadership roles.
“It's more a mind game than anything else, but once they climb the ladder and what is required at work gets bigger, most women feel that that they are able to give too little to home and kids and drop out,” she says.
For its part, the Indian government is taking notice of the issue of gender imbalance.
This year's Economic Survey document was pink in colour in an effort to highlight gender inequality. India's maternity benefit law was amended last year to increase the length of paid maternity leave women are entitled to 26 weeks from 12 weeks. It also became law for offices with 50 employees or more to provide a crèche for working mothers – although many companies have not complied with this yet. Under the Companies Act 2013, it is mandatory for firms to have at least one female director on their boards. But these measures are evidently not enough, analysts argue.
“There's some amount of policy that can change these things, but there's also some amount of societal norms, and the business culture has to change,” says Vineeta Dwivedi, the associate head of the postgraduate programme for women at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, based in Mumbai. “All the indicators show that we're not doing very well, so there's a lot more work that needs to be done.”
The women who take part in her postgraduate programme at SP Jain are typically in their early to midthirties, having worked for a few years before they left the workforce to have a family, and now that their children have started school, they are eager to return to work, she explains. But employers in India need to create more opportunities, so that well-educated women like those emerging from SP Jain can get the jobs they deserve, says Ms Dwivedi
“The only worry that they have is 'am I going to get a good job after this?'” she explains.
Also initiatives such as the increase in maternity pay may have backfired, with some companies avoiding hiring women because of the increased cost, according to research by recruitment agency TeamLease.
There are other fundamental challenges which need to be addressed. The World Bank in a report this month highlighted the cost of limited educational opportunities for girls in countries including India, which it says amounts to trillions of dollars in lost lifetime productivity.
Female business leaders in India say it is a tough environment, but there are also opportunities that women should grasp.
“We know challenges exist and they will continue to for many more years to come, but it is important to search for workable solutions, and even better, be a part of the solution,” says Subhasri Sriram, the chief financial officer at Take Solutions, a life sciences consultancy in India. “The glass ceiling for women exists from the society point of view but from an individual’s perspective it is case specific. Looking at this very optimistically, women can eliminate any foreseen barriers by supporting each other and being role models.”
Indeed, there are those who are taking matters into their own hands to correct the gender gap.
Shweta Powar, fed up with the levels of discrimination she saw against females in India, decided to set up her own public relations company in Mumbai, staffed only by women. She has about 20 employees.
“I strongly feel that Indian society is still not prepared for the working woman,” says Ms Powar, the founder and chief executive of Aria Communication. “Because of cultural and social issues, it's the man that has to do the job. This is particularly the case in smaller cities, where you have a lot of graduate girls but their families don't allow them to work, because they have to get married, they have to do the household job, and they have to take permission from their husband or parents.”
She says that companies and the government should take much “more aggressive steps” to push women into the workforce in India. More companies should allow flexible working hours and the option to work from home to actively encourage female employees, says Ms Powar.
“And obviously we'll see this add to the GDP once more women are there in the workforce.”
Some women are taking the reins in Indian conglomerates.
Here are six:
The chairperson and managing director of the biopharma company Biocon, Kiran Mazumdar-Shawi is considered a pioneer in the industry in India. Based in Bangalore, the self-made billionaire has been named by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s 100 most powerful women. Biocon is focused on research with the objective of reducing treatment costs for cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, with its products reaching patients in 120 countries.
She was last year appointed as chief digital officer at India's conglomerate Tata. Ms Subramanian worked in the technology sector for almost three decades with tech giant Tata Consultancy Services, in roles in India, the US, and Sweden. She graduated in computer science from the National Institute of Technology, Warangal, India, and has a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Kansas in the US.
She is the chairperson of Bennett Coleman & Co, which is India's biggest mass media company, with its portfolio including the Times of India newspaper and with revenues in excess of $1.5 billion. According to Forbes, she had a net worth of $3.1 billion in 2015.
Aisha de Sequeira
The co-country head and head of investment banking in India for Morgan Stanley, Ms de Sequeira has overseen big ticket deals including the multibillion dollar merger between Vodafone and Idea Cellular. She studied engineering at the University of Goa. She joined Morgan Stanley in 1995. Based in Mumbai, she now oversees all of its investment banking services including raising capital for Indian clients and advisory.
Suneeta Reddy is the managing director of Apollo Hospitals, one of India's biggest healthcare providers. She is a member of the founding family of the company and started working with Apollo Hospitals in 1989. Ms Reddy has spearheaed the finance and strategy functions of the group and was instrumental in taking the organisation to international equity markets.
Abanti Sankaranarayanan is the chief strategy and corporate affairs officer at drinks giant Diageo in India, based in Mumbai. She worked for 17 years with the Tata group, and joined Diageo in June 2010 as the marketing and innovation director, building Diageo’s global brands in India. The company says that under her leadership, Diageo’s brand portfolio in India delivered double digit growth and high market share gain.