Gender gap persists in Indian firms

India Dispatch: Only 6.6 per cent of India's publicly traded companies have women on their boards, a recent study shows. Tradition and patriarchy are among the reasons cited for the slow ascent of women. But things are changing.

According to a study by the recruitment portal MyHiringClub.com, listed companies in lndia had only 6.69 per cent of female directors on their boards last year. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AF
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Corporate India is an eager advocate of modernity and the leader in South Asia when it comes to adopting western business practices. But there is one aspect of India's business worldthat is far behind the West - women in India's top firms are still a rarity.

In all of lndia's listed companies, only 6.6 per cent had any women on their boards last year, according to a study by MyHiringClub.com, a recruitment portal. The study said there was a 1.4 per cent increase from the year before, when the figure stood at 5.2 per cent.

"When it comes to closing the gender gap among top leadership posts in India Inc, women started getting significant gains last year," says Rajesh Kumar,, the chief executive of MyHiringClub. "But more needs to be done to promote women into senior corporate roles. While more than 30 per cent of team strength in India Inc is female, among these only 15 per cent are in senior executive roles."

In Norway, a country at the top of the global rankings for female representation, women are on the boards of almost a third of listed companies. India's top businesswomen say that balancing work and family life is difficult.

"One major challenge [that] has always been and will always remain is 'work-life balance', and women who can achieve the right balance will always succeed as they would be happy and satisfied individuals," says Renu Sud Karnad, the managing director of Housing Development Finance Corp (HDFC), a Mumbai-based bank with annual revenue of about US$5.6 billion (Dh20.56bn).

"Sometimes, managing expectations is the biggest challenge - women are expected to be superwomen, but making the best of the situation is most important," she says.

Sminu Jindal, who uses a wheelchair, is a role model for many young Indian women. Still in her 30s, she commands Jindal Saw, one of the flagship companies of the $12m infrastructure and logistics company OP Jindal Group. She says even at family-owned businesses, female employees are not given an equal footing.

"Our country is to a large extent a patriarchal society, where the male child takes the business mandate forward," Ms Jindal says. "In such a scenario, it becomes difficult for women to enter business. But I am a living example that things can be done differently."

Many women's careers are hampered by the common belief that at some point the female employee will have a shift in priorities and focus on childbirth.

"Career investments in women employees by employers find less [favour]. Also, there are many sectors and fields of work which are considered traditionally a man's domain, like heavy industry, shop floors," says Ms Jindal.

India is a millennia-old society in which women are bound by traditions that still hinder their progress.

"Women in India, a country that prides itself on being a traditional society, still face enormous pressure to conform to social mores," says Ms Jindal.

There are many obstacles for women who want to be part of India's success story. The "jobs for the boys" idea is still alive and well in India and is one of the main reasons that women are underrepresented in the business world, says Amita Joseph, the director of the NGO Business and Community Foundation in Delhi.

"The old boys' networks are still strong in this country, and women are excluded from those. Coupled with notions of patriarchy, the glass ceiling, lack of an enabling environment, flexi working hours, child rearing, the lack of support are all challenges to women who want to advance in today's India," she says.

Changes are coming but will not happen overnight, say some women who have climbed to the top.

"In recent years, India's corporate sector has witnessed a slow change in workplace dynamics, with more women stepping into the limelight when it comes to business management," says Ms Jindal.

The emergence of the internet has empowered many women. "Globalisation and advances in technology have led to rapid and dramatic changes in social structures and expectations and have provided new and exciting opportunities for educated, middle-class women in India," she says.

India Inc has also become more responsive to women in the workplace. "Things have changed for the better. Today women can work part time, have flexi hours, work from home, they can have a second innings in a career post a break, so the options have increased. There has been a shift in an expected scenario of what is conventional, so there is more flexibility and freedom in their choices," says the HDFC's Ms Karnad.

There are instances when the traditional Indian society model can in fact work to a career woman's advantage, the directors say.

"Indian women are also at an advantage compared to their western counterpart, as they have family support systems in place. I have seen so often people in the family going out of their way just to make sure the daughter's career gets preference," said Ms Karnad.

But what can companies do to help women to rise on the ladder? Taking into account every aspect of women's lives is important. "[The] situation could be improved through providing better infrastructural facilities and giving more sense of security to the women so … they feel comfortable while stepping out of home," says Ms Jindal.

Ms Joseph says the companies that have female directors have better chances to succeed.

"Directorship should be reserved for women not as tokenism but as a strategy towards better governance," she says. "There is evidence emerging that boards with women perform better and are more inclusive. Then there is the incidental benefit - that men also behave better when women are around."

Female managers should also look beyond a goal-orientated working environment.

"Satisfaction should be the key mantra for women managers rather than plainly achieving targets. Young women aspiring to be leaders should self-motivate, enlist a mentor and solicit feedback on leadership techniques," says Ms Karnad.

Vinita Gupta, the chief executive and a director of Lupin Pharmaceuticals, believes women can achieve success in the world of business and work if they have enough motivation.

"Advanced economies like the US and Europe are evolved marketplaces and gives everybody an equal opportunity at any level. The new world order is not about being a man or a woman, but having a great idea, identifying the right opportunity, a strong vision and the drive to make it happen," she said.

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