Priya Tanna knows all about getting to the top of her profession. The editor of the fashion magazine Vogue India says that hard work and dedication have helped her career to thrive.
But she recognises that many other women in India are not so fortunate and there are a number of hurdles they face in the business world because of their gender.
“Typically it’s the gender inequality in their pay structure,” says Ms Tanna, 40, who lives in Mumbai. “I think it’s the viewfinder with which we view women in the corporate arena as opposed to how we view men. Why are we treated like an exception? Why are we treated like an anomaly?”
On the back of this sentiment, Vogue India recently launched a social awareness initiative for women's empowerment. The launch was held in conjunction with AR Rahman – who composed the soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire – unveiling his latest album, which he dedicated to the campaign.
He is just one of a number of celebrities and business leaders to have backed the fashion magazine’s initiative to highlight the challenges women face in India, extending to holding them back in the workplace and their careers. Bollywood stars including Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt are also on board.
Under the campaign, the Indian conglomerate Godrej has pledged to boost the income- earning potential of Indian women through employability training programmes. Uday Shankar, the chief executive of Star India, said that the television network would devote airtime to the cause. Ashok Wadhwa, the chief executive of Ambit Holdings, is creating a financial literacy and training programme for young Indian women.
In Indian society, cultural traditions mean that more pressure is put on women to marry and have children than is perhaps found in western countries.
“I think women, if they are truly passionate about what they do and to succeed, we have to let them without judging them,” says Ms Tanna. “The greatest problem is society tends to label people. ‘Oh, she’s so career-minded, she doesn’t want to have a child’. You have to allow and offer the women the respect to make the decisions that are best for them.”
Many of the problems are to be found all over the world, not just in India, she points out.
Globally, women who work hard are often criticised for being “over-ambitious”, while those who decide to stay at home are labelled as “not wanting to do anything with her life and just sit on her husband’s money”, Ms Tanna says.
Just 4 per cent of directors of publicly listed Indian companies are female, according to a report published this year by Biz Divas Foundation, a network of professional women in India, and Khaitan & Co, a law firm.
“There are many reasons for the scarce representation of women in senior leadership positions,” the report stated.
“Archaic cultural stereotypes on the roles of men and women in society are largely to blame, while widespread illiteracy and socio-economic problems further worsen the problem.”
The Companies Act 2013, passed last year by India’s parliament, will make it compulsory for public and private firms with a turnover of 3 billion rupees (Dh177 million) or more to have at least one woman as a director.
“Across the world – and especially in India – top and senior women executives are seen to suffer an analysis of their management styles because they are women,” says Subhasri Sriram, the executive director and chief financial officer of Shriram City Union Finance, a financial company based in Chennai.
She hopes that this attitude will change over time.
“In the Indian context, women executives have been successful in breaking through the glass ceiling only from about three decades or so ago, and while the instances of high-achieving women executives being entrusted with the top job are now more numerous, the analysis of their performance is almost always predicated on their gender and not on their ability to deliver the goods,” Ms Sriram says.
“This situation needs an attitudinal change on the part of these women executives’ peers and seniors who are often male. One would like to believe that such change will come about – albeit gradually – as more women take on positions of authority and set performance standards that cannot be denied.”
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