It is an interesting time in India’s history. The country has a woman President, a woman Finance Minister and a woman chairing capital markets regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi). Parliament has ushered in one-third reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. Indian women are literally over the moon, having played a significant role in Chandrayaan-3, India’s successful lunar mission.
The country has also made progress in the realm of business. For instance in mid-market businesses, with 36 per cent of women in leadership roles, India is ahead of the current global (32 per cent), BRIC (34 per cent) and G7 (30 per cent) averages, according to Grant Thornton’s International Business Report on ‘Women in Business 2023 - The push for parity’. But a lot more needs to be done. Consider this: Six in 10 companies have less than 20 per cent representation of women in leadership (CXO and board) positions, per consulting firm Aon’s latest DEI Landscape Report. Half of these firms have less than 5 per cent representation.
“Overall, corporate India has progressed on women’s representation at the leadership level over the past 10 years to 26-27 per cent. But what we are really gunning for is 50 per cent,” says Sujatha Shivsankar, Chief–Culture, People Experience, IDE, Performance & Talent, KPMG in India. Referring to recent studies, Preetha Reddy, Vice Chairperson of Apollo Hospitals Enterprise, says women’s representation is still skewed towards junior and middle management in 70 per cent of organisations in India. “This illustrates a clear need to enhance and augment the focus towards building a talent pool of senior women leaders, and preparing them for board positions and important committees.”
As Business Today celebrates the 20th edition of the Most Powerful Women in Business (MPW), chronicling those that have made a difference to their organisations between October 2022 and September 2023, it is imperative to find out what hampers a woman’s ascension from junior levels.
What is worrying is that the career progression is poor even in sectors such as IT and banking, which have the largest female white-collar workforce in India. A study by CFA Institute—a global association of investment professionals—analysing the FY22 BRSR disclosures of 134 Indian companies showed that the IT sector suffers the widest chasm of 18.7 percentage points between women’s representation at the employee level and at the level of key management personnel (KMP). Sindhu Gangadharan, SVP & MD of SAP Labs India and Head-SAP User Enablement, points out that India produces the world’s highest number of female science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates every year, but only a third make it to a STEM career and even fewer continue after five years into their careers. “Every year, we lose brilliant mid-career women technologists and leaders to unfair practices at work, unconscious biases, lack of equal opportunity and more such unfortunate reasons,” says Gangadharan, also the Vice Chairperson of IT industry body Nasscom.
Financial services companies fare better with a gap of 5.8 percentage points. Banking veteran Padmaja Chunduru, MD & CEO of National Securities Depository Limited (NSDL), says that women have to choose between competing priorities of work and family. “The escalating risk and responsibility matrix as they rise in hierarchy causes many to drop out of the race.”
Vacuum at the top
When poor representation at the top leads to a lack of visible role models, heralding change at the bottom becomes harder. “It is important for a young woman to see other women in critical roles at all levels. At SBI, we all grew in our careers following and observing our seniors take on more and more challenging roles and acing them,” says Chunduru. But India Inc. is going the extra mile. For Instance, KPMG in India has 30-33 per cent women’s representation at the people management level, and 20 per cent at the top management level, giving its female workforce the “licence to dream”, says Shivsankar.
NSDL, for instance, has ramped up representation from 17 per cent about a year and a half ago to 26 per cent now. “We mandated that at least 30 per cent of the candidates for any open position have to be women and they have to be interviewed by the line managers along with the HR team,” says Chunduru. Meanwhile, SAP in India, noticing double-digit churn among women employees after having their second child, built an in-house child care centre ‘SAPLings’.
KPMG’s Shivsankar says many more organisations now consult them for building a leadership pipeline of women. But what is really needed is a comprehensive multiyear plan addressing challenges in equal opportunities, equal pay and creating an enabling environment. Shivsankar says less than 50 per cent of organisations in India have gender diversity as a strategic priority.
“More organisations are yet to realise how much value can be unlocked through investment in this area. Their outlook becomes an impediment to progress.”
Social barriers and slow organisational change notwithstanding, Chunduru feels the best way to solve the problem is by the woman herself. “The solution begins at home—set realistic expectations of yourself, speak up to have your voice heard, make your own decisions and own them up.”
And the 56 women on this year’s MPW list—only those who have completed a year in their current position were considered—have done just that. Their journeys, challenges and achievements will serve as inspiring reminders of what is possible.
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