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It's not a man's world anymore

Women are rapidly storming workplaces that were until recently male bastions.

Anusha Subramanian | Print Edition: November 29, 2009

In 1974, Sudha Murty, wife of Infosys Technologies founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, became the first woman engineer on Telco’s (now Tata Motors) shop floor but only after a protest. Studying at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) then, she was incensed when the company’s advertisement for engineers specifically barred female candidates. She shot off a postcard to J.R.D. Tata protesting the gender discrimination and soon got a call for the interview.

Three-and-a-half decades later, the situation is very different. India Inc. has come to not only recognise women for the soft skills they possess but also accept them as competent enough to handle jobs that were once considered “men only”. Women, for their part, have shown that they can match men step by step—be it technical expertise, leadership skills or working in difficult conditions.

Dipti Dhoble, 32, a civil engineer working with Praj Industries, has been setting up plants (from planning to execution stage) at remote sites across India and outside for four years now. Her colleague, Samira Dixit, 25, was the only woman on a remote location in Canas, Costa Rica for a month where she set up the automation controls and commissioned a plant in an area that was infested with iguanas and crocodiles.

“Not for a moment have I felt a misfit in this male-dominated field,” says Dhoble. Priti Raykar, 33, a site engineer and Manjiri Joshi, 24, a process engineer with Praj Industries, also echo Dhoble’s view. “We have not faced gender bias as efficiency and diligence are all that matters. The only pressure is the deadline and that’s same for men as well,’’say Raykar and Joshi.

Praj Industries has 69 women engineers who work at remote locations across the world.
For Cummins, gender diversity on the shop floor is proving to be a source of competitive advantage.
Ford India has women on the shop floor performing roles including part fitting process and quality checks.
Nokia’s manufacturing plant near Chennai sees 1,500 women working on night shift every day.

Soujanya Veguru, a mechanical engineer at Cummins India’s Pirangut facility near Pune, says: “Over the past decade, there have been lots of changes in hiring women engineers. Earlier, very few took up actual production jobs. That has changed today. I always wanted to work in an assembly line as I was fascinated by machines and engines.”

She, and her colleagues, Savita Singh, Saplini Lamba, Alisha Das, belong to the growing pool of women engineers who are opting to leave the confines of air-conditioned cabins to get their hands dirty on the shop floor. Not only that, many have come to be respected as team leaders as well. Veguru, as an assistant manager on the shop floor, manages, in any given shift, about 60 workers. “I have never faced any problem from any male colleague in terms of not taking my instructions at job,’’ she says.

Women are beginning to prove that they are equal to men when it comes to working late hours or travelling. In fact, at Nokia’s factory in Sriperumbudur, 1,500 women work on night shift every day. Also FMCG companies are increasingly hiring women for jobs involving extensive travel and negotiations with channel partners such as shopkeepers who are typically men.

“Till 1990, there were few women on the shop floor. With globalisation, things have changed and we decided to employ women in the production line. Today, we see diversity as a competitive advantage for the company,” says Nagarajan Balanaga, Vice-President, Human Resources, Cummins.

According to Pramod Chaudhari, Executive Chairman of Praj Industries, women are more sincere, dedicated and more adept at multi-tasking than men. Not surprisingly, from just 2-3 women engineers in 2004, today there are 69 women engineers working for the company.

At Ford India’s Chennai plant, 4 per cent of technicians working on the production line are women. “Women perform a wide range of roles from production on the shop floor, including, part fitting process, quality check to senior management roles at Ford India. Women make up 5.5 per cent of the total workforce of 2,300 employees,’’ says Dhananjay Nair, GM, HR, Ford India.

Some, like Dheepa Srinivasan, 40, Technical Leader in the Materials and Process Engineering team of Oil and Gas at GE in Bangalore, have learnt to take challenges in their stride. Her responsibility includes providing technical support to the global oil and gas division in terms of developing vendors for which she has to manage unusual roles. “Quite often, the vendors think I am from HR or from Administration. It takes them a while to realise that they have to deal with me,’’ says Srinivasan, who has faced other problems too. “Most of the times, vendors did not even have a ladies’ toilet and I had to use what was available,’’ she says, adding, “I don’t get discomforted with small things and give attention to results instead.’’

So, what qualities should women planning to foray into a nontraditional profession possess? Says Linn K. Veltema, who, as Director, Total Supply Chain, 3M India Limited, heads back-end operations of the company: “I believe it is important to have strong technical skills in one’s functional area as well as good interpersonal skills to be successful.’’

Murty, Chairperson of Infosys Foundation, who in a way pioneered women’s entry on the shop floor, says: “Never play your gender card. Never say I am a woman, I can’t work long hours or do night shift. Also, you need to have patience. Social system cannot be changed in a day.’’

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