Discussing the glass ceiling while thoughtfully swirling a highball comes off rather nicely. But how do managers actually deal with the issue in real life? CEOs often have a common reply to the question why they don't hire more women managers at the top: "We would love to but we can't find any." Disturbingly enough, they may be right.
A couple of years ago a large multinational company approached executive search organisation Amrop India asking for women business leaders. They ended up not hiring any - for the simple reason that there were not enough candidates to choose from. Naturally, nobody was discounting merit, and the truth is there just weren't enough women who fit the bill.
"When, out of every 10 candidates for an opening, only one or two are women, statistically women fail to make it to the leadership levels," says Preety Kumar, Managing Partner, Amrop. It is evidently an issue of numbers and not talent, as Kumar affirms, herself one of six girls in a class of roughly 60 in the 1985 MBA batch of University Business School, Chandigarh. It is no secret that the ratio of students in business schools is skewed hugely in favour of boys. Samir K. Barua, Director, IIM Ahmedabad, says men outnumber women 4:1 at the application stage for admission to IIMs.
Glass Ceiling or Blackboard Walls?
If so few women are applying for B-schools, fewer still are available in higher rungs of management. Barua points out that, of course, this is also because as a nation we don't have enough women in high school and college to warrant their getting into higher studies. While this might well be true, at least a couple of B-schools in India are now consciously trying to find ways to balance the gender scales. Starting this year, the scenic campus of IIM Kozhikode in Kerala just turned more colourful: the batch of 2012 has flocked in. While girls haven't outnumbered boys yet, this could soon become a reality if the institute's aim to become an equal opportunity institution fructifies.
"For the first time, an IIM has looked at changing the profile of students it takes in," says IIM-K Director Debashis Chatterjee. Girls account for a third of the Class of 2012. That's a first for any IIM and definitely for most B-schools in India. At Delhi University's Faculty of Management Studies or FMS, girls account for a third of the incoming Class of 2012 against a quarter in the Class of 2011. Kuriakose Mamkoottam, Head and Dean, promises that there will be just as many girls as boys in the following year. "All things being equal, girls will clinch it at FMS," he says.
FMS and IIM-K are putting in place a balanced classroom because they realise that they have to cater to increasing demands for a balanced workplace. Just like Amrop, more headhunting firms are beginning to get swamped by demands for women managers. Citibank, a big recruiter, has decided to do more than just demand. It has launched a talent hunt on nine exclusive campuses to nurture women leaders (see Citi in Campus Talent Hunt).
At leading global B-schools, including Harvard and Chicago's Booth School, women form 30-40 per cent of a batch. Compare this with IIM-A, where women form less than 15 per cent of the batch. Says Jessie Paul, former Chief Marketing Officer at Wipro, who is from the IIM Calcutta Class of 1995: "Only 10 per cent of us were women. Even now it's a desperate situation." She now runs Paul Writer, a marketing advisory firm.
Bakul Dholakia, former Director of IIM-A and an expert in management education, says the number of applicants to MBA programmes is indeed rising, but a lakh women taking CAT is still far away. Over 200,000 take the CAT test.
Column by Vedika Bhandarkar, MD and Vice Chairman, India, Credit Suisse
In the past, I used to recruit summer interns, and some of them would be then hired for permanent positions. Last year, when I was at IIM-A to hire summer interns, it seemed that the number of women had increased, but that's probably because the total number of seats had increased. The percentage remains more or less the same.
If the proportion of women is smaller in higher education, it becomes a challenge to hire enough of them. I would certainly look to hire both men and women. Diversity of gender is a must for workplaces, but with so few women to choose from, getting numbers is always a challenge.
I am against reservations for women in higher education and so are other women who have made it purely on the basis of merit. The issue is that the entrance test has a very high math component and it tends to favour engineers. Since we have fewer women coming into engineering colleges, the problem gets bigger.
One way to alter this is to change the format of the entrance examination. For example, GMAT has logical reasoning, verbal ability and even essays. If the format of the test is not changed, it will be difficult to change the numbers of women in the workplace.
More than Numbers
While the admission figures are definitely disturbing, there are other factors at play as well. Says Rashmi Bansal, author, entrepreneur and alumnus of the IIM-A Class of 1993: "Women compete on the same terms as men up to middle management, that is, 8-10 years into their careers. After that, the issue of motherhood versus career comes into play."
She points out that only a handful of women with adequate support systems and nerves of steel can take the traditional linear career path that men do and succeed. The rest need to create new kinds of career paths that allow for flexibility and where roles are not as narrowly defined. Of course, there will always be the heirs apparent - the daughters of magnates like Kishore Biyani, Venu Srinivasan and Shiv Nadar - who will make it there up fairly smooth walkways.
Amrop's Kumar seconds this, pointing out that the highest dropout of women professionals is at the 8-10 year stage. "Companies might be in a rush to push gender diversity, but what they end up doing is hiring women in large numbers at junior levels. Diversity at different levels of hierarchy is what matters," she points out.
Students like Maanvi Ahuja, 23, of IIM-K, are already worried about long-term career moves. "The state of gender diversity is appalling," Ahuja says, pointing out that there is just a handful of women leaders like Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Naina Lal Kidwai, Chanda Kochhar and Indra Nooyi in the top echelons of business today.
Gender diversity is something that cannot be artificially created. Until women-friendly policies such as flexible working hours, crèches, and maternity/paternity leave are put in place, the efforts of the B-schools, while laudable, might go only so far. But it's a brave new beginning.
Citi in Campus Talent Hunt
The Citi Woman Leader Award, the first and only programme of its kind, will be given to one talented woman from each of these nine top-rated campuses - IIM Lucknow, SP Jain Institute of Management, IIM Calcutta, XLRI, IIM Ahmedabad, Faculty of Management Studies of Delhi University, IIM Bangalore, IIM Kozhikode and JB Institute of Management Studies.
Five women will be shortlisted from each campus based on their academic achievements, extra-curricular activities and leadership potential. From this pool, Citi will select 18 finalists across the campuses. The finalists will then be put through an assessment by Ernst & Young and then interviewed by a panel of Citi's leadership team. Citi will then select one Citi Woman Leader at each of the nine business schools. Each Citi Woman Leader will get a scholarship to cover academic expenses for the second year.
Says Citigroup's HR Head in India Stephen Cronin: "The objective is to encourage future women business leaders in India and promote a more balanced gender representation at top B-schools." The bank is not offering jobs to these leaders, but says the winners are free to apply. "We would be only too happy to consider them," says Cronin. At present, women account for 40 per cent of Citi's staff.