Over the past five years that I have been overseeing Business Today's Most Powerful Women special issue, the number of women making it to the long list has been increasing - and also becoming more broad-based in terms of sectors from which they hail. Every year, in fact, we see a number of new names shattering the glass ceiling and making it to the C-suites and boardrooms of different companies and sectors. Even five years ago, the number of women achievers from finance and banking dominated the list. Today, apart from finance, the list has many representatives from FMCG, media and entertainment, durables, manufacturing as well as a number of service sectors.
All this - along with the number of women's issues being debated in publications and legislature - could lull you into thinking that we are moving closer to gender equality in the workplace. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the number of studies showing more women joining the workplace is good both for the bottom lines of corporations as well as for the country's economy as a whole, the overall representation of women in organisations has been inching up at a snail's pace, bar in a few enlightened firms.
At a broad level, studies show that when the economy hits a recession, women's representation in the workplace actually drops steeply, both in blue-collar and white-collar jobs. And despite multiple laws passed by the government or HR policies formulated by corporations, gender- representation disparity and gender-pay disparity are not coming down at an appreciable pace.
What could be the issues? I think there are too many to list comprehensively here, but let me just touch on a few that are big deterrents. One, the majority of the firms, despite best efforts of HR, do not actually have very women-friendly - especially married women-friendly - policies. There is also a bias - sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious - that women will not be able to devote as many hours, and are perhaps not as wedded to an organisation as a man can be. There is a real perception that women will not be able to put in the same long hours or agree to drop everything and travel at a moment's notice as men can.
Then there are support issues. The very fact is that there is not enough of a support system - creches, day cares, babysitters, food and grocery delivery and laundry systems - that work smoothly and aid a woman in the workplace. (And, of course, the gender roles at home which presuppose that all these are things that wives, not husbands, need to worry about.)
Finally, there is culture - most offices seem to equate long hours with productivity and output.
In my admittedly limited experience in different workplaces at a single industry, what I found is that whenever workplaces focussed on clear deliverables, outcomes and output and not on hours spent in the workplace, women have outperformed men at tasks. But focus on the wrong measures like hours spent in office, and you find that the gender- representation and gender-pay gap dramatically increase.