Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India tells Business Today why it is imperative that corporations should build a system of checks and balances that support diversity and inclusion at all levels.
On diversity, what is the leadership gap in India Inc. like?
While we do see a number of women making it to senior positions, the representation of women in the corporate world is low with women constituting only 14 per cent of executive officers. It is vital that organisations closely examine their retention strategies and pipeline-building mechanisms. Corporations should build a system of checks and balances that support diversity and inclusion at all levels, including engaging in conversations with women during the initial stages of their careers to establish their long-term aspirations and goals.
The link between gender-diverse leadership and business outcomes is not new. Catalyst research states that organisations with higher representation of women in the top management teams perform better financially when compared to companies with lower women representatives. Despite research reports and studies constantly pointing out the benefits of women participation in higher management levels, the reality is quite different. According to Catalyst's First Step: India Overview tool, nearly 50 per cent of Indian women drop out of the corporate employment pipeline between junior and mid-levels, compared to 29 per cent across Asia. Further to this, our recent research shows that women at executive levels leave at a higher rate than those at other levels. The number of women on boards is even more dismal. In India, women occupy only 7.7 per cent of board seats in India, while in the US women hold 19.9 per cent of S&P 500 board seats.
What are the barriers women face in climbing the corporate ladder?
Our research has shown that three common barriers for women in the workplace include: Gender based stereotypes; exclusion from informal networks; and lack of role models. Stereotypes specific to gender are more likely to be applied to women because of the lack of substantial representation in many companies' upper leadership and management positions. Informal networks and sponsorship relationships are often where key talent decisions are made. If women are not present in these circles, they tend to be left behind when new 'hot job' opportunities arise. Lastly, it can be hard to be what you can't see. Until senior leaders proactively and productively address these barriers, the percentage of women in senior leadership will continue to lag behind women's representation in the workplace.
Women are faced with various barriers and biases at workplace; yet they shy away from pointing it out and articulating their career aims to the outside world. They need to speak up, break their modesty shells, and explicitly talk about their accomplishments and aspirations. This increases their chances of being noticed by a high-ranking sponsor and also champions them based on their true potential.
Women employees should have mentors and sponsors in the top-level management who advocate for them and back them on their journey to the top. Mentors are needed to provide guidance, support, and encouragement to their mentees. They help in analysing the pros and cons involved in different situations and direct them towards the best way forward.
What are the inherent biases that still run against women?
A complex set of socio-cultural factors, starting even before individuals begin their professional lives, contribute to the inherent gender gaps in representation, pay and growth. Unconscious bias is a major challenge that is prevalent in the society. Unconscious bias consists of hidden or implicit assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, or judgements about people based on their group membership. This impacts individuals, mainly women, as there are many preconceived assumptions made about their capability, potential, and commitment to work. Traditional gender role stereotypes affect working women, who have to work harder to prove themselves. They are expected to be the primary caregivers while the men are perceived as the primary bread earners. Research shows that there are many such myths around women in the work place that should be addressed to ensure women are not subjected to bias. For instance, it is often assumed that women seek slower career tracks. However, our study observed that women were less satisfied with their careers than men, which suggests that they weren't intentionally seeking slower career tracks. If they were, they would be as satisfied as men with their advancement and compensation growth.
The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't, a Catalyst report, highlights the challenges and gender stereotyping women leaders face due to being evaluated against masculine leadership traits. For example, women leaders are considered too tough or too soft in their approach but never just right. Similarly, they face higher standards and get lower rewards than men. Additionally, women leaders are perceived as competent or likeable but never both.
Catalyst has also found that though all employees receive similar training and development through formal programs, women receive fewer critical on-the-job experiences, which is essential for them to move up the corporate ladder. For example, as many as 57 per cent of men relocated to work abroad for three or more years compared to just 18 per cent of women who had similarly long relocations. Well-meaning but misplaced care results in some managers overlooking new mothers for such opportunities, leading to a delay in these promotions or not getting promotions at all. While a lot of diversity and inclusion practices have been in existence for quite some time now, the need of the hour is intentional leaders who take conscious efforts to bring in change and diversity through team citizenship, employee innovation and inclusive culture at the workplace.
What will be the defining moment for the journey of women in India Inc.?
Involving more women in the workforce would make them economically empowered. This in turn will improve a country's growth and stability, combat shrinking labour forces, and contribute to economic development. According to Catalyst's First Step: Women in the World, increasing the levels of women employment in India could raise the country's gross domestic product (GDP) by 27 per cent. Despite research reports and studies constantly pointing out the benefits of women participation in the corporate world, the reality is quite different. As per the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2015, India's overall female labour force participation (FLFP) rate remains low. In fact, it has dropped from 35 per cent in 1991 to 27 per cent in 2014.
In order to improve the situation, there is a need for companies and governments to work towards creating inclusive workplaces. The defining moment for women in India Inc. would be when they are given greater access to education, safe work environments and equal opportunities that fully utilise their potential. As India moves towards realising its dream of becoming a $20-trillion economy, important stakeholders like the government and organisations need to include women to achieve this goal. They should strive to eliminate social, legal, financial, and cultural barriers which change existing societal norms for the better.