Women’s participation in corporate leadership in India Inc. is on the rise, with key sectors reporting a rise in women leaders. In the country’s IT/ITeS sector, women’s participation in corporate leadership moved to 18% in 2021 from 14% in 2020, while in the FMCG it rose to 19% from 15%. In the manufacturing sector, it almost doubled to 9% from 5% in 2020, according to a recent report by Avtar Group, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm. The BFSI and pharmaceutical sector, though, registered a dip in women in leadership: from 18% to 15% and 22% to 18%, respectively.

While many companies have institutionalised practices to boost the representation of women in senior leadership and executive positions, the rise of a woman to the corner office is still strewn with challenges. As Radha Dhir, CEO and country head, India, JLL, an international property consultancy firm, encapsulates, women have to walk that extra mile just to prove themselves as equal at work when compared to men.

“I agree! Through the journey that I have been I have seen that women tend to get discounted a lot even if they are making sense,” concurs Pallavi Shroff, managing partner, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, in a recent conversation with Fortune India. “Women can say something so meaningful gets questioned first and then accepted, and I think that’s just the way people are brought up,” adds the 65-year-old lawyer. Shroff has been engaged with the most high profile corporate dispute in the country — the fight between Tata Sons and Cyrus Mistry.

Shroff believes that there is a “strong unconscious gender bias” against women that exists even today. “While I would love to say no, I have gone through experiences myself which would make me say it’s true to a certain extent,” says Ipsita Das, managing director, Moët Hennessy India. According to Aparna Bawa, COO and interim chief legal officer at California-based video communications company Zoom, it’s “an existential question” even today.

“I would like to assert …. We need to make a conscious effort to deal with an unconscious bias,” avers Shroff, as she believes that women can have the same unconscious bias towards women. “We in the profession who are senior enough, being women in our organisations, should make this conscious effort to see that younger women get the same and equal opportunity,” she adds.

The Avtar report further states an increase in the percentage of women hires—from 31% in 2016 to 38% in 2021. During the same timeframe, the number of Indian companies having formal programs to identify and recruit second career women (women on career breaks) moved up from 30% to 71%.

“This year’s study results indicate that companies are consciously evolving in their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) maturity. This is primarily based on three factors, viz., their leadership intent, the industry they belong to and the history of their DEI journey thus far,” says Saundarya Rajesh, founder-president, Avtar. She adds that the disruptions caused by the pandemic have further accelerated the pace of DEI progress.

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