WHEN husband-wife duo Srikumar Misra and Rashima Misra started dairy company Milk Mantra in Bhubaneswar in 2015, the last thing Rashima would have imagined was dealing with patriarchy. Her biggest challenge was not establishing her brand, but straddling the complications of being a co-founder spouse. “The mindset was that a co-founder spouse had no role to play in the business. In the early days when we had to deal with a lot of government officials, they would bypass me, and instead ask my colleagues if there was anyone else they could speak to. It was insulting and I had to prove to them that I was not a mere co-founder spouse, I had a distinct role to play.”

Even heads of local MBA institutes from where they hired didn’t take her too seriously. “I had to call them out in front of everybody and tell them I meant serious business. If I didn’t do that, they would have done the same to others. But I had to be tactful, as I knew they were doing it unconsciously.”

In fact, in the early years of the business, women who had applied for roles in her organisation were accompanied by their parents or husbands. “They wanted to make sure that their daughters or wives were going to a safe environment,” says Rashima.

Societal Biases

There is no dearth of highly educated and skilled women professionals in Tier-II and III towns, yet one doesn’t get to see too many of them in white- collared roles. It’s not that business owners in those markets do not find women worthy enough to take on important roles — in fact, leaders acknowledge that women are more sincere and focused than men — the societal taboos often get the better of them.

Since woman is the primary care-giver, will she be able to prove herself in a professional role as well? Also, she may get married, have a family and take a career break. So, will it be worthwhile investing in her and grooming her to take on a larger role? Will it be fair to ask her to take on roles such as sales which involve travelling? These are just some of the biases which play against a woman professional in Tier-II and III India. “Social systems operating in those towns and cities are not tuned to the idea of women in upper and middle-class families going for full-time work,” says Aditya Mishra, CEO, CIEL, a human resources services firm, which focuses on white-collar hiring in Tier-II and III markets.

The diversity rate in small town India is less than 20%, says Mishra. According to the Global Gender Gap Report presented at the World Economic Forum in 2020, India ranks 149 among 153 countries, with a gender gap of about 65% on economic opportunity and participation. With a majority of Indians living in Tier-II, III and IV towns and cities, the gender disparity in the workforce in these markets are obvious.

Employers in such places have a mental block when it comes to investing in women talent, says Siddarth Chaturvedi, Executive Vice President, AISECT — a social enterprise that works in the areas of skill development and higher education. “Neither do they want to offer them flexibility nor invest in training them since they fear women will quit sooner or later. Companies need to realise that if they were to look at the overall productivity gain of hiring a woman, it will still be much larger despite the employee taking maternity leave or a sabbatical.”

Diversity in Focus

Till recently, Indore-based Prataap Snacks didn’t have a single woman in its workforce. The company is now planning to hire at least 50 women as part of its salesforce, says Amit Kumat, Managing Director and CEO. The inspiration to have a gender diverse workforce has actually come from the women blue-collared staff in its factories in Rajkot and Guwahati, adds Kumat. “We realised that women are not only more sincere and focused, they also have better communication skills. I firmly believe that having women in my salesforce will benefit the business as they will be able to communicate better than men and the retailer will also take the lady salesperson more seriously.”

Milk Mantra, says Rashima, has women participation of just 5%, and given the societal limitations the company prefers to groom existing woman talent organically so that they are able to take on larger roles. She cites the example of a woman intern who has now been groomed to take over the role of a quality control manager at one of their factories. “She has four women working under her which is not too common in a factory located in a small town.”

Societal biases are a deterrent not just for regional businesses. Larger companies are finding it equally difficult to attract diverse talent in smaller towns. Here the problem is with women not wanting to relocate to smaller towns since they don’t find it convenient to live there. The dampener for them is not just poor connectivity in smaller locations, it is also lack of other facilities such as entertainment, schools for children and the spouse not wanting to relocate.

P. Sriram, former executive vice president of Pernod Ricard India, and currently Chief Strategist, DEI transformation, Avtar, cites the example of a woman engineer he had hired in a factory in a Tier-II town. “The lady got married and her husband was in Mumbai. She told him that she would get him a job in the same town but it didn’t work out. After a year she was given an ultimatum by her family to either relocate or leave the marriage.”

Sriram says even larger companies are shying away from hiring women for their Tier-II and III locations since they are not sure whether it’s worth the investment. Organisations need to be more flexible in terms of their thinking, he adds.

Also, if it’s a challenge for organisations to hire women talent from the local pool, can they attract women talent from outside by allowing them to work anywhere? According to R. Mahalakshmi, People Lead, Southeast Asia, Mondelez International, with remote work becoming the norm, the pan- demic has actually given corporate India an opportunity to look at di- versity. “The reality is that women do have relocation constraints. Location agnostic roles are a wonderful way of getting more women into the workforce in Tier-II and III India. Companies need to pause and reflect which roles are location agnostic and be completely flexible to get the best-suited talent.”

Companies such as Amazon are trying to widen the local talent pool in smaller markets. Amazon WoW, a networking platform for women engineering students, is helping women students build long-term careers in technology. “When we were going to hire from premier engineering colleges the number of women there was already less. Through Amazon WoW, women from Tier-II and III engineering colleges can also apply. If they make it, we mentor them for an internship,” says Dipti Verma, Director, HR, Amazon India.

Chaturvedi of AISECT says there is stereotyping when it comes to a woman choosing a career in smaller markets. “There needs to be an increase in participation of female candidates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Counselling will play a role in ensuring that we have more women engineers and mathematicians.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

There is a dearth of women representation not just in white-collared work- force, there aren’t too many women entrepreneurs in these markets either. Women comprise less than 15% of India’s entrepreneurs, according to a report by SPJMIR (S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research) and FICCI Flo. The Sixth Economic Census, conducted in 2014, states that less than 14% of Indian women own or run businesses. Over 90% of companies run by women were microenterprises, with around 79% being self-financed.

The report also says in the larger business ecosystem, women entrepreneurs continue to face a bias, making it difficult to access relevant networks and domain knowledge. “Most family-owned businesses have a mindset that the daughter is meant to get married and not be a part of the business,” points out Avtar’s Sriram.

“A fourth-generation woman entrepreneur told me that she was educated abroad and her family also allowed her to work, but she had to be home every evening by 6 pm. She considered that a huge deterrent. There are also women whose families allow them to work only if they work with other women. So, while the playground to be financially independent is there, it comes with boundaries,” explains Ratika Gore, Professor, Communications and Design Thinking, and Head, Alumni Relations, SPJIMR.

For businesses, the need of the hour is to invest in DEI. “The new generation is very clearly looking for values that the business espouses more than the product per se. If you are a profitable business, but fully homogeneous, filled with men, the next generation will have a tough time,” says Saundarya Rajesh, Managing Director of diversity consulting company Avtar.

Mars Wrigley's chocolate factory in Pune
Mars Wrigley's chocolate factory in Pune

Blue-collared Workforce

Out of the 20% women representation in Tier-II and III workforce, the majority is in blue-collared jobs. Be it Hindustan Unilever, Amazon, Mondelez, Mars Wrigley or Welspun, companies are making serious investments in creating a heterogeneous blue-collar workforce. For most, diversity is a part of their mandate, and hiring women for blue-collared jobs is perhaps easier than getting professional women talent.

Mars Wrigley has an all-woman shift at its chocolate factory in Pune. “The overall contribution of a female colleague is either equal or many times better,” says Kalpesh Parmar, Country General Manager. At its flagship factory in Sri City in Andhra Pradesh, Mondelez India has a 50% women workforce. The company claims its senior leaders had to convince people in adjoining villages to ensure that women joined their workforce. “We had to tell them that Mondelez is a safe place for women to work. We encouraged parents and husbands to come with us and see the factory. We showed them how the factory was equipped with forklifts, which ensured that women didn’t have to lift heavy weights.”

Welspun India, on the other hand, has increased its women representation at the blue-collar level to 30% over the last decade. It hopes to increase it further to 35% by the end of FY22. The company in the past few years has started offering an allowance to its blue-collared women associates to hire someone to take care of their families so that they can come to work. “Unpaid care-giving leads to a lot of disadvantages for women,” says Dipali Goenka, Joint Managing Director and CEO, Welspun India. Apart from setting up fulfilment centres manned by women in Tier II and III towns, e-commerce giant, Amazon, has created virtual contact centres for women employees in these places to help them perform operational roles, including customer service, virtually. Despite offering them the convenience of doing operational roles from home, the company, says Verma, has to invest a lot of time in convincing these women to join the workforce. “It is difficult for them to imagine that they can balance work and family life. We need to constantly tell them how they can balance and who they can reach out to for help.”

Rural Push

While corporate India worked towards bringing in gender diversity in Tier II and III operations, it is the rural tech start-ups that are actually leading by example. Jaipur-headquartered social commerce company, Frontier Markets, has a 10,000 strong all-women workforce. Founder Ajaita Shah says women in rural India are more than willing to work as long as they are able to balance their duty as a care-giver. “We have created flexible jobs in terms of time and also ensured that they don’t have to travel outside their villages, as they are not comfortable doing that,” she adds. Shah’s team of women, the ‘Sahelis’, sell a host of products ranging from financial, agri and healthcare services, FMCG, clean energy durables and high-efficiency appliances. She finds the ‘Sahelis’ to be more impactful as they are able to strike a conversation with potential consumers, who in most cases are women. “A male salesperson finds it difficult as they are not allowed to enter homes and connect with the women folk. We have trained our ‘sahelis’ to first engage with consumers and then offer solutions to them.”

Hyderabad-headquartered Hesa Technologies (which connects rural consumers and entrepreneurs with urban buyers and solutions providers through a digital platform) has a network of 14,800 village-level entrepreneurs called ‘Hesathis’. Of them, 40% are women. The company works with women self-help groups (SHGs) to onboard female employees on to its network. It has recently partnered with NABARD to onboard 3,000 women SHG workers as ‘hesathis’. “Most of these women are into farming or weaving and the idea is to enable them to expand their monthly income,” says Vamsi Udayagiri, Founder and CEO, Hesa Technologies.

Like Shah of Frontier Markets, Udayagiri also finds it beneficial to have a women-dominated workforce because of their ability to connect better with consumers.

The realisation that a heterogeneous workforce is important for a successful business has certainly dawned upon companies in Tier-II and III markets. But one can’t ignore the fact that India’s diversity ranking in the world stage is appallingly low. Rajesh of Avtar recommends government intervention. “If the government steps in and provides even a tiny tax subsidy to small business employers for hiring women, they will make an effort to do so,” she says.

India has just about scratched the surface. It still has a long way to go before it achieves its gender-diversity goal.

Follow us on Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.