L&T’S UPCOMING 15-STOREY office on its Mannapakkam campus in Chennai is perhaps the first-of-its-kind in India. No, it is not an architectural wonder. What makes it unique is that all employees, right from project manager to on-site engineers and blue-collared employees, are women. For C. Jayakumar, executive vice president & head, corporate human resource, L&T, who put massive effort to increase percentage of women employees from a measly 6% to 8.3% in last two years, this is monumental. “We are changing the mindset that women can’t work on project sites. Though we have hired a lot of women for engineering design and research centres, apart from finance, HR and other corporate roles, over 80% of our business happens on project sites where we hardly have women,” says Jayakumar.

This does not mean that the L&T leadership isn’t cognisant of this. Executives say their efforts were limited by the fact that most of their work involves building tunnels, bridges and roads in remote locations. It found it easier to hire women only when it got into real estate, metro rail and airport projects, which are based in cities, they add.

Most legacy companies (be it Tata Group, JSW, Mahindra, Maruti, SAIL or ONGC) in manufacturing and engineering services — sectors that contribute 17.4% to GDP — are grappling with a similar problem. They may be among the largest employers but score abysmally low (3%) on women employment, according to industry data. Even better performers such as L&T, ONGC and SAIL are at 6-8%.

This is bad for business. A recent Boston Consulting Group report says businesses with above-average number of women in management report 19% higher revenues from innovative products and services than others. This is true of manufacturing businesses, too. That is why women dominate shop floors in countries such as Germany that are known for manufacturing prowess. In fact, an engineering company in Czech Republic took help from Randstad India for hiring women from India when it fell short of welders. “The company was open to women welders, so we made a hiring plan. We hired women ITI diploma holders and got them certified to work there,” says P.S. Vishwanath, MD & CEO, Randstad India.

That’s not all. India Inc. is staring at a huge shortage of talent considering that only 49% youth are employable, according to several industry surveys. This is forcing legacy organisations to spruce up number of women in workforce. “It is in the interest of organisations to hire more women. They are 50% of the population, and if I don’t hire them, I will miss out,” says L&T’s Jayakumar. According to the National Employability Report For Engineering, 80% Indian engineers don’t have the skills required for the job. “Skilled talent is becoming scarce. Legacy companies have little choice but to look at talent holistically,” says Vishwanath of Randstad India.

Joining the Bandwagon

The proportion of women in engineering jobs is 3-12% compared to 27-40% in services, according to a report by Avtar, a consultancy. That is why the likes of Tata Steel, L&T, MG Motor India and Welspun India are going all out to hire more women.

Among these, Tata Steel, MG Motor India and Welspun India are way ahead. Tata Steel’s 19.1% workforce is women (target is 25% by 2025), while Welspun India is at 15% and MG is at an impressive 37%. “There is a perception that only men can do the kind of work we do in the steel industry. Even though we don’t compromise on merit, we are aware that it’s all about giving equal opportunities. If someone is good, she should be onboarded,” says Jaya Singh Panda, chief learning & development and chief diversity officer, Tata Steel. The steel major recruits 300-500 management trainees every year; 45-50% are women. Panda, a Tata Steel lifer, says when she joined 34 years ago, out of 80 management trainees, just three-four used to be women. The company has managed to increase proportion of women in blue-collar roles to 40%. “It’s about being open and not pre-deciding that women cannot perform these roles,” she adds.

When MG Motor India was hiring blue-collar staff for its manufacturing unit in Halol, it invited applications from both men and women. Yeshwinder Patial, senior director, HR, MG Motor India, says the results were surprising. “Women candidates exhibited remarkable precision in work, highlighting exceptional attention to detail. This demonstrated the strengths women bring to male-dominated fields.” MG Motor India has hired women for door and axle fitment as well as quality testing.

Harpreet Bhuie, CHRO, Godrej & Boyce, wonders why women can’t do similar roles as men in core sectors. She is inspired by India’s recent mission to the moon, Chandrayaan 3, which had 54 women scientists and engineers at the helm. Close to 80% employees at Godrej & Boyce lock factory in Goa are women. The company’s appliance factories in Pune and Mohali also have a significant percentage of women blue-collar employees. It is now trying to get women into other male-dominated roles such as customer service, factory supervisors and sales.

Dipali Goenka, MD and CEO, Welspun India, believes in creating examples. Welspun’s customer Walmart chose Abhi Bhadra, a blue-collar associate, to travel to its headquarters in U.S. for a conference on diversity. “This created many Abhis by incentivising more women to work on the shop floor,” says Goenka. Welspun also partnered with an NGO, Swasti, to sensitise communities on supporting women. “We sensitised husbands and families to share work at home. If a woman gets support at home, she gives her best at work,” says Goenka.

Saiba Suri, supply chain head, Ikea India, agrees. “There is a lot of self-initiative from women. We never had to sell the story of logistics to them. Yes, they did have questions about working in night shifts, but when we showed how conscious we are about health and safety, they stayed back,” she says. It is not surprising that Swedish home and furniture retailer Ikea has a healthy balance of men and women at its stores in India. Women have 40% representation in supply chain and customer fulfilment functions. Its warehouse in Pune as well as its distribution centres have women working as fork-lifters too.

Greaves Cotton, after struggling to hire more women for years, has upped the game in campus hiring rounds; 30% of its recent engineering hires have been women. “We have set the ball rolling,” says Shefali Suri, CHRO, Greaves Cotton. The company even invited families to visit plants. “We asked them to go around and interact with our manufacturing head. We gave them flexibility so that they are comfortable.”

Bosch India has opened an all-women power tools plant in Chennai. Also, women account for 80% employees in its technology plant in Gangaikondan. Around 10% of its 37,800-strong workforce is women. B.R. Suresh, country head, HR, Bosch India, is targeting 25% women in workforce by 2025. “This is a game-changer for organisations and we understand its significance. We embrace it as a force that fuels our success.”

Even a completely male-dominated sector such as real estate is not immune from the trend. Pavitra Shankar and Nirupa Shankar joined their father’s real estate business, Brigade Group, in 2016. “During early days, when we walked into government offices or even real estate conferences, we were looked at differently, but over the years, people have got used to us,” says Pavitra Shankar, MD, Brigade Group. Over the years, the siblings have commissioned all-woman projects (like Arcade at Brigade Orchards in Bangalore) where everyone right from architect to project manager to sales team is a woman. Close to 23% of the employees are women. Industry average is single digits. “We realised that women make better salespersons,” says Nirupa Shankar, joint managing director, Brigade Group.

Business Case

According to McKinsey, companies that are in top quartile in women participation in workforce are 15% more likely to generate higher returns than the industry mean. When Welspun’s Goenka took over in 2008, only 8% employees were women. Now, it’s 15%. Though she was new to manufacturing, she says she understood her consumer, who is invariably a woman. “I was running my home textile brand Spaces. Having women in workforce was a no-brainer.”

Binu Philip, CHRO, Greater India Zone, Schneider Electric, says when the number of women working in the company rose 15%, profitability went up by a similar margin. “This has not only helped us get competitive edge but also been instrumental in driving tangible results, fostering innovation and cultivating an environment of openness.” The target is to ensure that women are 50% of all new hires, 40% of frontline managers and 30% of senior leadership by 2025.

Bosch India’s Suresh says hiring of more women has created an environment that encourages ideation and innovation. “The diverse perspectives and experiences brought by our employees have enabled us to think differently, find creative solutions and stay ahead in a rapidly evolving business landscape,” he says.

Patial of MG Motors says this brings more viewpoints and fresh approaches. “At MG, female associates work in entire automotive operations starting from supply chain, press shop, welding, brazing, spray painting and assembly to sales and after-sales. This has become a competitive advantage for organisations by enabling innovation and a more sustainable organisation,” says Patial.

No Cakewalk

The journey of legacy and old economy organisations hasn’t been easy. Not only did they have a bias against hiring women, the women themselves were cagey about joining a hardcore manufacturing or engineering company. Even if they joined, attrition was high. “Project roles are transferable on completion of projects. Most women employees don’t want to leave their families and move. A lot of attrition also happens when they get married. Now that we have more city projects like metro or airports, we are in a better position to deploy women on sites,” says Jayakumar of L&T.

Most of these organisations are hard-selling themselves on campuses. In fact, hiring women from campuses and training them is becoming a more sought-after strategy than lateral hiring. “You typically do lateral hiring for middle or senior roles and for specific skills. Also, other organisations should have women you can hire. Campus hiring ensures they are with us from the beginning, and we teach, train and reskill them,” says Panda of Tata Steel.

However, talent retention is challenging, though Panda claims things are improving with each passing year. “It is mandatory for management trainees to work in a plant for two-three years. They are on shop floor, in operations, some even in the mining area. This gives them good grounding. However, some do move out when they find opportunities.” She, though, says work flexibility in Covid-19 has helped in talent retention.

There is another trend. Be it Tata Steel, L&T or MG Motors, all of them are wooing women who have taken a break, even ensuring that those who return from maternity leave don’t lose out on increments. “Their performance ratings are not reduced. Average of last two years is maintained,” says L&T’s Jayakumar.

Tata Steel ensures unconscious biases don’t come in the way of training women talent, says Panda. “Whenever there is an opportunity, people should get to appear for the interview. We ensure women are not overlooked. Everyone gets an opportunity to compete,” says Panda.

The Bias

While bigger organisations are doing their bit, industry experts say smaller organisations have a long way to go. “The biggest problem is companies themselves. Their leaders need to be convinced. They believe women can’t work in certain sectors such as oil, petroleum, engineering, manufacturing and sales,” says P. Sriram, former operations director, Pernod Ricard India, and currently chief strategist, Avtar. Sriram says most organisations consider DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) an expenditure and not investment. “Organisations should be willing to rent service apartments for women closer to site. They should also help them take care of children. But most are not willing to do so. If you are building a bridge or a dam and make things conducive, women are willing to come.” Vishwanth of Randstad says most organisations want day-one starters and are not willing to train talent. “Nobody wants to create a programme to ensure they have people who fit into the role over a period. Everybody is in a hurry, so they want lateral talent.”

“The mindset is that if I don’t fill this vacancy by a certain date, I will lose productivity,” says Sriram.

There are challenges but companies have started taking steps towards hiring more women. Moreover, this is important for ESG compliance, too. Organisations have no choice but to shed biases.

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