DAISY Chittilapilly, President, India and Saarc, Cisco, had a rather strange conversation with a senior leader in her organisation a few months ago. The leader, a man, came up to her and told her about his decision to promote and transfer a woman colleague in his team to a leadership position in Chennai. He was confident that this would be a dream role for her, and since her parents also lived in the same city, she would be ecstatic. Chittilapilly wanted to know if the leader had asked his team member about the role and whether she was willing to take it in the first place. “I knew her. One of the biggest motivations for her was to be away from home. She had a huge sense of independence. I told my colleague that he should talk to her once before giving her the offer. As I had expected, she said she didn’t want to move to Chennai,” says Chittilapilly. The male boss at Cisco was surprised. He had taken for granted that she might be reluctant to relocate to an unfamiliar location and a posting in the city she grew up in would be ideal for her.

India Inc. is brimming with such unconscious bias where women professionals are not even asked if they are ready to take on high-profile leadership roles even if they are qualified for the same. While organisations have little doubt about the potential of women leaders, male counterparts often tend to second-guess about their female colleagues. More often than not they believe it would be unfair to ask a woman colleague to relocate to a new place or travel extensively. After all, she is the care-giver too, and may not be able to do justice to her profession! The result: Only 27% women are given leadership roles in middle management, opposed to 73% men. The percentage dips further at senior levels with 21% women representation, according to a report by consulting firm DDI India.

And while companies are slowly waking up to a gender-diverse workforce and consciously hiring more women, grooming them for leadership roles is still at its infancy. In P&L roles, 42% women leaders across 1,700 companies managed to bag the top job, compared to 51% male leaders, the DDI report says. The thin representation of women leaders at the top is largely due to their low exposure in early executive roles. Nearly 81% men hold P&L responsibilities at early executive levels, against 63% women. The large gap is especially crucial since all C-suite positions require taking on P&L responsibility.

“Companies are not doing enough to groom women in leadership roles,” says Amogh Deshmukh, Managing Director, DDI India. “They are merely ticking the box by saying they will hire 40% women at the entry level. The question to ask is how many women they have been able to groom for the next level.

”There’s still a long way to go, agrees Saundarya Rajesh, Managing Director, Avtar, which advises companies on diversity and inclusion. Just looking at increasing diversity numbers is not enough, she says. Companies need to look at equity and inclusion as well, and more importantly, put it as a business objective. “Diversity is all about representation, equity is about enabling, which we need to do to bring women to certain levels, and inclusion is about culture. Only by investing in DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), the goal of women reaching the C-Suite becomes a business objective,” adds Rajesh.

Leaky Pipeline

Out of the 25,000 companies in the Avtar universe, barely 250 are investing in grooming women for leadership roles. “While only 250 are actually doing serious work,out of the 25,000, only 50% have realised the benefit of having a diversity and inclusion [D&I] strategy. The balance has to do a lot to even accept that DEI could be beneficial,” says Rajesh.

The problem is more pronounced in traditional sectors such as fast-moving consumer goods [FMCG], manufacturing and auto, which find it difficult to groom women for leadership roles. Flexibility is a major issue, with 30% women quitting their jobs by the time they reach middle man- agement due to family compulsions. But Covid is changing all that. “The biggest learning from the pandemic is that one can work from anywhere and still be productive. Earlier we could never imagine working from any location and that did impact our diversity agenda,” agrees Rajesh Uppal, Chief Human Resources Officer [CHRO], Maruti Suzuki.

Inadequate support in the middle has also led to lesser representation at the top. “For years the pipeline has been leaking, thereby making it difficult to groom talent for leadership roles. If you have hired 30% women at the entry level, which has dropped to 15% in middle management, you obviously can’t upgrade all of them. Unless that pool is wide enough you won’t get enough people on the top. Organisations have focused at the entry level but none of them have concentrated on the mid level,” says media CEO-turned-entrepreneur [formerly president, Jagran Group], Apurva Purohit.

Changing Mindset

Why does an automobile company or an alcoholic beverages firm have a male-dominated workforce when women are avid consumers as well? A large section of corporate India is grappling with the question, but there seems to be no easy answer.

“For cars, potential consumers will be a mix of men and women. If manu- facturers behind the design, marketing, quality, etc., are blind to diversity, it will be a tricky situation where you think only from one viewpoint and are neglecting 50% of the consumers,” says Yeshwinder Patial, Director, HR, MG Motor India. MG has a 35% gender diversity. However, at the leadership team, the diversity percentage is just 15%, which the company is aggressively trying to improve, claims Patial.

“When women comprise 50% of the consuming class, companies need to ensure that their workforce, especially leadership teams, reflects their target audience,” says Anjali Bansal, Founder, Avaana Capital. For that firms need to integrate diversity into their culture. In most companies, HR, legal, finance or communication have women leaders. The need of the hour is to have equal representation in frontline roles as well [sales, logistics and operations].

The real estate sector has also been a male-dominated business, despite women playing being a key decision-maker in buying a house. Mohan Monterio, CHRO, House of Hiranandani, says the company has been ensuring that women are placed in leadership roles in sales function, so that they are able to influence the woman consumer at the time of deci-sion-making. “We earlier had women mostly in customer service roles as the perception was that the lady of the house came into the picture after the house was bought. We are now trying to change that narrative, as the woman plays an equally important role in decision-making. Our sales force has to mirror our consumers.”

DEI has to be a business priority, and that’s the biggest mindset change organisations need to bring in, believes Roshni Wadhwa, CHRO, L’Oreal India. “Gender equity will add value to the business, boost overall performance, and power innovation. You need a fair representation of gender in brain-storming sessions and strategic decision-making meetings. That’s how you would mirror your marketplace,” she says.

Alcoholic beverage maker Diageo increased its gender diversity percentage from 7.5% in 2015 to 22% in 2021. Neha Menon, General Manager, Commercial, who has been heading the company’s Delhi cluster for the past nine months, feels being a woman has helped her break the age-old myth that alcohol is meant to be consumed only by men. “I bring to the table a different perspective. I am able to influence the way alcoholic beverages are marketed and also how a store should be designed so that it appeals to men and women alike.”

Menon, who joined the company five years ago, has worked in finance, strategy and analytics, before moving into commercial. “It helped me understand the business from a consumer perspective. I have been able to move up the ladder as the firm has been open to giving me opportunities whenever I have asked for it,” she says.

To bring about this turnaround in its diversity narrative, Diageo had to undergo a huge shift in mindset, says CHRO Aarif Aziz. “Alcoholic bever- ages have been perceived as a product consumed only by men, but today it is being consumed by women as well. This required a change in narrative not only in terms of marketing and communication, but also in the way products are displayed at retail stores. We had to make sure we have a diverse team at the top that would mirror our consumers.” Around 50% of Diageo’s executive committee and 31% of its senior leadership currently include women.

Chittilapilly of Cisco believes in order to build diversity into the culture of an organisation it is important for both men and women to drive it together. “In the workplace there are women who can speak for themselves and there are women who speak up for other women, but 50% of the population includes men and, therefore, the power of men to be an ally and spokesperson for the lone woman in the team is not to be underestimated.”

Instead of having talent-grooming exercises just for women, companies need to have programmes where men and women can interact, says DDI’s Deshmukh.

“We are working with organisations on a programme called ‘Leaders as Allies’, which is about male leaders supporting women to springboard in their culture,” he adds.

The Paradox

Most companies have fast-tracked their diversity agendas in the past year. According to Rajesh of Avtar, a record number of women have been promoted in the last one year. Companies are also opening up to hiring women who are back after a long hiatus. The irony, however, is that despite these efforts, there has been a 5-7% increase in the attrition rate for women employees in middle and senior management positions. It is primarily because women have found it increasingly difficult to balance their role as a homemaker and a professional in the work-from-home regime.

“Women have either chosen to take a sabbatical or have quit during the lockdown. We have to work harder to get them back,” says Rajkamal Vempati, CHRO, Axis Bank.

Experts, however, say that exits due to the lockdown are temporary. The bigger paradox is women employees’ hesitance to take on bigger roles. Deshmukh of DDI says women themselves have a role to play in the unconscious bias present in corporate India. “Traditionally, women have always stepped back due to family compulsions and that has led to them being side-tracked.”

“Too many women have that mindset,” agrees Bansal of Avaana Capital. “They are equally educated and talented, but they decide to step down and that’s when their career plateaus. Once somebody’s income curve flattens, it’s very difficult to bring it back.” This explains why a woman professional invariably earns at least 20-25% less than her male counterpart.

Women are also shy to take risks due to family compulsions and often turn down roles that demand travel or relocation, thereby affecting their professional growth. Many of them do not ask for bigger roles since they lack confidence. Bulbul Gopalani, Assistant General Manager, Sales, North India, L’Oreal India, says women need to demand more. “In my previous job I got the opportunity to upgrade from an area sales manager to a zonal sales manager, but I never asked for it as I thought I was not competent for the role. I eventually got it because my leader recognised my potential.”

Dipali Goenka, Joint Managing Director and CEO, Welspun India, says it’s time women professionals stop considering themselves as second fiddle. “If we are going to feel like the weaker sex, it’s not going to work. We are more resilient, multitaskers and should take advantage of our strengths,” she adds.

Diversity Moves

From institutionalising paternity leave to not letting maternity leave impact a woman’s promotion cycle, India Inc. is beginning to make the right moves. “The moment you give paternity leave or make it a family leave, you are creating a level-playing field,” explains Aziz of Diageo.

“If a person proceeds on maternity leave, we still promote her,” adds Amit Prakash, CHRO, Marico. “Also, when somebody is going on leave, we give an opportunity to others to work for us, even if it is part time, and that’s where our maternity leave returnees who don’t wish to work full-time come in. This takes pressure off the business, as there is continuity,” he says.

The numbers are beginning to improve. From around 600 in 2019, Hero MotoCorp currently has over 1,700 women employees across locations. The company’s diversity agenda has taken a quantum leap in the past couple of years, and there are around 12 women in various leadership roles. “I am personally committed to diversity and inclusion at Hero MotoCorp and this is an organisational priority for me and all of us in the company,” says Pawan Munjal, Chairman and CEO. Similarly, the country’s largest car manufacturer, Maruti Suzuki, has increased women representation in senior leadership roles from four to 15 in the last few years.

A bulk of the women talent leakage in corporate India happens at the mid-management level. Therefore, L’Oreal India, says Wadhwa, is focusing on bolstering its middle and senior leadership roles. “The retention of women at the middle level will ensure how you build your pipeline for the future. We have a policy of senior sponsorship of women leaders, where leaders become sponsors. The second is about identifying and nurturing women who have the potential and giving them larger responsibility. If you give them responsibility, you engage them and build an ambition to grow.”

Marico, too, is focusing on having more women at the CXO level. Despite a diversity ratio of 24%, the company currently does not have any women in CXO roles and the idea is to change that.

“Our aspiration in the next three-five years is to bring about a significant shift at the CXO level without compromising on the cultural ethos and meritocracy of the system. We have seeded six-seven high-potential talent just below the CXO level so that they get trained to take on bigger responsibilities,” says Prakash.

Axis Bank in the past couple of years has given the highest number of promotions to women leaders at the senior level. “We are pushing our women leaders to take bets a little earlier. We have launched a high-po-tential fast-track programme for the middle management,” says Vempati.

Almost all organisations are ensuring that women representation in frontline roles such as sales is stepped up. But sales roles require extensive travel and many women shy away for that reason. Chocolate-maker Mars Wrigley has started giving sales roles to women mostly in metro markets. “We hire them in places such as Mumbai where even if they have to travel it’s in and around the city,” says Kalpesh Parmar, Country General Manager. In order to get more women leaders into its sales force, the company is also hiring from other sectors such as telecom.

L’Oreal India has also, in the past year, hired three women leaders in sales who play prominent roles in decision-making. “It’s important that we go from top to bottom. We hire women leaders and they act as sponsors for women in middle management. The head of brand Granier, for instance, is a woman. She came in as a management trainee, we groomed her and invested in her,” explains Wadhwa.

To ensure women leaders contribute to the growth of the business, companies are providing them enough support. From giving them adequate assistance in terms of helping their family each time they need to relocate and enabling them to work from anywhere to sensitising male leaders about the challenges faced by women, corporate India has started to make serious investments in diversity. However, the action is currently happening within a small universe. “There are numerous companies which are yet to initiate a DEI focus,” says Rajesh of Avtar. There is a lot of ground to be covered in terms of pay parity as well. Women continue to earn a good 20-25% lower than their male counterparts.

“When a man is negotiating, nobody has a doubt, if a woman negotiates, she is called manipulative and is looked upon as a person who is only chasing money,” says Purohit.

Goenka of Welspun adds that it’s just the beginning of the diversity journey. “We are on the right path, but there’s a lot to be done. With the younger generation (both men and women) being far more conscious about equality, there is hope that the workforce of the future would be far more diverse. The ball has just started to roll.”

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