Ajay Vij has known his chairman and senior managing director at Accenture in India, Rekha M. Menon, for close to two decades. The managing director for geographic services identifies Menon as someone who can “break the paradigm and has the ability to take risks”. Vij can say that again. The hotel management graduate started his career with the Oberoi Group in the late 1980s. In 2001, he spotted an opening at a tech start-up and decided to give it a shot though he didn’t have the qualifications or experience for information technology. He landed a job at Talisma Corp, a customer relationship management firm, as director of operations for its outsourced services division. What he recalls most is that his interviewer, Menon, one of Talisma’s founding members, took a chance on him. “She looked beyond education and CV details, and saw skill and potential,” recalls Vij.

Vij later joined Accenture in India in 2006, two years after Menon started with the firm. Since then, he has seen Menon hold several leadership roles and turn what was a 2,500 employee firm into India’s largest multinational today. It has over 150,000 employees in India now. Menon has played a huge role in building Accenture’s business in India, a critical market which accounts for a significant chunk of the company’s global client base and serves as one of its key innovation centres.

Last year in July, Accenture launched its innovation hub, a first of-its-kind facility, in Bengaluru to showcase innovation in areas of new technologies across sectors. Today, more than 60% of Accenture’s global revenue (about $39 billion) comes from digital, security, and cloud businesses. Over the past 12 months, Accenture’s growth in India has been in double digits. “She (Menon) works no differently than a man,” says Vij. A contentious statement, but one that is echoed by Menon, 59, herself. “A leader is a leader… good or bad, irrespective of being a man or woman.”

Menon, ranked No. 17 on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in business list, is an oft-quoted example for her many achievements certainly, but also not insignificantly, due to the lack of many women in top leadership positions in the Indian information technology (IT) industry. And also because the industry in India is grappling with retaining women employees. The lack of women leaders is surprising as the technology sector is the second largest employer of women after agriculture in India and is one of the fastest growing industries, both in terms of production and exports. It has been a significant catalyst for growth—in 2017 it contributed 7.7% to India’s GDP. In FY18, India’s IT-BPO industry was pegged at $167 billion.

The IT-BPO industry in India prides itself on being gender-neutral, human resources (HR) consultants point out, because the focus has always been on skills. According to Indian IT industry body Nasscom’s Women and IT Scorecard-India 2018 report, the number of direct employees working in this industry stood at 3.97 million, making it India’s largest private sector employer. Women account for a sizeable 34% of that workforce. But their presence in the boardroom? Far from ideal. According to the Nasscom report, 88.5% of the companies surveyed said women make less than 10% of their C-suite. Things are not much better in senior management: 80% of the companies have a less than 10% female presence there. This is despite women with master’s degrees or PhDs outnumbering men with similar qualifications in the industry. This is surprising, for unlike other industries, IT is among the first sectors to not only focus on gender equality but also equal opportunities at work. This is especially true in tech multinationals with women at the helm.

Rekha M. Menon, chairman and senior MD at Accenture in India.
Rekha M. Menon, chairman and senior MD at Accenture in India.
Image : Fortune India Archive

Besides Menon, the industry has a few other women with exemplary careers. Debjani Ghosh, who heads Nasscom, is an industry veteran who has been in several leadership positions in South and Southeast Asia at Intel. She is also the industry body’s first woman president. Then there is Vanitha Narayanan, former chairman of IBM India, who spent nine years in the country in many leadership roles. Under Narayanan, ranked No. 23 on this year’s MPW list, IBM India flourished and became one of the fastest-growing units for the parent company globally. She played a critical role in framing policies for making students industry-ready by giving government think tank NITI Aayog insights on upskilling and reskilling the workforce in areas of new technologies such as artificial intelligence. Earlier this year, Narayanan returned to the U.S. as managing director for the Verizon account as part of IBM Global Markets. Neelam Dhawan has been former country managing director of Hewlett-Packard (HP) India. Before HP, Dhawan was the managing director of Microsoft India, a position she held from 2005 to 2008. And Nivruti Rai is country head for Intel India and vice president, Data Center Group, Intel Corp. She is ranked No. 45 on the MPW list.

To be sure, these stellar cases are but cracks in the glass ceiling; and it is far from breaking. Though there is a plethora of hurdles that women face at the workplace, IT firms in India have identified three main things that act as brakes to a woman’s career. The social and cultural environment in the country is the main reason. For instance, it is expected that working women after marriage would leave their home and place of work to join the husband where he is based. She is often the primary caregiver for the children and the family. Intel’s Rai says she was expected to maintain the high standards involved in chip-making or delivering a product for Intel—and also excel in cooking. “In India the challenge for a woman is that the expectation from home is much more because of the societal structure we have. The society and culture makes it harder for Indian women,” she says.

Debjani Ghosh, Nasscom chief.
Debjani Ghosh, Nasscom chief.
Image : Narendra Bisht

Secondly, there is a discrepancy between the promises companies make and what is practised in making a work-life balance possible, particularly for mothers with young children. In fact, the largest percentage of women who halt their careers are mothers with newborns. This hiatus leads to gaps in employment and creates issues when the employee plans to return to work. IT industry insiders say the key in such situations lies in keeping oneself updated and well networked during the break.

Menon, for example, was on a seven-year break from the corporate world when her children were born. During this period, she became a consultant. Years later, in 2015, Accenture under her became the first Indian company to extend maternity leave for six months, much before it was mooted by the government. It also started the Returning Mothers Programme two years ago to keep women updated so they are in step with industry trends when they rejoin. Menon says the team leaders are encouraged to move young mothers to roles that give them more time for their children. Other initiatives include childcare facilities and training and counselling for women themselves.“Women sometimes also short-change themselves and don’t raise their hand and ask for what they want,” says Menon.

The third challenge is a corollary of the second: Women often pay what many call a “motherhood penalty” of a lower salary when they return to work after a maternity break. Henrik Kleven, an economist at Princeton University, in a recent research based on data from Denmark, found a steep decline in women’s earnings after the birth of a child. According to his report, women end up earning 20% less than their male counterparts over the course of their career.

The hiring advantage, role model ripples, stock market. . . the impact of a woman leader these days is undoubted; so many companies are stretching to ensure they succeed in hiring a woman.  
  Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, founder and managing partner of Multiversal Advisory  

Is the perception changing when it comes to hiring women leaders? Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, founder and managing partner of Multiversal Advisory, a CXO search and advisory firm, believes “good companies” are becoming more careful about ensuring there is no reluctance in hiring women leaders. “The thinking is getting mainstreamed. The hiring advantage, role model ripples, stock market... The impact of a woman leader these days is undoubted; so many companies are stretching to ensure they succeed in hiring a woman. I think this question will be redundant reasonably soon—the quicker, the better.” One of the key factors that opens the door to the corner office is a rich and diverse experience of working across verticals. Intel India’s Rai, for example, has been a data analyst, software developer, product engineer, and process developer. She has also done analogue circuits (analogue design)—one of the hardest jobs in engineering.

But all this comes to naught without the right mentors. Ghosh, who started with Intel in 1996, had her eyes set on what she wanted even before she became a part of the U.S.- headquartered chipmaker. In her Intel job interview, she was asked where she saw herself in the company after 15 years. “As a country head,” Ghosh said. This made a deep impression on her interviewer, who was also her hiring manager. All through her tenure at Intel, the manager and mentor kept reminding Ghosh of her goal.

Leadership is like a pyramid. In the bottom there are so many people with you and slowly they keep sliding down as the slope gets steeper. As the slope gets sharper you have to develop new skills to hang on.   
Nivruti Rai, country head for Intel India and vice president, Data Center Group, Intel Corp  

Rai, too, cannot stress enough the importance of mentors and sponsors along the way. Of the many, two have stuck by her through thick and thin. She says Gadi Singer, vice president and general manager of architecture, artificial intelligence products group at Intel, helped a lot in developing her skills to proceed further. And Rob Crooke, senior vice president and general manager of the non-volatile memory (NVM) solutions group at Intel, trusted her with responsibility and function.

“You need somebody who guides you. When I was junior, I had the support I needed,” says Rai. “Leadership is like a pyramid. In the bottom there are so many people with you and slowly they keep sliding down as the slope gets steeper. As the slope gets sharper you have to develop new skills to hang on. Otherwise, you will also slip.”

Though the picture is far from rosy now, there are many optimists who see light at the end of the tunnel. Ghosh believes that “the fourth industrial revolution will be a revolution for women”. She explains that as machines take over some jobs, soft skills will become a key differentiator. Hence, the scope for women, often touted to have better soft skills, will increase as a new line of jobs and responsibilities come their way.

Until such times, the only recourse is grit. “Women anywhere have to prove themselves a little more,” says Ghosh. “What’s the big deal?”

(This story was originally published in the September - December special issue of the magazine)

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