While gender barriers have softened to a large extent at the workplace, India Inc. still has a fair bit of ground to cover when it comes to ensuring a supportive environment for women at work. For all the talk around gender equality, most women in corporate India, even today, have to battle biases and stereotypes at the workplace, and often do not get the same opportunities, work profile and remuneration as their male counterparts, even when they are fully deserving.

While the overall representation of women in the private sector has most definitely gone up in recent times, the number of women in leadership positions is far from satisfactory. On their part, corporates will tell you how it is often an uphill task to recruit women candidates, even with the best of intent, due to a minuscule pool to choose from. On the other hand, there are several cases where women recruited struggle to stay on and prolong their stint, in the absence of a supportive environment.

In India, the participation of women in the workforce is a paltry 26% (2018), which is lower than what we have in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. As per the Prime Database, in 2019, out of 1,814 chief executives and MDs of NSE-listed companies in India, only 67, or 3.69% are women. This shows that the percentage of women CEOs/MDs has remained almost stagnant since March 2014 when out of 1,249 CEOs/MDs, 40, or 3.2%, were women. According to the latest Monster Salary Index survey, women in India earn 19% less than men, reflecting the high gender pay gap in our country. At 17% of GDP, the economic contribution of Indian women is less than half the global average and compares unfavorably to 40% in China. Even in an advanced economy like the U.S., women constitute only around 45% of the workforce. All these data points clearly show that we are a long way off from achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 pertaining to gender equality.

Both the government and India Inc. must work in tandem to build a more enabling environment for women at work, and also empower them to be leaders, which will have huge implications on economic growth and national development. An IMF report says that India’s GDP would increase by 27% if women participation equaled that of men and as per a study by McKinsey, just a 10% increase in women participation in the labour force could add $700 billion to India’s GDP by 2025, which is a testament to the untapped reservoir of talent women could unleash upon the workforce.

A major obstacle that comes in the way of women rising up the corporate ladder is when they return to work post starting a family. The government can create an enabling environment for women, by extending POSH & Maternity Benefit Act to the informal sector, and facilitating measures like flexible leave/work hours, enhanced childcare support and other steps that incentivize shared caregiving between both parents. Women can also help their own cause by upskilling or resetting their skills while they are on long breaks or sabbaticals.

The government should also consider mandating equal pay for equal work and offering incentives like tax benefits or preferential business to those employers having women employees above a certain threshold. It must also encourage more women to take up science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, which would help expand the pool of available female talent in STEM-focused jobs, where currently women are thoroughly underrepresented. This can be achieved through a well-conceived awareness campaign targeted at school-going girls and their parents coupled with mentoring from teachers to alter socio-cultural perceptions.

Corporate India too can take certain steps to eliminate gender biases and empower women in the workplace. While organizations, on the whole, are much more open to hiring women, they must remember that recruitment itself is just the beginning of a long journey. Companies must do more such that women employees prolong their careers and have equal growth opportunities as their male compatriots. Corporates must shed their biases and offer women recruits dynamic roles, help them acquire new skills and foster an inclusive work environment.

Woman empowerment at the workplace can be realized only when men act as true allies and extend their wholehearted support to this cause. The male leadership should be sensitized to promote diversity, help their women colleagues thrive and contribute equally to the organization’s growth. Flexibility and sensitivity should be contoured in the organization’s policies for women employees to realize their fullest potential. Another positive step from India Inc. would be to institute more awards and recognitions – exclusively for women at work. These can have great aspirational value and motivate young girls, women in middle management and woman leaders to continue in their professional journey and strive to secure leadership roles. Each such award winner also becomes a role model and inspiration for hundreds of other women professionals.

Organisations should set tangible goals for gender diversity at the workplace, and keep reassessing the targets until gender parity is achieved. Tokenism must give way to concrete actionable steps. The leadership must be completely aligned with the company’s diversity agenda and the need for achieving gender parity at work. Anti-harassment policies should be strengthened while biases – be it in hiring or allocation of roles should be identified and eliminated. Specially curated workshops conducted by experts can be useful for capacity building in women employees. Companies can also invite woman leaders and achievers to interact with and inspire their staff by sharing their experiences and learnings. In house mentorship programs can help identify high potential women employees, who can then be groomed for senior management roles.

Entrepreneurship is yet another avenue for boosting participation of women in the workforce and opening up a host of opportunities for them. The government can do its bit by providing easier access to finance to aspiring woman entrepreneurs, through schemes such as MUDRA. Fostering women entrepreneurship will not only empower women by making them economically independent but also create several role models who will inspire other fellow women to start their own ventures, setting in motion a virtuous cycle. The government must also ensure a robust ecosystem for skilling and grooming budding woman entrepreneurs.

For India to develop in the truest sense, we cannot afford to have half our population, lagging behind in terms of workforce participation. A gender-equal workplace and more women across Board rooms will be a defining feature of the new, vibrant India that awaits us. Policymakers and business houses must play their due roles, complementing each other’s efforts to expedite this journey. However, at the end of the day, women themselves will have to come forward and alter the narrative – they have to script their own stories. Women today should work hard to build supportive ecosystems for themselves – both at home and at work. They need to be forthright in engaging with peers and supervisors at work and spouse/family and confidently articulate their ambition to build a professional career. Women must themselves initiate the process for securing a meaningful professional opportunity and pursue it for as long as she desires. Now is a good time for this. In the words of Reed Markham, “successful leaders see the opportunity in every difficulty rather than the difficulty in every opportunity”.

Views are personal.

The author is the chief CSR, communications and sustainability officer at ReNew Power

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