On yet another International Women’s Day, it’d be wise to look beyond all the rhetoric and fanfare, and take stock of the ground reality. A close look at the numbers reveal that we still have miles to go, when it comes to fulfilling Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 5 i.e. Gender Equality targets by 2030. In fact, I am disappointed to state that compared to the talk around gender equality, our pace is slowing.

India ranks 112th out of 153 countries in the WEF’s 2019 gender gap report; specifically, in economic participation, we are among the bottom five. India’s female participation in labour force is a paltry 27%, nearly half that of China and lower than Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Even those employed suffer from a sharp disparity in pay. Monster’s 2019 Salary Index Survey indicates women are on an average paid 19% less than their male counterparts. The other glaring statistic is the dearth of women leaders with only 3.7% of CEOs/MDs in NSE-listed companies being women; women also hold only 14% of all board seats.

The above statistics imply a huge lost economic opportunity, even if we ignore moral issues.  McKinsey estimates a 10% increase in women’s participation can boost India’s GDP by $770 billion by 2025. The Women In Workplace Report also states that gender and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform the industry median. Besides infusing innovation and creativity in an organisation woman leaders are also only half as likely to attrite. Globally investors are also increasingly backing companies with strong diversity policies.

To frame an action plan, we must first understand the factors that stifle women’s participation and growth at work. Our workplaces are still not completely woman friendly in terms of providing enough support for them to juggle home and work. Women continue to be stereotyped with people doubting their fit for certain roles, ability to work long hours and career goals.  There are ample stories of the boys/men’s club at the workplace – with men excluding women from career enhancing projects, talking down or even “bullying” their women colleagues. There remain other family and the larger ecosystem related growth barriers with very few women rising to the top, thus resulting in a limited pool of role models.

Socially constructed gender norms also hold back women – be it bearing a disproportionate burden of household work and care giver responsibilities or the stigma attached to working outside home, especially post marriage or motherhood. If we move beyond the big cities, there is also an issue with their upbringing with parents guilty of mentally conditioning the female child to play second fiddle and sacrifice her self-interests. This often causes women to lack confidence or doubt their own abilities. This perhaps explains why despite consistently outperforming boys at the high school board exams, we see very few girls studying STEM subjects and settling for so called “softer” jobs. So, what can we do to attract, retain and grow more women at work and narrow down the economic gender gap?

Gender Equality begins at home – we must bring up our girls with greater self-awareness and confidence so they grow up to be stronger professionals. Parents must avoid stereotyping and display greater gender sensitivity while dealing with children, so that every young girl feels confident to voice her career aspirations and is assured of family support.

Corporates must ensure gender parity is a strategic objective. This starts with acknowledging & understanding the gaps and then ensuring top-down commitment towards building a culture of equal access to opportunities and resources. Leaders must communicate the business rationale for gender diversity, set measurable goals and disclose the progress at regular intervals. The following best practices can create a more enabling environment and accelerate the journey towards a gender equal future:

∙ Review policies from a gender lens; adopt gender impact assessment for initiatives and gender responsible budgeting

∙ Revisit hiring practices, earmark more “woman only” roles and adopt “blind screening” where gender is masked to eliminate any subconscious bias. Incentivise employees to refer deserving women candidates. Design special programmes for women resuming careers post a break

∙ Ensure pay parity across levels - run audits to ensure zero discrimination

∙ Develop a stronger support network via tie ups with crèches, day care centres; offer flexi work hours, work from home options. Shift focus from “time spent” to quality of output. Institute paternal leave to encourage men to partner in child care

∙ Eliminate workplace harassment with zero tolerance policies and counselling for victims

∙ Mentor, skill and groom women for leadership roles from an early stage; involve in strategic projects, ensure industry exposure to create a healthy pipeline

∙ Ensure gender sensitive training curriculum –incorporating specific needs of working women

∙ Eliminate bias in performance reviews through feedback training for supervisors

∙ Collaborate with government and civil society for wider impact, run campaigns to shape public opinion

∙ Last but not least, the journey towards a gender equal workspace can be catalysed only when men come on board as active allies. Men must champion gender parity at work, rid themselves of biases and give women the space & opportunity to contribute equally.

Gender equality is not just a goal; it is a critical prerequisite for sustainable growth. The new generation of Indian women are ready and raring to go; now is the opportune time for India Inc. to tap into this talent pool and improve their performance. We cannot afford to wait centuries for a gender equal workspace, let this Woman’s Day herald a change in mind-set and usher in strategic interventions as we begin the ‘Decade of Action’.

Views are personal.

The author is chief CSR, Sustainability and Communications Officer, ReNew Power.

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