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BW Businessworld

Women At Work

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“Ten years ago, the role of a woman (in the corporate world) was assumed to be secretarial,” says Sonal Mattoo, practising lawyer and founder of Helping Hands, an NGO specialising in drawing up and implementing human resource (HR) policies and advocacy in case of sexual harassment. “Even today, in sectors such as information technology (IT) that claim to have a balanced gender ratio, women play major roles in functions like HR but we see very few hardcore engineers.”


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Take a step back and look at what the figures have to say. Sixty-eight per cent of the Fortune 500 companies, including Apple and News Corp., do not have a female boardroom member who has worked her way up to the top. Only 11 per cent of the top executives in these companies are women.

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index 2007 ranked India at the 114th position, after taking into account economic, political, educational and health parities, among total 128 countries. In terms of ‘economic participation and opportunity’ (see ‘Gender Gap Index’ on page 51) alone, India has fared even worse at 122nd position, sliding into the bottom 10.

Sure, names such as Naina Lal Kidwai of HSBC India and ICICI’s Lalita Gupte and Kalpana Morparia are mentioned as examples. However, according to the latest study of 149 Indian companies done by Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) in 2006, while there is a healthy ratio (16 per cent) of women managers at junior levels, they make up only 4 per cent of senior managerial posts. Further, only 1 per cent of the organisations have women CEOs.

Socially Sound
While many blame the sharp drop in numbers to the glass ceiling, a fair share put their finger on the social demands on a woman’s traditional role. It is not India alone where multi-national companies face this issue. According to a 2007 McKinsey report, ‘Women Matter’, an average European woman spends about four-and-a-half hours on domestic tasks as opposed to men who give a little more than two and a quarter. And while Japan’s Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa’s reference to women as “birth-giving machines” may have been politically incorrect, the report says that 49 per cent of best-paid women in the age bracket of 41-55 years are childless as opposed to 19 per cent men.

To ease the pressures of these social demands, company policies are being designed to provide equal opportunity. “To overcome inadequate child-care facilities in the city, we have built an on-campus day-care centre,” says Rajeev Malik, head of HR, McAfee India. “Mothers bring their children and attendants for the day. Accessibility gives them less reason to worry about their young ones.”

Others address it differently. “There is a period of time, after delivery and till the child is three-four years old, when the mother’s attention is divided,” says Dhananjay Bhansod, chief people officer — note the designation — at Deloitte India. “We ensure no drop in the quality of output by reducing time commitments accordingly.” Many organisations offer flexi-timing to their employees to accommodate early parenthood and other personal issues. “But none of our male employees have availed of this facility and neither is it aggressively communicated to them,” says Bhansod.

Some view the care of children in their formative years as critical. “Some women employees may have taken a career break,” says E. Balaji, CEO of Ma Foi Management Consultants. “I feel studies of compensation that indicate women are paid less are a wrong interpretation of information. It would not be right to compare salary levels with that of a male employee who had been in continual employment.”

Let the numbers speak for themselves. The wage equality index in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index shows that a female employee earns Rs 67 for every Rs 100 earned by her male counterpart for similar work. Try and recall the last time you read the highest paid fresh graduate from IIT or IIM being female.

Moreover, companies have good reason to provide solutions to keep their women despite their stereotypical functions. US-based Catalyst — a corporate membership research and advisory organisation — reported that companies with the most gender diversity in upper management performed better financially. Capital markets and investors are paying heed. Investment funds, such as Calpers in the US or Europe-based Amazone, include gender diversity as an indicator among their investment criteria.

The Double-edged Sword
So far so good. But the most talked about, and yet, least reported gender issue in any workplace is that of sexual harassment. The Vishaka Guidelines of 1997 and the Confederation of Indian Industry’s National Committee on Women Empowerment provide preventive measures and expected actions in case of workplace misconduct.

Both the guidelines, however, fail to address what is popularly referred to as ‘reverse’ sexual harassment. “Men don’t have a platform to voice their problems,” says Mattoo of Helping Hands. “Misuse of (sexual harassment) policies is rampant these days. In the trade-off, genuine cases get neglected.”

Despite committees being set up, partners such as Ethics Point of McAfee being deployed and anonymity assured, few cases are reported — mainly due to lack of education on what can be considered as harassment. Employee sensitisation on the issue also appears to be lacking. Constrained mindsets often cause victims to believe they played an inviting role and the problem is resolved by brushing it under the carpet. “The entry of women in the corporate world has been relatively late,” says Gopal Nagpal, consultant at Mercer. “With the natural flow of things, we will reach a level playing field in 15 years.”

Today women themselves are partly responsible for the bias against them in the workplace. A BBC report in late 2005 says the Cinderella complex — no matter how successful a woman is, subconsciously she still expects that a prince is going to come along and rescue her — is the core problem. Another stereotype comment?

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(Businessworld issue 29 April-5 May 2008)

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