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What It Really Takes to Retain Indian Women in the Workforce

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May 11, 2016

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‘Woman-friendly’ has been a corporate buzzword for many years now. It’s a good and valiant effort for firms to actively level their male-to-female ratio and encourage women to rise up the ranks. The problem is, while these ‘woman-friendly’ policies may have encouraged women to join, they’re not enough to ensure Indian women in the workforce stay and rise.

It’s not a matter of qualification; 45.9% of undergraduate students in India are women, as are 40.5% of all enrolled PhD students. Yet, women only make up 24% of the entry/junior level workforce. The pipeline leaks further at the middle managerial level, which is only 21% women; the senior managerial level, which is only 19% women; and the executive officer level, where it shrinks to 14%. At the very top, it is even lonelier: Women hold only 7.7% of board seats and just 2.7% of board chairperson roles.

The problem is that women-friendly policies (think: corporate-sponsored late-night car services) aren’t necessarily family-friendly policies. Family-friendly policies are policies that equalise expectations and opportunities for men and women, fathers and mothers. They are policies such as:

Equal pay. Even before becoming mothers, women start at a disadvantage that makes it easier to justify their step out of the workforce in purely financial terms: The person who makes less money is the obvious choice to stay home with kids, whether short or long term. In most cases, the person making less money is a highly educated woman, as the gender pay gap bizarrely increases with education: Women with an educational qualification below 10th standard earn 9.37% less than men, whereas women with professional qualifications, such as a CA/CS/ICWA, earn 44.25% less than their male peers. When women start getting paid the same money for doing the same work, the choice of who, between partners, leaves the workforce, if and when it becomes necessary, can be more nuanced.

Gender-neutral family leave. While we are heartened to see companies extending maternity leave right and left, this only goes so far when paternity leave remains vastly unequal or even non-existent. When one partner does not have the ability to take time off to care for a child, the other partner must; that is generally how parenting works. Lengthening maternity leave – an admirable effort – without equalising paternity leave or introducing a gender-neutral ‘parental leave’ takes away the choice of who leaves the workforce, short or long term, for most families.

New hiring practices. “When do you plan to marry?” or “When do you plan to have children?” are standard questions in most Indian women’s job interviews. These personal decisions are no business of, well, a business, but such queries are justified by the corporate need to maintain a consistent workforce. But here’s the thing: Corporations deal with and plan for attrition all of the time, and they will only have to do it more as employee tenure continues to trend shorter and shorter among the next generation of workers (who are also the next generation of parents). By taking these personal questions out of hiring decisions and framing conversations as career planning, female employees – and their employers – can stop thinking about life events as crossroads of employment where the only options are to stay or leave.

Childcare assistance. Corporate crèches and policies like ‘bring your mother-in-law/nanny to work’ or ‘bring your baby on a business trip’ are definite strides in the right direction, but too often they are advertised and offered only to employees who are mothers. This prevents fathers from taking advantage of an offering that benefits not mothers so much as parents. It also reinforces the very mindset such policies are meant to counter: that childcare is only a responsibility for women.

But all of these family-friendly policies are moot, if one thing is lacking in the workplace: family-friendly attitudes. Supportive and aware leadership at all levels has possibly the biggest impact on retention of female employees.

At our Women & Work discussion, panellist after panellist recounted a change in professional perception once she became a parent. Harini Sivasankaran told of being introduced to a client as a ‘new mom,’ while her colleagues were introduced by their designation; of not being included in late-night meetings on the assumption she would not be able to attend. Given the benefit of the doubt, these examples could have been intended as celebratory or respectful.

But that’s the point – intent does not equal a work culture that supports families and puts the choice of how and how much to balance their careers and families in the hands of women. Intent can just as easily reinforce traditional mindsets that stifle women in the workforce, if execution is poor.

In the same way, Tina Trikha spoke of the tremendous value Indian firms give to facetime and instant availability, which culminates in pressure not to take advantage of family-friendly policies fully, even where they are offered. When a company offers two months of paternity leave, but a male employee doesn’t see anyone else taking the full leave, the policy is useless. Flexible work schedules can be offered, but if managers relegate employees who choose this option to less interesting and ambitious projects, then the policy will not have its intended effect: retention.

Most of the proposals above are expensive – although the cost would be made up in the increase in net revenue that accompanies retention of women into the C-suite level. But changing attitudes and work culture isn’t expensive, and here’s a cheap first step: Simply examine the numbers. When there’s data that show’s a company’s precise gaps in female representation, it prompts an awareness and recognition of female retention as a problem, which allows the company to address it in a more targeted manner at all levels. It’s a step that has worked for TCS, said Dr. Ritu Anand, the company’s deputy head of HR.

Keeping women in the workforce requires policy changes, yes, but they cannot be effective without attitudes evolving, too. Only when women are recognized and treated in their day-to-day interactions with supervisors, managers and peers as equal employees, with equal abilities and aspirations, will family-friendly policies make a difference in the lives of women and men.


This editorial is part of a series based on our Women & Work discussion. Catch an audio recap of the panel and weigh in with your own experience by taking our 20-question survey.

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Written By The Swaddle Team

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