The obstacles to gender equity in India seem to be less about a “glass ceiling” and more about a “sticky floor”
SEBI, the country’s market regulator, announced on February 13 that all listed companies in the country would have to appoint at least one women director to their Board. This symbolic decision is guaranteed to open up a thicket of questions: What stands in the way of corporates in India filling their pipelines with higher number of women leaders?
Indian women fare the worst among the Asian countries in terms of career progression. Starting with a low of 42 per cent university graduates, of whom 29 per cent join the ranks of first-time professionals, the numbers hit a dismal 9 per cent at the mid-to-senior management level (McKinsey & Company, Women Matter Asia, 2012).
Let us then zoom out to consider whether the economic, educational, and healthcare opportunities afforded to Indian women is equitable. According to a World Economic Forum report, which quantifies the magnitude of gender-based disparities, India’s overall ranking is 105 among 135 countries and shows scant progress since the measure was created in 2006 (The Global Gender Gap Report 2012, p. 211).
Why should corporates care? There are grave implications to the country losing half its workforce and leadership talent. Economic progress and societal stability call for our urgent attention to gender inclusivity in our organizations. To be globally competitive, this gender gap must be closed.
To be fair, Indian companies are introducing a slew of measures such as on-site childcare, flexible scheduling and work arrangements, family leave, and extended childcare leave with re-employment. In keeping with global trends, Indian companies are also on a quest for role models for upwardly mobile women, and are embarking on programs of professional development, mentoring, sponsorship, and in-house forums led by women.
But we believe that women’s career advancement is a “wicked” problem. Coined by Horst Rittel, a design theorist and university professor, “wicked” does not mean evil but tells us that the factors compounding the issue are inter-connected -- there are a large number of people with conflicting opinions, and there is no template to follow to tackle and improve the situation. In addition, the nature of the gender inequities is almost always uniquely determined by local context and so there are no universal solutions.
This is why we are undertaking an in-depth study of gender equity in Indian business organizations. Our initial exploration has been fruitful and we are learning a great deal. For example, women today want to be women. The 80’s and the 90’s saw women succeed because they became “men”. Now women do not feel the need to be men but to be themselves. Their feminine strengths of nurturing, empathy and connectedness can combine with masculine strengths of assertiveness, hard-headed negotiation and goal-oriented drive to deliver results.
Another obvious but not widely admitted “truth” is coming to light: Both men and women are equally ambitious about achieving impact and success in the workplace and desiring lives in which their emotional commitments to the family are honored. Our sense is that these deep and basic human needs cannot be quarantined or segregated by gender.
The obstacles to gender equity in India seem to be less about a “glass ceiling” and more about a “sticky floor”. A promising sign is that senior women who have been in the workforce for 15 or more years have figured out how to make their way through the career labyrinth and are more likely to opt to go up, not out. The more pressing issue is to provide stronger guidance and support to women during their critical junior-to-middle and middle-to-senior career transitions.
Our current situation in Indian business organizations calls for urgent attention and remediation. We believe that the need of the hour is to build holistic organizations by having conversations that resolve gender issues more systemically. In this way, the country can weave together sustainable business growth and socio-economic equity, which is the fabric of modern societies.