The impact of COVID-19 has been quite unprecedented to the Society and economy in general. While the lockdown had ensured a cessation of work except in the areas of essential services and knowledge based work that could be undertaken remotely, the extended pandemic is likely to create a ‘new normal’ in terms of how work would be undertaken in the future. There are some early signs that remote work would be preferred especially in the areas of IT, education, consulting, knowledge work etc. For instance most large IT companies now operate with a fraction of the employees coming to office even with the easing of lockdown in many parts of the country. TCS has already proclaimed that 75% of its workforce would work remotely within the next five years, which is a significant jump from 20% working remotely before the lockdown. While encouraging remote work has a cost implication in terms of reduced overhead for the organization and expansion without much need for additional infrastructure, the significant impact could be a favourable trend in enhancing mid to top level representation of women executives.
In recent times many large Indian and Multinational organizations have been vocal in increasing representation of women in top management but research has found that social and organizational barriers in enhancing women representation at the top of the hierarchy persists. For instance, most large Indian IT companies have had almost 50% of the employees as women at entry level. However this reduces dramatically at mid to senior level positions.
Women’s safety, gender stereotypes, the central role of women in caregiving and in domestic chores still remain entrenched in most Asian countries and India in particular. While many organizations have spruced up workplace safety, safe access through public spaces has remained a huge challenge for women in India. Organizations have been providing flexibility to women employees especially during maternity care by allowing them to work from home or work from city offices rather than the distant IT parks, but this has been event specific. Many large organizations had invested in or tied-up with crèche care facilities to attract and retain their female talent. With remote working, even the laggards amongst organizations have started investing in IT infrastructural facilities for remote work. This has reduced concerns of safety, reduced travel risk and time, and provided for flexibility in taking care of professional duties and domestic chores. While still it might be a while before remote working is taken as the main mode of working even amongst industries that provide for this alternative, the experience of the process and organization’s learnings from remote work has made it an acceptable alternative to work arrangements.
Organizational barriers impacting women’s careers have been in the area of performance assessment and access to developmental opportunities for higher level managerial positions.
Most performance appraisals use a combination of both outcome and behavioural assessment. One of the concerns frequently voiced by females has been that the parental concerns and pressures of domestic chores limit their time to network casually or stay at office beyond the work needed. This has impacted their behavioural and potential assessment even though outputs are similar or sometimes even higher to their male counterparts. Facetime is no longer a requisite criterion in evaluating professionals working remotely. Outputs would matter much more. Not that behavioural competency would become passé. In fact these would be all the more critical when people work remotely at different locations. Skills such as written and oral communication, ability to plan and coordinate work remotely would be important but these are gender neutral and not connected to physical presence.
Leadership and managerial developmental programmes have used a combination of both formal structured learning activities such as training and education, mentoring and coaching programmes and experiential on-the-job learning such as stretch assignments, committees and task forces as facilitating growth and competency enhancement. Amongst these all of them are equally effective for either gender except that access to female mentors and role models has been a challenge as there are fewer numbers at the top of the hierarchy. Technology has levelled the play field in enabling mentoring and coaching opportunities which otherwise was a challenge because of the ‘old boys huddle’. However with the ensuing investments in technology for scheduling, coordinating activities and communicating across organizational boundaries, sharing of experiences from senior female role models have become accessible for younger female employees. Workshops, programmes and activities could leverage both online and physical platforms for experience sharing and networking amongst women. At the same time, it’s upon the individual to take the initiative, reach out to others and be effective in communicating their career aspirations.