Gender imbalance in the workplace has been the focus of attention for several years now. In India, the rate of female labour force participation has declined from 30% in 1990 to 20.8% in 2019. With the pandemic, the situation has likely worsened. According to a recent study, 17 million women in India lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic, between March and April 2020 alone.
In most other parts of the world, falling fertility rates when juxtaposed with improving rates in women’s education, there is a resultant increase in women’s participation in the workforce. But not so in India, despite there being ample evidence of both these conditions being met in the last two decades.
In corporate India, as one progresses up the corporate ladder there is a disproportionate decrease in the density of women compared to men. It’s no secret that a big section of women in India tends to drop out of the corporate workforce at mid-level to either raise a family, pursue non-traditional career options, or drop out altogether.
While many women are keen to resume work post their early child-rearing or care-giving breaks and are eager to blend a career into their lives, they often don’t know where to begin, or their ‘breaks’ are not viewed kindly by hiring managers. In addition, generations of societal barriers gradually undermine the confidence and enthusiasm of these women. It is therefore extremely crucial for organizations to provide women with the right tools and opportunities to guide, coach and empower them during this process.
As stakeholders of the corporate ecosystem, there is a need to collectively work towards making the workplace more welcoming for women especially when there is a transition involved. There are a few organizations that are moving the needle in the right direction. For instance, specialist firms focused on Diversity & Inclusion solutions are helping business harness the power of diversity to achieve business success. Several leading firms have put in place ‘second-career’ programs to bring qualified and experienced women back into the workforce.
In order to help these women transition back into the corporate life, many companies now offer “returnship” programs, which are similar to internships but are meant specifically for those who are looking to rejoin the workforce after a career break. It helps women interns to ease into the organization culture, build confidence and assurance that the changeover can be successful.
Another societal barrier women often face is the kind of work or the type of industry. There exist invisible biases about what women can and cannot do, should and should not do. For example, the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are often viewed as a male-dominated again due to deep- rooted societal perceptions and stereotyping. At over 40%, India produces the highest number of female graduates in STEM – across the world, yet it ranks a lowly 19th when it comes to hiring women for STEM roles. To excel at a career in science, one needs knowledge, skills and intellect – but equally importantly, a creative mindset, analytical skills, perseverance and the ability to work in teams - so when women in STEM drop out of the workforce mid-career, it is a collective societal loss.
Through return-to-work programs that re-ignite their careers, mentoring initiatives, upskilling courses and industry-specific skills trainings, organizations that provide these women with the right support can effectively halt ‘the leaky pipeline’ and help bring their skills and experience back into the workforce. Support groups and mentors can also ease the transition back into the corporate world, as well as provide the physical and mental support one will need.
It is important to recognize that women always evaluate the trade-off between staying home and caring for a young family versus the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career: hence the work has to be meaningful, the culture – flexible and the pay – equal.
As India Inc. looks for solutions to retain qualified and trained women in the workforce, we must look beyond incremental progress towards bolder and more inclusive solutions.