Way back in 1984, when I entered the Indian Police Service, I was the only woman that year in all of India to become an IPS officer. As I practiced shooting and horse riding alongside the 70 plus male officers in my batch, the sharp gender gap in government services became quite clear to me.
I wasn’t the only one to experience such stark gender disparity in the public sector back then.
If you asked the women working in the sector before 2000, they’d probably tell you their own stories of always being the “only woman in the room”. Many were pioneers in their own workplaces, and being the “token woman” in the office, they had no female mentors or sponsors to look up to. In all, the public sector remained a man’s world, and the few women in it came up against that invisible but strong "glass ceiling" on their way up.
The numbers paint a dismal picture. Women employees were only around 4% of the total workforce of PSUs in 1991. By the end of the century, the figure had crept up to become 5.68%.
Even when women did enter the public sector, they weren’t given the respect they deserved. In 1949, the first woman to enter the Indian Civil Services, C B Muthamma, had to sign an undertaking that she would resign if she got married! Over the years, many others had to put up with routine discrimination, biases and even microaggressions that would be considered against the law today.
It goes without saying that given such widespread gender disparity, few women made it to the top. In fact, it wasn’t until the year 2000 that an Indian government-owned bank got its first woman CEO in Ranjana Kumar, who became the head of the Indian Bank in Chennai.
The Gap is narrowing
In the last two decades, however, the story seems to be changing. The public sector, like the rest of the world, has woken up to the need for gender diversity and inclusion.
Almost all public sector organizations now pay special attention to recruiting women. It’s not enough, but it’s still progress. In 2017 for instance, nearly 9.3% of employees in central public sector enterprises (CPSEs) were women. Crucially, more women are moving up the ladder into executive and managerial roles, with nearly 10.8% of managerial roles in CPSEs being occupied by women now. Retention and advancement of women in PSUs has improved as well.
Of special note are public sector banks. In 2013, Arundhati Bhattacharya became the first woman to head the SBI, followed by others in different banks. Several women have also been appointed as Directors or C-level officers in government-owned banks. The ISRO is another organization where the gender diversity picture looks rosy with Dr. V R Lalithambika and her team-leading India’s ambitious Gaganyan project. Even historically male-dominated organizations like the Army, Air Force, and BSF now boast of several women serving actively in combat roles. The UN Peacekeeping Force too has seen not just the induction of Indian women but also their exceptional performance-a progress which was unimaginable to me when I started out!
This narrative wouldn't be complete without a peek at the political scenario. The 16th Lok Sabha has the largest number of women MPs, with important portfolios being held by women Cabinet Ministers like Sushma Swaraj, Nirmala Seetharaman and Maneka Gandhi.
The quantitative progress in closing the gender gap has been well-matched by qualitative progress with women's associations like the forum of Women In Public Sector (WIPS) serving as robust platforms for dialogues and mentoring for women serving in the public sector.
I can confidently say that while there hasn’t been an exponential or game-changing growth in female employees in the public sector, there are strong tailwinds which are moving the sector on the road to equal opportunities. There is no doubt that we are gradually moving out of the cosmetic phase of gender parity towards a more genuine one.
What still holds us back?
While the numbers look more promising than before, the public sector is still not reflective of the potential of women and the demographic makeup of the country it serves. Here’s a look at some of the reasons why:
- Many gender equality programmes sound good on paper, but very few public sector companies focus on developing a female talent pipeline, owing to persistent gender-based blind spots. As there isn't adequate intake of women at the entry level itself, obviously, there aren't enough women who reach the top.
- Persistently high rate of attrition (with pregnancy and motherhood topping the list) and consequently low rate of talent retention lead to the "the leaky bucket/ leaky pipeline" syndrome. Lack of robust support systems during maternity and after childbirth or other caregiving duties lead many women to withdraw from the workforce.
- Compromise on the safety, security, and dignity of women at the workplace is a major deterrent and a workplace risk. The #MeToo movement has provided an insight into what we had always suspected—that the working woman regularly battles incredible risks and threats.
What can be done further to close the divide?
Here are some concrete ideas to help more women enter and thrive in the public sector:
- Encouraging young women to view the Public Sector as a viable career option, especially through career counseling in schools and colleges. Women employees could play a proactive role in mentoring young girls who have an interest in working in the sector. Public sector organizations could initiate special recruitment drives to attract women candidates, and their recruiters should be specially trained in appropriate verbal and non-verbal communications while hiring women candidates.
- Understanding that having more women at the workplace is not altruism, but pragmatism. For India alone over $700 Bn of GDP can be unleashed if gender parity is achieved at the workplace! Viewing women as resources who add economic value to the workplace and not just as a part of a cosmetic Diversity and Inclusion exercise is crucial for the public sector. Educating the current decision makers regarding the economic advantages of gender diversity must remain a crucial goal.
- The announcement of an unambiguous, transparent and accountable "equal employer" policy too will matter in attracting women candidates to the talent pool.
- Treating safety and security at the workplace as a critical infrastructural investment and ensuring SHW (PPR) Act / POSH compliance as a part of Governance, Risk Management & Compliance (GRC) protocol at all costs. This will give confidence to women to join and remain in the sector.
- Support from the sector in career planning, motherhood /maternity benefits and mentoring returning moms will also boost women’s career tracks.
However, all said and done nothing will happen unless the women walk down the path of self-belief themselves, and find their own inner strength to demand and seize more opportunities in the sector.
Women have to unite in one voice against gender disparity and support each other and develop strong allies in their male colleagues as well. After all diversity and inclusion benefit the entire organization!
The letter and spirit of the law as enshrined in the Constitution, which speaks of equality, equal opportunities and non-discrimination on the basis of sex has to be unapologetically striven for by each one of us. Only then will the gender diversity gap in the public sector become a relic of the past.
- Advancing gender parity could contribute $770 billion to India’s GDP by 2025: McKinsey report
- Your new Lok Sabha has 449 crorepatis, highest number of women MPs
- Women in Leadership and Management in Public Sector Undertakings in India
- Women employment in central public sector enterprises an abysmal 9.36 per cent: DPE
(The views expressed are strictly personal)