“There Is An Absolutely Big Need For Women To Promote Themselves”: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

An interview with Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, pioneer of the biotech industry in India, on ramping up the presence of women in the workplace and enabling women to make it to the leadership track.

In this free-wheeling interview, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, a pioneer of the biotech industry in India, and Chairperson & Managing Director, Biocon Limited shares with us her views on ramping up the presence of women in the workplace and enabling women to make it to the leadership track.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw needs no introduction. When I asked Ms. Shaw how much time I had with her to gather her perspective on Indian women at work, she said “15-20 minutes”. Believe me, in that brief duration, what followed was food for thought and practical advice, so pertinent and rich that I could only hope to have gained it after days of research, podcasts and events!

So if you are a working woman at any stage of your life, in the middle of a maternity leave, a new recruit at junior managerial level, working at the shop floor, assuming a senior leadership role in your organization, a decision maker in the government, or a journalist, Ms. Shaw has insights and guidance for all. Read on, learn, feel the fire, and get inspired!

India has some of the lowest levels of female labor force participation in the world. Only 24% of women in India have any kind of paid work in any capacity. In contrast, globally, women’s labor force participation rate is 48.5%.  How do you look at this picture of women’s employment in India? What is the core reason for the low level of participation?

Let’s look at some of the rules and regulations around employing women in terms of shifts. Except for the IT sector where one can actually see a higher percentage of women in all three shifts, you’d be surprised to know that in most other sectors, women can only be hired in the general shift (i.e, the 9 to 5 or 10 to 6 working hours.) This is even though there are many companies who have a three-shift operation.

Moreover, even if we are allowed to hire women only in the general shift, you can’t hire all of them in the general shift because you need to rotate the shifts. So when you look at the manufacturing sector’s assembly line, they feel, “If we can’t hire women in the second and third shifts, fine then, we’ll have an all-male workforce.” That’s how you’re excluding women from the workforce.

So if you want to raise the percentage of women in the labor force, then you have to change these rules and regulations. And everybody knows this.

Is this across white collar and blue collar levels and throughout industry?

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Yes, through all levels and through the industry. You see, the IT sector has a very different profile. In other companies, the only part of the organization that really works 24/7 are only the manufacturing and assembly line. The large numbers (of employment) are at the shop floor level, which is hit by the rules disallowing women to be hired for the second and third shifts.

Wow! That’s a big one. What do you think is the reason for the continuance of such rules and regulations? After all, women have been doing night shifts, say working in call centers, since more than a decade now.

The concerns that are being raised are about safety. But that can be easily addressed. You have to provide them transportation in a safe manner. And the IT sector does that very well, you have to emulate that.

The other thing I find is that in the security services, for instance, a lot of women can be hired, but they aren’t because it is considered to be a male profession.

Cultural barriers…

Yeah. And why should it? I have forced our security services to hire women, and at least during the day shift, have more women as security officers. And they do a good job!

If leaders can push these steps in their own companies, then it will have a ripple effect on other companies when they see that it works.

For example, Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty at Narayana Health Hospital in Bangalore has made it mandatory for all lift operators and security staff during the day operations to be women.

Other than employment, it also gives a sense of security to other women employees when the security is being handled by women.

Yeah, exactly.

What are the core reasons for the low representation of women in leadership in India Inc.? For instance, women in India hold only 17% of senior-level roles. And this is after we have quotas for women on boards of public companies. In contrast, globally, women account for 24% of senior roles.  

What happens is that you’re seeing a lot of women at the lower management cadre. In fact we almost have a 50-50% recruitment at the entry level. But as you rise in the organization, unfortunately, there is a high drop off rate, starting with women who leave for maternity, or leave  because they get married, or because spouses don’t live in the same place. All those kinds of personal reasons…So any woman who is rising or has the potential to rise in the organization, leaves.

Now, in the case of women who take a long maternity leave, even though companies are beginning to have policies of rejoining without employment break, what happens is that in technology companies, it becomes very difficult for them to catch up with what they have lost during that period. In that one year, the technology has advanced so rapidly that when you come back, you often find your colleagues racing ahead of you. That has a demoralizing effect. These women just accept their very slow rise in the organization.

So what do you suggest is the way out?

Women have to keep themselves abreast if they want to rejoin organizations. Even during maternity leave, they have to keep themselves relevant and contemporary. Today there are so many online programs to choose from.

Part of the responsibility does fall on the individual employee. Is there anything you suggest that organizations can do to facilitate that scenario so that when the woman joins back, even if well prepared and abreast, she doesn’t face a bias?

Well, the organizations are doing a lot. They are being generous with the maternity leaves and allowing rejoining without break in employment benefits. But what they can do is give a six-month ‘catch up grooming’ so that the woman sits at par with the rest. Because to catch up by herself becomes very difficult. If you actually have a coaching, I think it’ll help.

That’s a useful suggestion. You have to hold the hand for some time.


What do you think is the role of organizations at the recruitment stage, say at junior managerial level? Yes, there are policies on paper, but how does one encourage implementation of professionalism in spirit?

I think there has to be a very strong focus on gender diversity. Companies today are beginning to be far more focused on ensuring that there is no bias. Unfortunately, there is a bias at the time of recruitment. There are always men recruiting at the junior managerial level with a tendency to include male recruits because it is more convenient. If the woman is very, very competent and head and shoulders above the man, then she may be given a fair chance. But if she’s as able as the man, then I think there is a bias towards hiring a man, even today.

At Biocon, I’ve almost mandated that we must have a certain gender ratio in the departments. Through that then, the ratio will start shifting. We’ve seen very clearly that when there is a strong focus on improving gender diversity, then it happens. But as soon as the focus is removed, it automatically slips back.

Also we have to almost incentivize senior managers to make sure that they focus on gender diversity. Part of the KRAs are linked to gender diversity in the leadership. I feel at the end of the day, it comes from the top. For instance, recently, in one of our biggest divisions, we’ve hired a woman CEO. Even on Board replacements, we’ve intentionally focused on women board members. Such steps help maintain serious focus on gender diversity.

What is your view on women’s representation and recognition in the still unconventional sectors such as biotech, or chemistry?

At R&D level, we have a large number of women. I would say to them, “Please don’t just be there up to a certain level. I want you to be leading these R&D initiatives in the future.” I find many of them are very good, very smart. But for personal reasons, they drop off just before they are becoming strong leaders.

Any initiatives that you’d like to share that Biocon Limited does at a systemic level that could serve as an example for other companies?

I think most companies that are in the same league as Biocon do a lot for women. Things like crèche, extent of maternity leave, flexi-timings. But women have to make sure that they seriously engage with the mainstream, so that they can be strong contributors. They need to engage more, interact more, and network more. They need to strongly compete to attend these kind of networking events. We don’t do enough of that as women.

In fact, Women’s Web will host the Women In Corporate Awards on 9th August in Bangalore. The motive is to recognize and encourage women across industries contributing towards growth, innovation and diversity in the organizations they work in. The uniqueness is that women have an option to nominate themselves, other than the usual route of being nominated by someone else. A message you’d like to give to these women who had the gumption to nominate themselves?

I think there is an absolutely big need for women to promote themselves, to be confident, to know that you have to compete. All this requires pushing yourself, and making sure you get heard. And when women nominate themselves, that’s a very good sign. That shows self-confidence.

Any other area that you’d like to talk about on women’s participation, and even their portrayal in leadership?

Yes, media needs to profile much more women than they do right now. I also find that whenever they talk about leadership, or anything achievement related, you only see men featuring in their ads. I don’t find them doing that with women.

And it’s a wrap. 20 minutes (23 actually!) of super conversation. I’m charged and how! How about you?

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About the Author

Anusha Singh

I am a corporate communications consultant, columnist, and former lawyer. I help organisations speak to their stakeholders effectively. read more...

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