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Will 2020-2029 Be The Magic Decade For Women At Work In India? Senior Industry Leaders Respond

Posted: January 10, 2020

While the last decade saw a rise in employers working to hire and retain more women at work, we need 2020-2029 to actually show us the results.

A 2017 report released by the World Bank revealed that only 27% of Indian women undertake paid work of any sort. Now while this data is almost a decade old (it referred to the years between 2004 and 2012), and I hope the data for the 8 years since then will leave us with some grounds for optimism – there is no denying that the number is extremely concerning.

Paid work, and the financial independence it can offer, is an essential component of full autonomy for the women of this country; yes, I have heard umpteen times and understand the ‘choice’ argument that says let women choose to be homemakers if they want to, but this argument fails to take into account an important factor.

True ‘choice’ is only available to a small percentage of women in our country – for the majority of women who don’t take up paid work, it is either because they lack the skills, they lack the jobs within an accessible geographical area, or they lack the affordable childcare that would allow them to combine raising families with having a career. Let’s not forget that raising a family is still, by default, the job of a woman, and we rarely, if ever, ask men to make this ‘choice’.

What did 2010-2019 bring to women at work in India?

If I list the positives, from an industry perspective, the 2010-19 decade saw significant movement from many employers, with a greater acceptance of the need for diverse teams at work. Diversity at the workplace is now coming to be seen not as something “good for women” but as something that is “good for business”, whether it is from the perspective of innovation and problem-solving, or cross-functional team performance.

Many of India’s largest corporates, now have return to work programs to on-board more women as well as mentoring and leadership training programs to retain female talent. Moreover, the conversation is now moving beyond just diversity, to focus on inclusion at work – and not just for women, but for people across genders, sexual orientation and across the spectrum of bodily ability. We have still taken only baby steps, and there is a lot of work to be done in sensitising employees across levels, but yes, some steps have been taken. 

More companies now have Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) committees, in line with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act, although the implementation continues to be patchy; similarly, while the Maternity Benefits Act now mandates employers with more than 50 employees to bear the cost of childcare support, anecdotal evidence suggests this is not being implemented.

For women who are not in the white collar sector, the overall poor state of the economy and slow growth of the manufacturing sector means lesser access to jobs in the organised economy. Moreover, initiatives to prevent sexual harassment at work, or offer career progression, barely exist for women in the blue-collar workforce.

What we want from 2020-2029 as women at work

So, will 2020-2029 be the decade when women truly take their rightful place in the Indian economy? What do we need from the ecosystem, including the government? Do women leaders have a role to play in motivating and enabling other women to enter and stay in the workforce?

I asked a few industry leaders who have excelled in their own careers, and are also passionate about raising the presence of women at work in India Inc, for their vision and views.

I asked them: In the decade 2020-2029, what is the most significant intervention that you think is needed from the ecosystem to boost the participation of women at work in India?

Debjani Ghosh, President of industry body NASSCOM says, “Training women in emerging tech to ensure we are not left behind in the digital economy.  The advancement in tech is rapidly  changing jobs and the skills required for relevance are continuously changing. Reskilling for relevance is job 1 for companies and employees. We have to ensure that women are given equal opportunity to get access to these training opportunities so that we don’t get left behind.”

This gains added importance when we consider that the digital economy is also slated to change in fundamental ways, with the rise of artificial intelligence, and more automation across all sectors of industry.

As an addendum to this, the very first point on my wishlist is for skilling programs in the tech industry (supported by the government and/or employers and industry bodies) that dramatically widen access to tech education to include more women from disadvantaged backgrounds and from rural India. Women as a whole cannot progress until our sisters from poorer and under-represented communities are included; it would be a very poor sort of diversity discourse in this decade that does not make space for such women.

Apurva Purohit, President, Jagran Prakashan Ltd., stresses the need for more visible female role models. She says, “This decade (2020-2029) needs to have more visible female role models. Increasingly, more women are reaching senior management roles today. But how many are visible? In large parts, women leaders do not like to project themselves as women leaders because they believe it takes them away from being perceived as professionals who made it to the higher echelons without gender having played a role. Equally, women are in general more reticent and prefer to stay behind the scenes. This has to change. Only when younger women see more women leaders will they aspire to reach the top themselves. That is how important role models are.”

Until women leaders are the norm and not an exception, we definitely need to keep raising the example of women as leaders – because there is no doubt that it tells other women what is possible for them.

While opportunities to learn and lead are no doubt essential, the first step to retaining women is a workplace that feels safe and respectful. Tina Vinod, Head – Diversity & Inclusion, ThoughtWorks says, “In the new decade, as an ecosystem, we need to strive to provide safer, respectful and equal opportunity workplaces for women, irrespective of the industry, domain or level of work, be it urban or rural India. This should not be a good to have, but a must-have recognising the value and caliber that we women bring to our workplaces. We need equal representation on boards and leadership teams. We also need to collectively invest in the next generation of youth to understand that progress, success, and equity goes hand in hand.”

Nandini Sarkar, Global Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Leader – India at Boeing extends the conversation to going beyond the employers when she says, “The conversation to change the narrative has set its firm foot which will eventually strengthen to create a telling impact on our ecosystem. There’s no STOP to it! We mustn’t miss that a congenial ecosystem is a foundational enabler – however, it can’t single handedly boost the participation of women at work in India.

With a leaf turned on a decade, my inner soul shouts loud –  it’s time for ‘The Women’ to look within – discover the power of ‘self-love’, realize what a ‘meaningful life’ means to them and ‘build an identity’. The mantra – creating relatable role models, finding a true sponsor of one’s dream within the family fabric and beyond (as apt), leveraging the available resources to the fullest, followed by owning every choice and being responsible for all actions with a ‘No Guilt’ syndrome.”

What about the men?

Finally, Neeraja Ganesh, Consultant & Coach, Inroads Leadership Development, points to the very important fact that truly including women at work is not going to be feasible without changing the role of men in the conversation – and action.

She says, “To boost participation of women at work, the ecosystem has to become inclusive for men in certain respects. As an example, when there is a mandatory provision of maternity leave, there has to be a mandatory provision for paternity leave. While there are various schools of thought that say that we should make it parental leave, I think in the Indian scenario, the mindsets have not yet changed to accept the man taking leave to care for the child while the woman goes to work. Hence, making it mandatory to give X months of leave to the father, will start to change things where the father will proudly take his leave and care for the child while the mother can return to the workforce.

This will further trigger the father to ‘learn’ some of the household chores and perform the same chores, which can reduce the burden on the woman even after both of them are back to work. Also, it will bring in empathy in the man as he will understand what a woman goes through, and still manages both home and work effectively, This empathy will make him think and do things differently, at home as well as at his workplace where other women work.”

Listening to these highly successful women share their ask for the decade, as I write my first piece in the new decade, I am left with a sense of cautious optimism – that while change for women at a macro level may be slow to happen, happen it will nevertheless.

Here’s hoping that when we return to this conversation in 2030, the numbers tell a very different story!  

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