Gender diversity in corporates: why aren’t more women coming back to work?

8th Mar 2018
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Bringing back women to work really requires concerted efforts from corporate India, women candidates and society in general.

Gender-based equality and building a diverse workplace with equal representation of women is now one of the ‘must haves’ in almost every corporate strategy. And it is a good thing that there is a clear intent in the corporate sector to play a role in building a gender equal professional world. Each year on March 8, women’s day, there is a myriad of content in all kinds of media, celebrating women, sharing stories, launch of policies, and initiatives across companies — all good efforts. But after working on such initiatives for close to two decades, and still seeing data that ‘GDP output generated by women in India is only 17 percent’, it makes me pause and think.

It’s clear, despite all the good intention and actions, that we are not making any significant impact here. While very few companies openly share this data, anecdotal inputs will tell you that in corporate India (not including factories here), women are between 20 percent to 30 percent of the overall workforce and that too is concentrated at entry levels and junior position; as we go up the career ladder about only 10 percent women are in management and executive levels and approximately 6.5 percent at the board level. And I am sure you will agree with me, that these numbers are not at all encouraging.

More women joining workforce at entry level

If we start to look at this data closely, we will notice that the one place where we have made relatively good progress is at getting more number of women to join the workforce at an entry level. In some sectors it is as high as 40 percent of the entry level/junior level staff.

So why do we have only nine to 10 percent representation of women at management levels?

Like any first high-level view of a problem, the answer to this question is not difficult to find. In India, large percentage of women between ages of 25 to 32 years quit jobs due to matrimony and motherhood. This largely can be attributed to gender-defined role expectations of the society, an attitude that in itself needs to be re-shaped.

Why aren’t they coming back to work?

The next question that comes to mind is, since the large load of these responsibilities are usually in the first five to seven years of matrimony, why aren’t these women coming back to work?

In the last three to four years, I have championed the “back to work” initiative for women. In course of this endeavour, I have also interacted with several large companies that have/had initiated “back to work” programmes in their respective organisations. Unfortunately, there are more ‘failure stories’ than ‘success stories’ of these programmes. And this deters the companies from spending valuable time and resources in an effort that anecdotally seems to have more than 80 percent failure rate. At this point, we need to go deeper into the reasons that are causing such high rate of failure. Based on my observations and analysis, I will break down these reasons to organisational and individual.

At an organisational level, such initiatives like ‘back to work’, are part of the HR diversity efforts. While the intention of creating such an effort would have come from the annual business strategy, by the time it is deployed, it is another “HR initiative”.

This leads to most leaders and managers not investing time, effort and resources to identify the right resources for the right job. Often the most non-critical role would be opened for this ‘experiment’. Also, these roles will be spread sparsely through different departments of these organisations. Unlike the campus hiring programme, where there is clear rigour about the profile of talent, induction training by function and active mentoring, the ‘back to work’ programmes do not have the organisation’s focus that is required to build talent for the future.

The need to prepare and stay informed

The economics of a higher number of women in the workplace can be read in any of the McKinsey & Company reports on “Women Matter” that have been published now for the past 10 years. These women who we are trying to reintegrate into the workforce are highly qualified, with experience in the specific skill area and have life experience that helps build professional maturity. As organisations, we are missing an important opportunity if we cannot find a way to hire and grow this talent that dropped out of the workforce due to societal expectations.

At an individual level, women who want to come back to work, are often not preparing adequately to have an easy restart of their careers. Most come for interviews with minimal or no preparation. Their own level of understanding of the expectations from workplace and self-learning motivation needs to get better.

In today’s world of open source technologies, available online courses, networking opportunities, there are no excuses for not staying informed. While preparing for job interviews, these individuals who seek to come back and become part of corporate workforce, need to focus on their own development, same as they did when they were graduating out of college.

MNCs, Indian conglomerates and startups, are looking for high-quality talent and any HR professional reading this would empathise with the efforts that go in hiring and retaining high potential and high performing people. In such intense war for talent, we are overlooking a whole high potential talent pool that can easily fit into our open roles. The final outcome for both organisations and the women who are looking to come back to work, has to be the same; hence, it’s important that they put equal efforts in building capability.

The need for a better support mechanism

Finally, socio-economic pressures still force women to continue dropping out at all stages of their career. This I believe can be highly minimised by organisations creating policies and support mechanisms for all employees to enable them to manage their home responsibilities equally. Some examples of the same would be, good policies around paternity leave – this will reduce discrimination against women at the time of hiring as everyone in the company will take leave at the time of childbirth. Creche facilities should not be created only thinking about women at the workplace but such facilities should be built for the use of working fathers as well.

Our diversity education initiatives should focus on both men and women to ensure that as a society we understand the economics and concept of ‘sharing the load’.

Most of what I have shared here is my experience and my own deductions on the high impact areas that we need to focus on to increase the participation of women at workplace. Bringing back women to work really requires concerted efforts from corporate India, women candidates and society in general, so let’s work towards solving this together.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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