Women in corporate positions in India: some great examples, but there’s still room for improvement

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I’ve engaged with a couple of extraordinary managers during my long and extensive career. I especially cherish the ones who have encouraged me to take the initiative and work in full autonomy, pushing me to work without any direction. One of them once told me after In was complaining about a colleague; ‘interesting, but what’s your question? How can I help?’. This brilliant answer inspired me to always put the focus on myself; If something isn’t working, there is only one person to blame; myself. It might surprise you, but a couple of the best managers that I’ve worked with during my career are women. Having no issues with reporting to a woman, I might have had very progressive views on this topic, especially living in India. It’s very unfortunate to observe so little gender diversity in India; the glass ceiling still exists here, in this masculine dominated society. However, there are some great examples of female entrepreneurs and things are slowly changing in the corporate world.

 

Inappropriate questions during interviews. I’ve talked to a lot of energetic, kind and powerful women during my time in India and some of them have held senior positions. Although most of their background stories are very diverse, there is one very sad similarity: they all have had to deal with some form of gender-related racism. One of my friends shared with me very inappropriate questions asked during interviews. She was once asked to do a pregnancy test before being hired, which really shocked me. Obviously, she refused to take the job. Other women have told me similar heartbreaking stories. Some were asked about their relationships and if and when they wanted to start a family. Others just felt very uncomfortable, almost dominated.

Lowest rate of female participation in the labor force. Despite all the initiatives to empower women in India, the ratio of females on the helm of a large company in India is still at a record low level. Recent studies revealed that only 3 out of 100 CEO’s or Managing Directors of companies listed on the National Stock Exchange is a woman. Even worse: there is no clear sign to indicate that things are changing, because these numbers have been stable for the last 5 years. Things are better in the western world, but unfortunately the gender gap is only slightly higher. In the United States the number of female CEO’s of S&P 500 companies is at a sad 5% level. Lower on the corporate level, the numbers are definitely higher, but the numbers are still very low when compared to western countries. That’s not a surprise, because India has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labor force. Thus, if there are hardly any women around, it’s even harder to pick one for more senior positions.

 

One in three engineers is a woman. The local workforce in my professional area might not be a good representation of the entire corporate world in India, but based upon the numbers on the floor it doesn’t look bad at all. Fueled by decades of upwards mobility, a lot of middle-class families can now send their kids to colleges. As a result, India has now become one of the largest producers of engineers in the world. I’m not revealing any company secrets if I tell you about the huge number of female engineers at our India offices. I haven’t seen any numbers, but by a rough guesstimate I would say that every one in three professionals on the floor is a woman and they are doing excellent jobs, creating and managing numerous complex business applications.

Very professional female doctors. During my stay in India, I’ve also met a lot of very successful women. Living here for more than 2.5 years now, most of the medical doctors that I’ve visited were female and I would recommend almost all of them to my friends. My dentist is one of my hero’s, she’s actually helped me a lot with some issues that I had encountered, while my ENT specialist was very knowledgeable and helpful with some nose procedures.

No female toilets on the director floor. I’ve travelled a lot in India and even taken a couple of interesting courses. It still fascinates me to see a growing number of female professionals, even in senior positions. I’d met a very kind lady in Bangalore who works as a vice president at a top tier US-based investment bank. Furthermore: I’ve talked to writers and also spoken with public speakers and thought leaders in various areas. But not everything has been positive and peaceful around me. One of my business colleagues recently shared a weird story about her presentation to the company’s Board. When she entered the designated floor, she wanted to use the washroom before the actual presentation. Guess what happened? She actually found out that there were no female toilets on that floor. As a result, she had to use the men’s washroom or take the elevator to one of the lower floors.

Quitting job after marriage . One very striking thing on ‘my’ own floor has been a very professional woman who had to resign after her marriage; her in-laws did not agree for her to continue with her regular job. If her in-laws had been multi multimillionaires, one could argue that this would be an ok decision. But in this particular case, the couple faced an enormous financial setback, because engineers in India earn very good money. This is not a unique situation; it happens very often that female engineers have to quit their job after marriage.

As I shared earlier in this blog, I’ve talked to numerous women about this topic and some of the stories they have shared with me are heartbreaking. Although most of them are not surprising, every anecdote has made me sadder about this situation. On a positive note: every time I get to know about something offensive, weird or discriminating that has happened, it fires me up to advocate equal rights in this masculine dominated society. Like the story of a good friend, who told me that she was ignored during meetings. This vice-president told me she was treated as the assistant, while her subordinates – who joined her during this meeting – were treated with more respect.

 

Change will come, but it will take generations. Having heard a lot of saddening stories about the lack of opportunities within the female workforce in India, I’m still positive. However, this is not something that will change overnight. It will also not take years nor decades; it will take generations, because large parts of the population have to be conditioned with new beliefs about labor, hierarchy and the more modern ways of cooperation. Furthermore: the more traditional part of the population needs to start accepting a more dominant position of the female co-worker.

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