The long road ahead for women in corporate India

There was widespread celebration as Kamala Harris became the first female US Vice President.  But beyond the borders of the US, other countries, especially “developing” nations, were long past this milestone. Well before 1966, when Indira Gandhi became India’s Prime Minister, the country already had the first woman governing a State.  Sarojini Naidu was Governor of Uttar Pradesh for two years from August 1947. Most of India’s South Asian neighbours – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have been or are led by a woman. When India had a woman Chief Minister of a State in 1963, Supreme Court judge in 1989, President in 2007 and Defence Minister in 2017, there was much to cheer. Yet these milestones have not solved the problems of Indian women, bettered their situations or advanced their positions at every level of society. Corporate India is an example.

An increasing number of women are heading companies, corporate groups, banks, financial enterprises, and public sector undertakings. If you look carefully, a token few, may be found in corporate board rooms. However, it is largely still talk: talk about the improving gender diversity in corporate India, and talk about bringing more women into leadership positions. While there is some improvement, or ostensibly at least the feeling that there is some improvement, the data indicates otherwise. According to figures from the database management company, Prime Database, the percentage of women CEOs in March 2019 was about 3.9% vs. 3.2% in March 2014. This shows that the percentage of women CEOs has remained almost stagnant over a five-year period.

Let us take a step back and ask ourselves – why has the percentage of women on corporate boards not increased in proportion to the number of women entering the workforce? If I don my scientist’s hat, I would explain it as being “due to disproportionately high-altitude rarefication effects”. This means that as one progresses higher up the corporate ladder there is a disproportionate decrease in the density of women compared to men. While there are many reasons for this anomaly, the primary one is that the road from the lower levels of the organisation to the C-suite has significantly more barriers for women than for men. These barriers broadly fall into two categories – societal and organisational.

In India, many of the societal barriers that women face have roots in patriarchal oppression. In a patriarchal system, sons are groomed to run the business. The daughters are conditioned to think that a woman’s place is at home. Such practices are hopelessly outdated in current times and have gradually eroded the confidence and enthusiasm of women. However, despite this thinking, women have shown that they are capable of taking care of the family and work, and being exceptional at both. Many of India’s large businesses are family owned and operated. While some family businesses have kept pace with changing times, and have accepted daughters into the business, others remain steadfastly rooted in the past and have shut their doors to daughters. If gender bias is pervasive at the promoter level, it will obviously percolate down through all levels of the organisation.

Organisational barriers such as pre-conceived notions and stereotyping of women are products of social conditioning. Creativity, decisiveness, collaboration and transparency are among the qualities that define truly great leadership. But they aren’t always recognised or appreciated in women. For example, research shows that when men and women display identical levels of creativity, men are evaluated as being more innovative and considered more deserving of praise and reward. Women’s creativity just isn’t seen for what it is or touted to the same extent as men’s creativity. Although decisiveness is appreciated and lauded in men, projecting authoritativeness through decisive actions is often perceived as arrogance when women engage in it. There is little doubt that all of these qualities, which research shows can be critical for success, are embodied in today’s female leaders. However, they are perceived through the lens of outdated social conditioning. Consequently, women face strong headwinds as they try to move up the career ladder. They are overlooked, for a variety of reasons, when it comes to promotions despite being competent and qualified. Some of the primary reasons are centered around life events such as marriage and childbearing and the responsibilities that come along with them. Managers often have unfounded concerns that such life events will negatively impact a woman’s performance at work. The few women that are able to overcome these headwinds, soon find out that the headwinds only get stronger, and that they have to fight harder as they progress up the ladder to the boardroom. Only the strongest and the most resilient make it.

It is only when the road to the boardroom is cleared of these unfair barriers, and women have equal access as men to mentorship, training and development can true gender parity be achieved in corporate boardrooms. The onus lies squarely on the occupants of the boardroom. It is not enough to have women on the board as a token, or to check a box for regulatory compliance. It should be because the leadership recognises the unique benefits that qualified and competent women can bring to the business.

Research shows that combining people of different backgrounds results in “cognitive diversity,” which enhances collective problem-solving. McKinsey and Credit Suisse have each produced research showing that companies serious about gender diversity and inclusion achieve superior financial results. Gender diversity creates positive benefits when society believes in its intrinsic value, and not just as a mere obligation. Professor Letian Zhang of Harvard Business School in his research on 1,069 leading firms across 35 countries and 24 industries, found that gender diversity relates to more productive companies, as measured by market value and revenue, only in contexts where it is viewed as “normatively” accepted. Normative acceptance means a widespread cultural belief that gender diversity is important. There were positive effects of diversity in societies with normative acceptance of working women, but not in societies with only regulatory support. We all know that without biodiversity our planet will be in peril, similarly, without gender diversity global economies will be in peril. The time to act is now.

On the occasion of International Women Day, let us be inspired by the words of the late astronaut Kalpana Chawla: “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on it and the perseverance to follow it.”

(Dr. Valli Arunachalam has a doctorate in nuclear engineering and is a technology consultant with 23 years of work experience in Fortune 500 Companies. She is leading the fight against gender bias in the Murugappa group, her family’s 37,000 crore industrial conglomerate) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)