Women Appear on India Inc's Radar

Corporate India, facing a looming talent crunch, is reversing historical gender discrimination against women in a concerted drive to augment their female headcount.

Companies are not only bringing in more women, they are also trying to retain the existing lot in novel and more proactive ways. A recent study by the Chennai-based FLEXI Careers India, which sources only women executives, suggests that diversity hiring intent among leading companies has gone up by almost 500 percent since last year.

That is a dramatic reversal from 2001, when the census found that most women remained outside the organized sector, with women making up only 2.3 percent of administrators and managers as well as only 20.5 percent of professional and technical. Women suffer enormous disparities in the wider society. According to a report by the Insead graduate business school, 2010 literacy rates for women – crucial for representation in the workforce -- were 53.67 percent, lagging those for men at 75.26 percent

The multinationals are at the forefront of attempts to reverse these figures. Software giant IBM India, for instance, is conducting women-only recruitment drives across different Indian cities several times a year. The organization has hired more than 2,000 women workers in the past two years, pushing up the organization’s total tally of female workers from 24 percent to 26 percent.

Companies like Hindustan Unilever Ltd., Godrej Industries, PepsiCo India, Genpact, Kraft, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Deutsche Bank, among others have also stepped up their gender diversity hiring. The sectors actively recruiting women include telecoms, retail, outsourcing and knowledge processing firms, and pharmaceutical research companies.

Energy management company Schneider Electric, 50 percent of whose employees are blue-collar workers, has also pushed up its women’s headcount from 9 percent in 2009 to a still-modest 20 percent this year. Banking and financial services, hospitality, media and consulting too, are seeking to drive up female employee numbers. The flexibility of work hours and work-from-home options introduced by various IT firms has been a major factor in hiring and retaining women.

The food and beverage conglomerate Kraft has gone a step ahead by hiring women for what were hitherto “male-specific” jobs: finance, legal and frontline, modern trade roles. At IBM, more women are opting for positions in technology and product development.

The drive to hire women makes sense considering there is a worldwide shortage of job-seekers with industry-specific training, both male and female, but it is an overwhelming issue in Asia. Common sense dictates that more women be trained in fields where demand for talent is high.

"As corporations face increased global competition from everywhere, they must build growth and drive strategy,” says Arjun Sabharwal, human resources director of Compscope, a Delhi-based IT company. “India Inc wants more women on its rolls, not because it's fashionable, but because it makes good business sense. This creates the need for experts with diverse skill sets. The best ideas flourish in a diverse environment, and companies benefit from accessing female talent.”

Companies are increasingly endorsing healthy male-female ratios coupled with being equal opportunity providers. More and more women are actively participating in career enhancement and growth within the corporate world --hence pushing boundaries of their career span further.

According to a Global Asia report “The Secret to Asia's Long-term Prosperity? Improving Roles for Women at Work” by David Arkless, Asian women are among the most under-utilized assets in today's labor market. Limits on women's participation in the workforce across the Asia-Pacific region cost the economy an estimated US$89 billion a year.

Increasing the number of women in the workforce, suggests the report, “will not only stimulate greater economic growth; it would provide a model for gender parity in all regions of the world.”

The study also suggests that bringing more women into the workforce is a necessary and vital step for companies to thrive in today's cutthroat competition. “A swelling women’s workforce will accelerate economic growth, reduce poverty, improve health care and social programs and ensure greater social well-being across the region.”

According to the global HR consultancy Hewitt Associates, a majority of Indian companies, particularly those in infrastructure and energy sectors, are keen on a women’s-only recruitment drive in the next few quarters.

Analysts say that despite eagerness to hire women in India, their presence at senior management echelons is hardly noticeable as most quit long before reaching the top rungs. A study by Women in Leadership (WILL) Forum underscores that far fewer women are in senior positions in Indian companies compared with multinational firms.

Western companies in the country still remain several notches higher in having women-friendly policies. The WILL study states that Indian banks like Axis Bank had 21 percent women participation in its total workforce. In comparison, 43 percent of total staff strength in American Express’s work force of 5,500 are women. The study also shows that 84 percent of Indian subsidiaries of multinationals have adopted women's advancement strategies compared with only 37 percent of India-headquartered companies.

What do the male candidates have to say about their organization’s female-centric HR policies? While many welcome the move, others are not so sure.

“There's a price to be paid for diversity. Women often have to manage both home and office in India, while men do not,” says Kumar Bhasin, an entrepreneur and former Infosys employee. “If we want them to compete on equal terms, we will have to provide for a handicap else it won’t be a level playing field.”

Says another male employee, “By giving precedence to men, we lose out on the thoughts, perspectives and rich ideas that women can bring to the table. This thought process encourages an unbalanced, male-centric society.”

However, most employees are unambiguous that though diversity makes for a good HR policy, it shouldn't be practiced just for the sake of meeting a quota requirement. “Diversity is about having a healthy mix and being inclusive in your thinking,” Sabharwal said. “It shouldn’t be at the cost of ruling out meritorious male candidates.”

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)