What are the biggest challenges Indian women face in the workplace?
The hurdles start at home
Growing up in the 80’s, we thought the year 2022 would have people whizzing by on jet packs and robot housekeepers who’d keep our rooms tidy while we ate chips on the couch. We did not — as bright, hopeful young minds — anticipate that we would still be trying to unravel the struggles facing working women in corporate India. On paper, gender bias seems so 2008, but in reality, its grip hasn’t loosened as much as we’d like. India still has one of the lowest rates of female labour participation in the world, and it’s been in a decline this century. Contrary to the march of progress, the proportion of women in the workplace and has hardly changed since the 1990s.
It’s a startling data point, but it likely won’t shock women who are in the workforce to learn that, according to this report by Accenture, 29% of women feel “significantly less support” from their employers than male workers.
It’s a major reason why women leave the workforce in the first place. During key moments in their career graph, like when they get married or have children, women’s changing needs aren’t being met. When it comes to asking for pay raises, or even direct progress in their career, women lag behind. The report found that 70% of women aspiring to be in senior leadership are significantly less likely to be satisfied with the pace of advancement (read the story of one woman who returned to work at the age of 44).
If you’re a woman who is or has been in the workforce, chances are you’ve encountered these same hurdles to remaining an active participant. Many women bump up against a glass ceiling, finding themselves unable to progress past mid-level seniority when top jobs require them to sacrifice responsibilities at home — often for a lower wage than men in the same positions would be afforded. Although many companies are making work-life concessions in the wake of covid-19, such as work-from-home initiatives and flexible hours, the rigid demands of the typical office are still not built around women’s needs. And we’re not just talking about central airconditioning.
These unfriendly workplaces don’t just lead to a disparity in representation. “When leaders focus on the everyday moments that matter, they can drive human potential up almost 5x for women, the most of any group,” states the Accenture report.
As long as we continue to expect women to fit into the workplace rather than design policies around them as employees, companies are destined not to fulfill their potential. Tweak India’s founding editor Rochelle Pinto sat down with three leaders from different fields to shed light on why women are still facing hurdles in the workplace.
Radhika Piramal, Vice Chairperson of luggage brand VIP Industries, is a trailblazer for women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights and a titan of industry. Whereas most big family businesses are still spearheaded by sons, Piramal is a rare female scion. She is also one of the very few openly queer Indian corporate leaders and is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Kirti Poonia, Co-founder of Relove and ex-CEO of Okhai, has a track record of working with rural women that offers a perspective outside of big cities. With Okhai, Punia grew a platform of employment opportunities for local artisans across the country, who make gorgeous, wearable accessories and clothes. Her new venture, Relove, allows brands to host their own thrift shop.
As Managing Director and Lead for Human Resources for Accenture in India, Lakshmi Chandrasekharan has a key role in developing a day-to-day culture of equality for women in the workplace. She mentors young women from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.
In a fascinating panel discussion, these four women dig deep into the reasons why women still don’t get adequate support at work, and how everyone can benefit from addressing them. For instance, Piramal points to the culture of afterhours networking that is usually closed to women who are expected to be home after work. When deals are struck over late-night bonding sessions or outstation trips, women tend to be excluded from such opportunities.
Piramal is also aware of being a woman at the highest level of a big company — a position that frequently makes her the only woman in the room. For Poonia, having her own network of women who are also in top management helps her feel less lonely and gives her a safe space to share advice and ask questions without fear of sounding naive.
To that end, Accenture India’s decade-old Vaahini programme aims to promote the inclusion of women in the workforce through education and network-building. As Chandrasekharan explains, Accenture is on track to meet their goal of 50% women employees at all levels by 2025, and the journey has been full of new learnings.
Convincing men in management to focus on hiring and retaining women, for example, works when they’re made aware of what they stand to gain in terms of performance. Chandrasekharan believes women have to get better at speaking up for themselves, while companies must learn to listen (six women share advice on asserting themselves at work).
After all, the perception still remains that a woman’s job is an accessory to her life, while a man’s job is a necessity. Moreover, a woman’s work at home is considered non-negotiable; even the famous CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi had to go out and get milk for the household on the day of her big promotion. One silver lining of the lockdown is that men are taking up more domestic labour and childcare, but the bulk of the burden falls on women’s shoulders. Men overwhelmingly consider themselves “helpers” rather than equal participants, even in households where women have jobs (here are some reasons why work-from-home women want to return to the office).
Yet the numbers suggest that working outside the home is vital for women, and not just for the money. Despite facing challenges, working women have an advantage in their homes and families. They have more decision-making power across the board, and as the women on our panel underline, financial independence means they aren’t beholden to any authority figure in their lives. Is that worth being ignored in meetings and passed over during appraisals? The dream is that women won’t have to make that choice in the first place.