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Augmenting the role of women

Rajeev Bhardwaj | New Delhi |

The 2016 Fortune 500 list shows women holding a meagre four per cent of the CEO positions in 500 of the world's largest companies. The representation of women in Indian corporate boardrooms has increased over the past five years, but it still remains below the global average of 14.7 per cent. The problem is not of non-availability of capable and well-qualified employees. It is due to lack of conscious efforts on the part of corporate organisations to nurture and groom for senior management roles. It is essential to highlight that comparable number of men and women join the corporate workforce in India every year.

However, more women chose to (or are driven to) opt out as they head up the middle management level. In most cases it is family responsibilities that force them out of the corporate ranks, and also the absence of cultural settings that takes into account. Women's participation in business is not just a gender equality slogan–it makes much economic sense as well. For every wasted female talent, there is a corresponding financial loss.

In 2007 research organisation Catalyst conducted a comprehensive study on the economic benefits of gender parity and concluded that the Fortune 500 companies which had more female board directors achieved significantly higher performance. On a macroeconomic scale, Catalyst also reported recently that countries can radically increase their GDP by boosting the role of women. 

A survey published in the Harvard Business Review in 2011 found that managers and colleagues judged women leaders as being better on honesty and integrity scales, in building relationships as well as in taking initiatives. The same survey also concluded that they were better communicators and built better collaborations as compared to male leaders. A series of other studies have pointed to multifarious benefits including improved financial performance, greater tilt towards corporate social responsibility and better organisational climate. 

Unfortunately, while most of us talk about the need for improving female representation, we do not fully comprehend the benefits that will result from it. This is why most corporate leaderships in India have so far not been able to align long-term goals to ensure gender parity and diversity. Here is a list of initiatives organisations must engage in to establish greater gender diversity at its top echelons:

Have long-term diversity objectives: Organisational shifts towards a wider diversity workforce cannot be a knee jerk approach. Once you decide to bring about greater gender parity in leadership, you have to model every policy to meet that end. The culture has to be consciously created, long-term goals prepared and a conscious effort made towards achieving them through multifarious initiatives. Organisations must evaluate the gender situation in their top management and assiduously think about where they want to be in the next five years. This has to be followed by an analysis of how many potential women employees are currently in the middle rung to take up those available top slots. 
nCreate a pipeline of women leadership: Organisations today must make a conscious effort to nurture the talented women employees who show traits of leadership right from an early stage. As they move up the corporate ladder, it is essential to institute re-tooling and re-skilling programmes at each level to ensure they are abreast with all latest developments in the industry. At any given time, an organisation must have sufficient women who look promising enough to take top leadership positions over the next few years. 

Make organisations empathetic to women's needs: Although in recent years the number of women acquiring advanced degrees and entering the workforce has increased, a majority of them often remain stuck in junior to middle management levels. 

There are multiple reasons for this including an institutionalised bias and lack of support for women employees. The consequence is that despite being bright and talented, very few are able to make the transition to top management positions. Unfortunately, organisations are culturally designed to work in male-centric set ups, and often these considerations are looked at as trivial or even as a deterrent progress. However, it is essential to institute greater flexibility and a more empathetic approach to make the workplace more amenable. 

Ensuring equal pay for equal work: A series of discouraging reports and studies have in recent years highlighted systematic gender discrimination when it comes to pay. A recent survey by in India found that the median wage earned by women was 27 per cent lower as against their male counterparts.

This cannot continue if we want to draw more women in leadership positions.

Not just gender equity but a larger vision to have greater diversity in an organisational workforce can bring unprecedented and un-thought of benefits by having a greater variety of approaches and emotional quotients to find solutions. It is time corporate India takes tangible steps in this direction.    

The writer is Vice President, Human Resource, Sun Life Financial.