When the United States and India held the eighth annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit in late 2017 in Hyderabad, it seemed fitting that the theme they chose was ‘Women First, Prosperity for All’. A few months later in Davos, Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director & Chairwoman of the International Monetary Fund, indicated that India could add an additional $800 Billion to its GDP if the representation of women in the workforce reached the same as men.
Discussions around gender parity has moved beyond being one espoused by a fringe driving a feminist agenda to one where the equitable participation of both genders is accepted as one that makes eminent business sense with positive ramifications on macroeconomic growth.
Much has been said about India’s specific cultural challenges in achieving this goal. Without taking away from this reality, let us see how we can infuse true inclusion that can be game-changing for women, business and the country.
Creating a social-business handshake
Interestingly, in the Indian context, studies show an inverse relationship of women workforce participation to economic well-being. That is, women drop off from employment as their household economic conditions improve. A corollary finding is that women’s participation is higher in sectors that are more aligned to society’s expectations of them – such as food, textile, education and retail.
Can we work within this social reality to extend the boundaries beyond constraints? How can business re-invent itself to demystify the complex social system and motivate women to seek access to work and ascend to leadership positions?
Let us look at it as co-creation of sustainable talent in four critical areas of (1) higher participation in quality jobs, (2) better representation in leadership, (3) improved access to technology and (4) transformation of societal attitudes. And when I say co-creation, the partners are women, business, policymakers and broader society.
Higher excellence – in quality and quantity
97 percent of women in low paying work in the informal sector? This is an equation that definitely needs to be changed.
As a nation, we should focus on creating a far higher number of jobs in the formal and organized sector. Better levels of education, attractive work and pay options need to be made accessible. This will go a long way in changing societal norms and perceptions at women’s role as primary caregivers in the home – and reverse the obvious option of women having to give up work in the face of familial obligations.
Organizations will need to look at innovative policies, work options and practices to support this goal. This is not a concession to women employees, but a business-centric approach to attract and retain better talent in greater numbers. Providing both women and men equal freedom to balance home, career and children is essential.
Women, as the main protagonists, have a role too. Keeping oneself skilled and relevant is vital. At the entry level, they need to opt for emerging areas of opportunities. In lateral roles, they need to be aware of where is their area of expertise headed in the future, and equip themselves for it. And for women on the inevitable sabbatical, they need to update themselves – to proactively acquire knowledge and capabilities.
Sustainable path to leadership roles
An analysis of the Key Management Personnel of the BSE 100 companies reveals a rather stark reality. Off the 1040 key management personnel, only 80 of them are women. Starker still, it is less about the glass ceiling than it is about ignoring good practices.
Many women do not look at rising to leadership as holding something of personal significance. Effective role models are needed to discover self-worth in creating a meaningful identity. We need to separate the categories of women who choose not to ascend the ladder of leadership from those who want to but give up – to conform to prevalent norms.
Organizations must have gender-diverse leadership that act as role models for women professionals. Additionally, they need to creatively rewrite performance models that do not unreasonably demand women to be constantly available and geographically mobile. Pay parity needs to be enforced, and policies towards career development need to motivate women to make pro-work choices.
Successful women leaders must step beyond personal success to motivate women to overcome obsolete thought-conditioning towards work, especially in male-dominated areas. The individual woman, on the other hand, needs to be more self-aware and honest to herself about her aspirations. Only then can she rise to being firm and open-minded to receive inspiration from role models who take out time and effort to enable them.
Technology – a friend to embrace
Technology can unleash huge economic benefits for women. It can promote entrepreneurship and minimize, if not eliminate, significant work barriers. Extended networks and reach to diverse markets are opened for opportunities in e-commerce and the gig economy. And digital banking can provide an equitable playing field for women to access financial services.
Women need to overcome their technology-shyness and learn what it takes to understand and leverage emerging digital trends to make them smarter, more efficient and effective. This will accelerate progress of parity.
The business transformation of societal attitudes
Success breeds respect. When organizations and individual women work towards inclusive success, a fair number of myths that grip societal attitudes towards women are busted. No longer will it be seen more important for boys than girls to have university education – nor will women be excluded from STEM-related jobs. When women are paid on par with men, they will not need to bear the cross of having to give up work for home care. Importantly, it will minimize harassment and violence against women, who will no longer be seen as lower in the balance of power.
In the last decade. India has made significant advances towards gender parity – such as better access for education, declining maternal mortality, legal protection in the workplace, financial inclusion and open access to entrepreneurship loans, etc. It is now time to step up investments and public spending on better skilling programs, improved commuting infrastructure, better childcare facilities, and more effective legal protections at the workplace.
Gender parity at work is easier espoused than achieved. But when it becomes a co-created mission of business and society, it elevates integration and inclusivity to fulfilling levels of equitable success – for the corporate and the country.