in her shoes

Tags: News

Social attitudes and family obligations place limits on women’s professional mobility

in her shoes
In a surreal way, Facebook could have done more for empowering women than companies. It is not uncommon to see a long-lost female friend’s face popping out of its posts – most likely on the East or the West coast of America – with harmless one-liners like “My cute tomato plant just bore fruit! Yay!” There is a good chance that the plant in question is a pathetic little sapling, on its last legs for want of nourishment in her 10th-floor apartment balcony.

But that is missing the point. The plethora of likes and accolades that follow the tomato post barely conceal a sordid little drama playing out in the background – the spectre of joblessness. Could presence on Facebook be a sign that the woman, and many like her, is at a loose end?

Typically, these are women in their 20s who have followed their husbands to the USA, on a dependent visa, which limits their career options. Add a child and childcare in an unknown land and a brilliant career could have been nipped in the bud.

Back home, a vast majority of women face similar dilemmas after shifting cities for the sake of marriage and going through childbirth. While women form a significant chunk of employees at the entry level, their numbers dwindle up the ladder.

Says Sanjay Modi, managing director (India/ West Asia/Southeast Asia/Hong Kong) at Monster: “In India, marital status can be cited as a reason for lack of opportunities and growth avenues for the female gender. With prevailing socio-cultural mindsets, women often prefer or are compelled to take up part-time jobs because they are expected to fulfill their primary responsibility of taking care of the house and children.”

The hiring agency did a survey on the salary scales in the IT industry in India, a sector that hires large number of women. Even there, women constitute only 30 per cent of the total workforce and their salaries on an average were found to be at least 29 per cent lesser than their male counterparts.

The Monster report also states that an employee’s tenure with an organisation is a compelling factor that determines the salary structure. More experienced workers are paid better than less experienced ones. On an average, an employee with less than three years of experience gets Rs 142.97 per hour and those with more than 10 years get Rs 625.55 per hour. Which is a general thumb rule across genders, but it is here that women, who have started to get active in the IT sector only recently and are also likely to find it harder to accumulate tenure due to family obligations, lose out.

Re-entry to the job market is difficult for them and when it does happen, they are often paid less. “With more career breaks in their job history, their negotiating capacity declines. Hence, men with similar experience earn higher salary as compared with women,” adds Modi. It is what you may call a lose-lose situation.

In addition to family obligations, social prejudices also keep women away from joining the workforce. A woman’s career is invariably linked to the financial strength of her family. The lower strata of society, for example, have always had their women in the workforce – in sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, domestic help, construction and teaching – which are powered by financial compulsions. The middle and upper classes, on the other hand, do not prefer their womenfolk to work.

Sadly even structured working in the organised sector that does not differentiate between the genders based on their commitments has not been able to accommodate women.

Other social prejudices associate women with only certain kinds of jobs — front office, secretarial work, HR and teaching, as they ensure gender safety. While men agreeably dominate the job market that requires physical stamina, they also supersede in decision-making roles, as women are generally not considered ‘suitable’.

There is another view. Given the premise, women also don’t seem to exhibit confidence in their leadership skills, says Andrew Warren Smith, managing director of India and director of Affiliate Operations at DDI, a global talent management company. “We don’t see any significant difference between men and women when it comes to leadership skills or ability to handle management and business challenges. Yet, women remain under-represented at higher levels of leadership. What explains this imbalance? One of the few significant differences between the sexes is the level of confidence. Men consider themselves more effective as leaders. This self-confidence is reflected in how highly they rate their leadership skills and ability to tackle management and business challenges. Women, on the other hand, are less likely to rate themselves as highly effective leaders compared with their peers, to have completed international assignments, to lead across geographies or countries, and most significantly, to lead geographically dispersed teams (a big opportunity gap),” Smith explains.

Missing out in key developmental opportunities makes a difference; leaders with access to these global and more visible leadership experiences are far more likely to be promoted and to advance more rapidly in their organisations. These gaps are worth noting and addressing. Encouraging gender diversity in leadership pool means greater diversity of thought, which, in turn, leads to improved problem solving and greater business benefits.

A DDI study underlines what gender diversity can achieve. It has paid off for organisations where women hold 30 to 40 per cent of leadership roles. Organisations in the top 20 per cent bracket of financial performers counted 37 per cent of their leaders as women; while among organisations at the bottom 20 per cent, women held only 19 per cent of leadership roles, the study concluded.

The same trend emerges in the percentage of leaders who were high-potential women: among organisations in the top 20 per cent league, a statistically significant 28 per cent of leadership constituted high-potential women.

Says Chandan Chowdhury, managing director, India, at Dassault Systèmes: “In all my years at work, I have found that employees with higher potential have always been women. However, they don’t seem to progress as fast as men due to their familial responsibilities. We now encourage our teams to have more women for the sake of diversity and higher efficiency.”

Despite the pros, the missing piece is the means to accommodate the fairer sex by providing flexibility at work. Pregnancy and childcare are major reasons why women drop out from work. The customary three-month maternity break does not meet women’s requirements. A healthy baby requires at least six months of exclusive breastfeeding. A three-month break does not serve the purpose, as women have to stop feeding at least one month in advance before joining work to get the infant used to alternative food. In essence, the child gets only two months of the healthiest food on earth and loses the precious bond with its mother. The mother, more often than not, ends up feeling guilty and is pushed to quit.

Some companies have started to realise these constraints and are providing flexible hours along with childcare options at workplaces. Organisations have started to go one step further and are reassigning women to work that are less demanding during their initial mothering months.

Says BVR Mohan Reddy, founder and executive chairman of Cyient: “We offer six-hour work days exclusively for women with childcare needs. Moreover, we try to accommodate them with work that provides them the right flexibility.”

Companies like Yahoo are even more progressive. Their chief executive officer Marissa Meyer delivered immediately after joining Yahoo from Google and she understands the pains women go through while balancing work and family.

The company has recently rolled out improved benefits to support the happiness and well being of Yahoo employees and their families. The ‘new child daily habits’ programme at Yahoo helps ease the day-to-day challenges of being a new parent by providing reimbursement for essential services to support employees and their newborn. The programme includes five basic services used within 15 days after the birth/ adoption of a child such as dry cleaning/ laundry, housecleaning, groceries, cooking/food delivery/take-out and babysitter/child care/nanny services.

Employees also get longer new child leave — new mothers can now take up to 16 weeks of paid leave while new daddies can get as much as eight weeks, says Hari Vasudev, vice-president and head of Yahoo India R&D. The Internet major also has a day care facility at its Bangalore campus.

These facilities seem ideal but they also add up to cost of operations. When companies are battling shrinking bottom lines, can we expect them to offer incentives to women?

“It is better to do it than break your head with high attrition rates,” says Sangeetha Gupta, senior vice-president for research, events and communications at Nasscom. Attrition is anyway hitting companies hard; accommodating existing employees would work out to be much cheaper than recruiting fresh ones and training them to meet requirements, she adds.

The industry body has also introduced the ‘girls in technology’ (GIT) programme to evangelise the women entrepreneur landscape in India. Aimed at encouraging and promoting women entrepreneurs, this initiative aims to bring more girls into the technology ecosystem by conducting technical workshops, tech talks and hackathons.

In 2013, Nasscom launched the 10,000 startups programme for incubating, funding and supporting 10,000 technology startups in India over the next 10 years. To encourage women in the country to become entrepreneurs, the programme recently organised a workshop on GIT Version Control in partnership with Thought Works and Google Developers Group; they received responses from over 40 women entrepreneurs.

In the coming months, Nasscom plans to organise various workshops on HTML5 coding, Python, Ruby and other technical topics that require continuous guidance and mentorship. These workshops will serve as platforms for knowledge sharing and bring together diverse women teams, enabling them to take better decisions, achieve higher ROIs (return on investment) and greater IPOs.

Says Sangeetha Gupta, “Women have always been a significant part of the Indian IT-BPM industry. With the launch of the GIT initiative, we hope to inspire more women to join the tech community, utilise their creative technical expertise and encourage them to join other active women leaders in creating unique solutions and technologies. We are also organising an event called ‘tech makers’ in partnership with Google to sustain the momentum on empowering startups and have already received great response from women entrepreneurs across different cities in India.”

Another way of accommodating women is to provide training and mentorship after a career break. Very few organisations — only the likes of Tata group — have a structured programme for women who return to join workforce after a break. The Tatas run a round-the-year second career internship programme for women and bring them onboard after the necessary reskilling – in some cases after up to eight years of service break.

“Mentorship would go a long way in bringing more women back to the workforce,” says Sangita Reddy, joint managing director of Apollo Hospitals. Reskilling is necessary so that women tune themselves up to the new job’s requirements.

But it is not always a question of gender bias. Women should also do their part in equipping themselves during a career break. Nobody – man or woman – can expect to compete on an equal footing with other employees after a career break. Aligning with industry requirements is mandatory, says R Chandrasekhar, president of Nasscom.

Women have a responsibility towards their lives and their careers, which they sometimes may not realise. Being in a relationship and running a family does not have to result in complete emotional and financial dependence on the partner. Depending on another person for survival is not advisable for anyone, be it man or woman.

Beyond money, every human being has an inherent need to be recognised for his/her deeds. A career would help to meet all the emotional and financial needs and also create a social circle outside the family. If women don’t pay attention and take steps to upgrade themselves, they may well have to be content with Facebook for being the only avenue to prove their worth — giving them their only ‘wall of fame.’

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