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Innovative Steps Toward Gender Equality

How corporate programs and policies are overcoming India's entrenched cultural obstacles

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

By Nitya Bodavala and Nupur Pavan Bang

Research has shown that women make or influence 80% of consumption decisions and account for (U.S.) $20 trillion of consumption expenditure. It would make sense for companies to get this fairly large demographic on their side.

Unfortunately, in India, the participation of women in the workforce has been declining due to a deep-rooted patriarchal mindset and culture that results in large gender-based disparities at all levels; pay, availability of opportunities, and household chores being just a few. However, there are a few companies in India that are rising above the mindset and adopting innovative ways to make the workplace more inclusive. We discuss a few such initiatives in this article.

Leadership Programs

There is a tendency for women with high potential to stray from the leadership track mid-career. There could be a multitude of reasons, but companies should be able to recognize this and do what they can to retain these talented women. A leadership program that aids female employees in developing competencies that ready them for leadership roles is one way to go about it.

Leadership programs tend to provide networking opportunities, classroom learning, mentors and coaches for personal development and guidance, etc. This kind of personalized attention, and the knowledge that the company they are working for is rooting for their success, acts as a huge motivating factor.

In 2016, the Mahindra Group launched its Women Leaders Programme (WLP). It aims to bridge the gender gap and help female employees in middle management. It spans 18 months and “aims to create a pipeline of female leaders and change agents for the Mahindra Group.” So far, 54 women managers have been trained through the WLP. Tech Mahindra's efforts to be more gender inclusive have been recognized by the 2018 AVTAR and Working Mother Best Companies for Women in India.

While Mahindra's WLP targets women in middle management roles, Bank of America targets those at the vice president level. Of the bank's management and executive positions, 46% are held by women. Its “Pathway to Progression” aims to increase retention and engagement and accelerate the women's advancement. In 2016 and 2017, 172 women participated, of whom one-third have been promoted.

The bank also has two female-specific insight programs, “Female Futures” and “Females in Finance.”

All-Women Teams

At first glance, an all-women team seems regressive. However, it makes it easier for companies to streamline a process that has the best outcome for women. It also makes it easier to monitor their progress and development.

Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, while taking stock of the ratio of men and women in each division, found a lack of women in the sales and marketing divisions. In 2016, they started SHE, or Special Hospital Executive, a sales force that consists mainly of women looking to re-start their careers. The company altered the work requirement of a regular medical representative to better suit these women. As opposed to having to visit 10-12 doctors a day at various medical institutes, these women form a lasting relationship with one institute. This also implies shorter working hours and less travel.

The initiative has been beneficial in that the company now has a presence in 25 medical institutes that were previously unexplored. The sales force also allows for penetration into those medical colleges that are girls-only. While there are currently 100 SHEs spread across three divisions, the company is hoping to increase these numbers.

Bajaj Allianz General Insurance has introduced all-women branches in 19 cities across India. They also recognize the difficulties associated with women trying to re-enter the workforce after a break and are seeking to make it as easy as possible. Women can bring their kids to work, have laundry and groceries delivered to the workplace, have flexible hours and the option to work from home.

Women in Manufacturing

The paucity of women in manufacturing is old news. The steps that some companies are taking to remedy this, however, are new and innovative.

Bajaj Auto has set up women-only assembly lines at its Pantnagar and Chakan plants. The number of women working on the shop floor has increased from 148 in 2013-14 to 355 in 2017-18.

At Dr. Reddy's, new roles in warehousing, research and development and process engineering that were previously unavailable to women, were made available to them in 2016. In addition, women were hired at all levels - entry, middle, and senior - and their families were invited for plant visits to inspire confidence about the safety of working there. The company found that the number of women in these roles grew, and there were fewer resignations post-maternity. Dr. Reddy's was the only Indian company to feature in Bloomberg's Gender Equality Index for 2018 and topped the list of 200 companies that were a part of the “Diversity in Corporate Asia” report by Carnstone.

Aside from WLP, the Mahindra Group also aims to break down barriers in the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) field through Project SuryaShakthi. As part of this corporate social responsibility project, women are trained to be solar technicians who can then install solar panels. They undergo three months of training, in the classroom and on-site, which includes financial and computer literacy, self-defense classes, and entrepreneurship skills. The growth in the solar industry, coupled with the concept of all-women installation teams, will undoubtedly contribute to change in how working women are perceived.

Knowing Your Employees

There can be no blanket policy that works for all companies and all employees; policies have to be tailor-made. To attempt to understand an employee's needs, companies could carry out studies and surveys that will help them with policy-making and ultimately yield satisfied and productive workers.

Every year, Accenture produces a “Getting to Equal” report. The 2018 report surveyed 22,000 working professionals in 32 countries in an attempt to identify factors that could affect the culture of a workplace, and further affect gender balance. The report focused on 40 factors that, if put into common practice, would increase the average number of female managers for every 100 male managers from 34 to 84. There could also be an increase in women's pay by 51%. Some of these factors are:

- The organization clearly states gender pay-gap goals and ambitions

- Leadership is held accountable for improving gender diversity

- The company has a women's network, which is open to men

- Women are encouraged to take maternity leave

- Leaders take action to get more women into senior roles

Embracing Motherhood

Forty-three percent of mothers choose to leave their jobs after having a child. Rather than look at motherhood as an inconvenience, companies should attempt to embrace motherhood and provide a supportive environment for their employees. They might also want to consider the cost involved with on-boarding and training new employees, versus spending a little more to keep the ones that they have happy.

NestlÉ India offers 26 weeks of maternity leave with full benefits and leaves it to the discretion of the employee as to when she'd like to avail it. Upon returning, she is assured the same position or one of equal standing. All permanent female employees are allowed six weeks of adoption leave.

The company also allows for mothers to breastfeed at work. All facilities that have upward of 50 women are equipped with separate rooms for breastfeeding in private. The “Start Healthy Stay Healthy” campaign provides guidance to new and expectant mothers.

Incentivizing Inclusion

As of 2015, 79% of Pinterest's workforce was male, the majority white or Asian. The company had found that referrals were the best way to get to new talent, but employees had a tendency to refer candidates whom they identified with, that is, people similar to them. Pinterest challenged its employees to refer people from diverse, under-represented backgrounds. This was good news for women - female referrals increased 24% - as well as those from minority communities.

In 2017 the company's tech division was 29% women, the business division 62%, and in the workforce overall, women were 45%. For every open leadership position, the company has mandated that at least one woman be interviewed. Unconscious-bias training is a priority for employees and managers alike.

Conclusion

Accounting for and implementing policies that maximize the productivity of women at the workplace is not an impossible task, nor is it one that eats away at profits. McKinsey and Co.'s recent study on business and diversity found that companies in the top quartile for gender equality were 21% more likely to attain above-average profitability. For a company, the difference between above-average profit and average profit can be quite large, and the cost of inclusive policies fairly small.

Nupur Pavan Bang (npbang@gmail.com) is associate director, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business. Nitya Bodavala is a student of anthropology.




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