The end of last year spelled the beginning of a new era: It marked the coming of age of the financial services industry when Vijayalakshmi Iyer and Shubhalakshmi Panse were appointed the CMDs of Bank of India and Allahabad Bank respectively. Around the same time, at the other end of the job spectrum, R Savitha joined the public transport system in Bangalore as a bus conductor, a sector where women’s presence is yet to scale up.
The women aren’t your typical trailblazers; several before them have taken the road less travelled. But each has had to deal, in her own way, with the glass ceiling — a euphemism for bias against women in the workforce.
While the women’s movement has helped many take long strides over the years, we’re still falling short. We are yet to reach a stage where the male-to-female ratio in organisations shifts to 20:80, says Aparna Kumar, senior vice-president of a leading private sector bank.
Even for executive programmes, the number of woman applicants is quite low, says Meher Afroz, general manager, Microsoft. “Only 10% of our class comprised women when I did the postgraduate programme in management for senior executives at the Indian School of Business. Since such a programme is only for people who have a work experience of 14 years, there might not be many women at that level who are willing to take a break and pursue a course.”
A survey, the results of which were released by consulting firm Booz & Company in 2012-end, confirmed our worst suspicions: It ranked India a poor 115 out of 128 countries in terms of economic empowerment of women.
Take Savitha’s case, for example. “The job entails standing for long hours in crowded buses, trying to push my way through male passengers, some of whom can be nasty,” she says. Her male peers have to go through the same rigmarole, but they don’t have to deal with “unwanted attention” from passengers.
In the corporate world, the methods of exclusion are more subtle, explains Srimathi Shivashankar, associate vice-president (diversity and sustainability), HCL Technologies. Key decisions are sometimes made during ‘smoke breaks’, which several women may not attend. “If you are the only woman in a conference room and you feel that your views are not really being considered, this implies subtle exclusion,” says Shivashankar.
The concept of the old boys’ club is all-pervasive, says Kanchana TK, director, corporate and public affairs, philanthropy, at pharmaceutical firm Bristol-Myers Squibb India. “During promotions, they tend to recommend people who think alike. There is a perception that women cannot be policymakers.”
Then, of course, is the bias against women who resume work there after maternity leave or personal breaks. “Battle your internal fears when you return after a sabbatical,” warns Kumar. Shivashankar advises women to keep in touch with their skills during a sabbatical.
Dealing with ‘guilt’
Working women have another inner demon to tackle. They are often put on a guilt trip when they are forced to leave family after maternity leave or are put on night shifts or have to travel for work. “If a man needs to work late or has to travel regularly, no questions are raised. Working women’s needs should be measured by the same yardstick,” says Kumar.
Experts advise taking inspiration from woman milk vendors who leave their homes at the break of dawn, or woman housekeeping staff, who also work night shifts.
The concept of working from home is yet to take off in India. “A flexible arrangement will benefit many women,” says Afroz.
Can we have it all?
Stop claiming to be a multitasker, says Kanchana. “It’s impossible to be perfect at everything at once. Sequential tasking instead allows one to prioritise and be uni-focused.”
Work to make a long-term career out of your job. Remember that at workplaces, only merit counts, says Kumar. “Be ambitious. Re-invent yourself repeatedly. Hope to find a good mentor,” advises Afroz.
Brace yourself for both good and bad days at the workplace. “Tackle difficulties rather than quitting the job,” adds Kumar.
Despite all, the progress women are making in their jobs on a daily basis is quite significant, she says. And it shows. Almost 5.5 million women enter the Indian workforce each year.