India Inc. celebrated a second independence day in 1991, as laissez-faire reforms opened the markets and drove an unprecedented number of people into the workforce. Over the past three decades, India’s GDP has grown over 30 times driven by a rise in per-capita income. The entry of women into the workforce—spurred by new opportunities in education and corporate world—has played a major role in driving this growth. During this time, women have made their mark across myriad sectors, including banking and financial services, technology, pharmaceuticals, and media. In 2020, India celebrated the selection of a female Air Force Pilot to fly the state-of-the-art Rafale fighter aircrafts.
While there have been many victories, the ratio of women joining the workforce has slipped from 32 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2019, even as the female literacy rate has climbed to 70 percent. A key factor in this decline is the difficulty many face in translating academic excellence into corporate success. Reports from the Central Board of Secondary Education show that girls have been outperforming boys in 10th and 12th level examinations for years, with a pass percentage that is consistently 8 to 12 percent higher than their male classmates. Additionally, the proportion of females pursuing higher education has increased by 40 percent since 2005. However, when it comes to the corporate world, they have over two decades of catching up to do. An anecdotal but pervasive belief among women is that while schools and colleges provide an unbiased environment, they have found they must work harder than their male counterparts to achieve the same level of success in the corporate world. Further, there is a widespread view that women in the workplace are thought to be more execution–oriented than strategically focused. As such, women are less likely to serve in leadership roles requiring strategic and organization-wide decisions at the highest level. Therefore it is not surprising that the percentage of female managing directors and CEOs of NSE-listed companies has increased only marginally between 2014 and 2019, from 3.2 percent to 3.6 percent. According to the Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation, the ratio of women engaged in managerial positions of listed companies in India is just 90 per 1000 people.
Women in India are viewed as playing a critical role in building our society, but mainly as mothers. Since they are assumed to be the primary care-givers at home, it is often difficult for them to carve out a career for themselves when familial responsibilities increase. While many women welcome this care-giving role, they also acknowledge that it carries a cost; almost always demanding a tempering of career ambitions, if not a complete sacrifice.
As sustainability and inclusion become increasingly critical focus areas for many organizations, leaders must begin to think more creatively about their strategic imperative to achieve more gender-diverse workforces. According to the latest Economic Survey, 60 percent of females aged 15 to 59 years were attending to domestic duty only and were not part of the paid workforce. To make meaningful gains, organizations will have to offer women a wider variety of opportunities and flexibility, and most notably, help them sustain their career momentum so that they are not waylaid by the family responsibilities expected of a woman in India.