Women Leaders in Operations – Breaking the Gender Inequality Impasse in India

Learnings from successful women leaders

In India, few women have broken the glass ceiling in the traditional male world of operations. Why?

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.

"The fact that corporations with women leaders post significantly better results, are higher on ROI and have lower debt/equity ratios should make companies blindly put their money in grooming women leaders and bringing more women on board."

Harshbeena Zaveri, NRB Bearings, Vice Chairman & Managing Director

Gender diversity is now on the radar of every leader and board member, and organizations are making genuine efforts to improve the representation of women through various interventions. In India, one area where women continue to lag men is in operational roles within the industrial and manufacturing sectors. According to the 2018 Periodic Labour Force Survey, only 25 percent of all female employees in India work in the manufacturing and industrial sector. The ratio drops further when one looks at women in technical roles. This stands in contrast to women’s progress in these roles in other countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and the US, where we witness a higher female ratio in operational roles right from the entry level. In our discussions with many organizations in India, this continues to be a problem that eludes quick solutions.

Commonly-offered reasons for why women operations leaders are so rare in capital-intensive sectors are often outdated or narrow, but nonetheless pervasive. Women looking to enter these sectors or roles may hear claims that “the nature of the work is not conducive to women,” or that it is a “male domain” because “it requires heavy lifting.” This is further amplified by the narrative that the remote locations for many entry-level roles are not appropriate for women because of security concerns or lack of opportunities for their spouses. In some cases, organizations lack the necessary maturity in their human resources organizations and leadership tracking mechanisms to successfully identify and groom female leaders.

While the needle has moved over the past two decades and more women today serve in hands-on technical or operations roles than in past decades, pushing past stereotypes and finding good role models remains a critical challenge. Building a truly diverse workforce demands a long-term view and commitment from leadership.

With a view to help organizations improve gender diversity in senior operational roles, we interviewed seven successful women operations leaders to better understand the challenges they have faced and what have they done differently to achieve success. These interviews integrate viewpoints from female leaders at both large-scale listed public companies and private sector organizations, as well as those from MNCs operating in India, the Indian diaspora, and promoters.

Female leaders share their journeys, struggles & inspirations

"My mother encouraged her daughters to be financially independent and my father, a serial entrepreneur, had a high tolerance for risk. These, I believe, were the primary influences that shaped my dreams and goals. But there were also many teachers throughout the years who inspired me to enjoy my studies and focus on my academics.
I ended up in this industry somewhat accidentally - Intel was the only game in town! I felt my opportunities would be limited. However, the factories needed automation and information technology was highly sought after at the time. I went on to lead teams to implement all dimensions of manufacturing IT across several locations and technologies.
Early on, I taught myself to assert and to hold my own. I adopted a boldness that at first felt unfamiliar. But soon, I began to relish the plainspoken, results-with-minimum-fuss approach. Through the course of my career, I have not felt handicapped by my gender. Mostly, I have found my peers and seniors to be gender-agnostic."

Kumud Srinivasan
Intel, Director of Non-volatile Memory Fab Manufacturing & Automation Systems

"I was the youngest of four daughters; credit goes to my parents for encouraging us to pursue our dreams. I never planned on making a career in the power sector. I was fascinated by Kiran Bedi as a child, uninhibited and fearless. I was one of just five girls in my batch pursuing engineering and was offered an assistant professor role at the college, but I was keen on joining the industry.
After I married, my husband was equally supportive. I received an opportunity to spend six weeks abroad when my younger daughter was only a year old. My strong support system gave me the confidence to take it up. I knew if I want to create a name for myself in the male-dominated power sector, I would have to work extra hard. I rotated across departments and built a reputation for delivering on tight deadlines and tough assignments."

Seema Gupta
Power Grid, Director Operations & Board Member

"Growing up in Haryana, I never had a female role model. I left home when I was 17 to pursue engineering, where the ratio of girls to boys was 1:9. Those four years taught me independence and decisiveness. To differentiate myself, I opted for an MBA in operations from NITIE, where I was one of three women in a batch of ~100.
Joining Castrol was a defining moment. I spent a lot of time in warehouses dealing with transporters. My then-manager offered me a plant head role, despite me never having worked in manufacturing. He saw the potential and leadership capability in me to do this critical role. I was the only woman at the site and had enormous shoes to fill from my predecessor. It was an uphill but rewarding journey, from changing my wardrobe to asking the company to create basic infrastructure such as a ladies’ washroom. I learned how to work with shop floor staff and built credibility one day at a time. When I moved on to my next role, some of the shop floor executives expressed their surprise that I had survived two full years!"

Himani Kanwal
J&J, Director Supply Chain - Medical Devices, Middle East

"I never joined NRB Bearings with an intention to stay; my heart was in law. My father really wanted me to be his successor. So with the odds stacked against me – lacking an engineering degree, being one of the first women in the organization – I started as an apprentice and spent two years on the shop floor to understand the business and followed the company’s progression for professionals to prove myself. In fact, like many other women, I had to demonstrate results at a much higher standard than my male peers to move up in the organization. I feel that was the reason I learned to strive and work so diligently. The success of the R&D centre I built was a crucial moment for me. Nobody, from my family to the board, believed in the idea. However, I was confident that it was a necessary move for us to remain disruptive in the industry. The inspiration for this came from my son. I constantly take my work home, share my business problems with the family and we try and solve it together. My family has been my most loyal and passionate supporters."

Harshbeena Zaveri
NRB Bearings, Vice Chairman & Managing Director

"I come from a middle-class Maharashtrian family. However, as a I look back, my siblings and I were never brought up in a traditional manner. Expectations from my brother and I were similar, and my parents pushed us to excel in sports in addition to academics. When I joined Tata Power, I was the third female management trainee in the organization. I was always treated as an equal, and the company rewarded all people who worked hard and delivered. Also, I never played the gender card to receive the flexibility I sought. Having worked on power projects in the most remote locations across the country, where sometimes I was the only woman on site, has taught me a lot in life. Family support is instrumental in ensuring success as a woman in such demanding roles. However, women also have to be brave to succeed against the odds."

Anjali Kulkarni
Board Member, Tata Consulting Engineers (Former Chief Engineering Tata Power)

"I had no particular idol growing up, so I drew my inspiration and learnings from various people & situations – which varied from the leadership skills of Indra Nooyi and Sheryl Sandberg to those of my house help, who worked tirelessly to support the education of her three daughters.
In my professional life, I was never afraid of asking for a larger role or bigger responsibility. A senior leader took a leap of faith a