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New vistas for working women in India's IT industry.

29 December 2008

Monideepa Sahu

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By 2010 60% of graduates across Asia, America and Europe will be women. At its third annual IT Women Leadership Summit held recently in Bangalore, India’s premier trade body NASSCOM declared that workplace diversity and gender inclusion is a business imperative today.

In today’s rapidly changing world, economic power is shifting from the established G7 economies towards the emerging economies, the so-called E7 of China, India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey. In tandem with this economic change, enormous social transformations are taking place. We are moving into a future of labour shortages, skills gaps and a world in which the educational and economic empowerment of women will become increasingly significant.

These major upheavals challenging society, and the widely perceived need to tap the creativity and skills of women, were addressed by NASSCOM, premier trade body and the “voice” of the Indian IT industry, in its third annual IT Women Leadership Summit in Bangalore. This year’s summit (November 19-20, 2008) was aptly themed ‘Transforming Enterprises and Societies’.

Why is greater representation of women at the workplace vital today?

Som Mittal, President, NASSCOM, holds that gender inclusivity is a must for the long-term success of industry. “India will play a key role in future transformation… Women are a key and vital part of our workforce, and industry will continue to work towards creating a conducive environment and attract more women employees and leaders.” Workplace diversity in industry gives it a leading edge in the marketplace, and is therefore of even greater importance in these times of economic recession and slowdown. Gender inclusivity is no longer corporate social responsibility but a business imperative.

Cleo Thompson, Gender Advisory Council, Global HC, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, observes that in 2010, 60% of graduates across America, Asia and Europe will be women. Placing this huge pool of talented women in leadership roles will improve the return of investor capital, the quality of the end product, and the corporate bottom line. Harnessing the power of talented women “will pave the way for future generations”.

N Krishnakumar, CEO, MindTree Ltd, believes that “building business is not just a man’s job. Women helped build up MindTree” as a force to reckon with globally. It is wrong to think that transformation can be effected by men alone. He cites the case of Xerox, where an all-women top management team recently collaborated to transform the company.

Ambitions are changing in today’s world. Educated women are now coming in larger numbers from tier II cities and smaller towns across India. These women, with their personal drive, integrity and capacity to manage conflict positively, can build value for stakeholders in a business enterprise. Employing women, in the words of N Krishnakumar, is a “smart business decision”. Women should not expect concessions but demand their rights as valuable contributors to enterprise, he feels.

Shankar Annaswamy, Managing Director, IBM India, believes that business innovations will make the key difference in surviving the impending financial tsunami. “We are way behind the rest of the world,” says Pramod Bhasin, President and CEO, Genpact. The talent pool of qualified women professionals must be effectively tapped to strengthen industry and the economy. In India, only about 25% of the business leadership is comprised of women. In China, on the other hand, women comprise nearly 60% of the business leadership. “The glass ceiling exists. We have to break it visibly and rock the boat to make things change.”

Women as innovators bring value to enterprise in a rapidly changing world

“True innovation is not about commanding, but getting people to feel comfortable about change,” says Sharad Sharma, CEO (R&D) Yahoo India. Today, metaphors for leadership are changing. With more information available than ever before, today’s business leaders can no longer claim access to privileged information. Today’s business leader is like a masterful coach coaxing the best performance from an average team. The role of an enlightened parent may perhaps be the future metaphor for leadership. The leader should not instruct, but engage the hearts and minds of the team; draw out their passion and leverage their strengths.

Women have a natural adaptability and capacity for change. Today, talent is only a good starting point. You need to make something out of that talent. It takes study and persistence to build skills and then become an expert and adaptive change agent. Women may have this natural ability but they need to be motivated and build a positive self-image, says Sharma. “Faith in oneself is a major turning point for innovation and change.”

Nancy Thomas, Vice-President, IBM Global Business Services, holds that diversity of background and ideas are key drivers of innovation. Stereotypes such as the glass ceiling are barriers to innovation. In today’s business environment, innovation is of great importance and is much more than a product offering. Today, the rest of the world, and mature markets, are eager to hear about growth countries such as India and of the innovations that drive this growth. Acknowledging the value and potential of women as innovators, IBM encourages more women to earn patents on processes they have formulated.

Women are traditionally stereotyped as collaborative consensus-builders ready to take the backseat. Nancy Thomas urges women to “learn when to stop consensus-building and make decisions for the team. Building credibility and authority is vital for leadership. Cultural factors do restrain women. But the real glass ceiling is the one we put upon ourselves. We women are our own barriers. Women must hone their capacity to handle opportunities and embrace them”.

Accenture undertook research for One Step Ahead of 2011: A New Horizon for Working Women to gain a better understanding of how prepared women and men feel to meet the challenges of the multi-polar world, a phenomenon in which traditional centres of economic power are being dispersed more widely around the globe. For this study, 4,100 business professionals from medium to large organisations in 17 countries were surveyed online between December 2007 and January 2008.

The study found some striking differences among individual countries. Professionals of both genders in several key emerging markets were more likely to say they felt equipped than were their counterparts in developed markets. The majority of respondents in India, China and Brazil -- 70%, 68% and 58% respectively -- said they felt equipped to succeed in the global business world of 2011. On the other hand, respondents in the UK and France were least likely to say they felt equipped (29% and 24% respectively). This would imply that employees in the traditional powerhouse economies will have to contend with significant gaps in skills readiness if they are to match the confident outlook of their peers in up-and-coming economies.

This study also found that overall, women ascribe greater importance to and indicate greater readiness for a number of key skill areas than men do. Specifically, they express a heightened propensity to cultivate skills related to inclusion and diversity, social responsibility and global skills. According to the report, technology is the skill that women overall deem most important to success in the future, and the one they are most willing to embrace as an enabler of new business models.

“The current economic crisis shows how interconnected we are,” says Rekha M Menon, Executive Vice-President, Accenture India. “Innovation can come from anywhere. Our study shows that women in emerging markets report better readiness to face the future.” Gender diversity influences organisational effectiveness. Corporates with more women in top leadership clearly can face changes and innovate, and therefore perform better. Yet, women are clearly behind in certain key areas of effectiveness at the workplace. Accenture globally encourages women to hold patents for their innovations, Menon adds, as one of the many ways to encourage and nurture the talents of women.

NASSCOM-Mercer study on women in IT and BPO

This six-week study of 40 organisations, with special emphasis on technology shows, in the words of Padma Ravichander, MD, Mercer (India), that “we are travelling beyond inclusivity towards empowerment”. The report shows how gender inclusivity has its own rewards for an enterprise. Adequate representation of women in the workforce enhances creativity, productivity and the ability to manage change.

The study also shows the difference between doing, and doing enough. 2007 statistics show attrition in women to be lower than among men: 17% vis-à-vis 19%.

The study shows the paradox of more women being recruited at the entry level, but fewer remaining in the workforce and progressing towards the top positions.

There is a talent leakage in middle management levels among women in their thirties. Marriage, family, children, relocation and other personal reasons diminish women’s ability to reach the top.

Support systems are required for women at work. Current measures such as crèches, flexi-time, refresher programmes, orientation on company policies only scratch the surface of the real problems.

However, there is increased awareness of the contribution of women and the need to nurture their talent at the workplace. Leadership paradigms are changing in the 21st century.

The full report will be released in December 2008.

What keeps women from reaching the top in greater numbers?

Organisations, while they track numbers, should also try to discover the root of the problem. Formal mentoring is required at every level and future champions need to be identified and nurtured. Women need to strike a balance between their family and work life. There is a greater need for society and the family to accept and tolerate the successes and careers of women.

Women are the first to dwell on their own failures, says Padma Ravichander. She advises women not to hold back but to take a look at the situation with a fresh perspective. Women must not regress and give up. Women, post-motherhood, have tremendous insecurity when they return to the workforce. They constantly wonder whether they will be able to cope with the changes that have taken place during their absence. Coaching and mentoring can be of great help. Companies like Infosys encourage employees to take on external mentors, a measure that can further broaden the horizons of the mentee.

Corporates can address the issue of equity and fairness among employees by targeting numerous forms of care -- childcare centres, family childcare, school-age and backup programmes, and eldercare services.

Employers can ensure that programmes meet the dual needs of employers and communities by building on the existing dependent care infrastructure.

Today’s business leaders should take more interest in the probable outcome of current policies a few years down the line. They should recognise what impacts the future, and plan ahead accordingly.

Proper policies and practices can create the climate for positive change

“Leaders must make inclusivity a winning game,” says Hema Ravichandar, Strategic HR Advisor. “Writing policy is the easiest part. Leaders can make a huge difference by not allowing sceptics to rule. They must lead the organisation into taking that all-important leap of faith.”

“Policies are not ends in themselves,” says V Lakshmikanth, MD, Broadridge Financial Solutions (India). Leadership is not about men versus women. Everyone has policies on maternity, daycare, etc. Broadridge employs 4,500 people worldwide, out of which 800 are in India. Speaking from a small company perspective, V Lakshmikanth holds that company policies should be bold decisions, with respect for the work-life balance of all associates. “Each individual is the key to making policy changes happen. Within our own company, we stress upon teamwork, and tailor training and mentoring programmes to the needs of each individual.” In Broadridge every associate is encouraged to look at the company’s global vision and understand his contribution to the greater whole. Transparency, openness and constructive feedback are important for the senior management. Leaders must consciously balance business results with the ‘soft’ side.

Pratik Kumar, Corporate Vice-President, Human Resources, Wipro, stresses the need to work on the corporate culture and mindset of leaders. Wipro recruited nearly 14,000 new employees this year, of which almost 50% were women. Larger companies should work on making employees feel secure not just physically but within the corporate culture. Employees need to believe in their company, and women must feel valued. This healthy balance coming from proper company policies will undoubtedly translate to a healthier balance sheet.

Building social infrastructure is vital. “Are leaders looking at changing the social system beyond corporate walls?” asks Pramod Bhasin. Subtle barriers have not yet been broken. Managers must accept that women can return to active professional life after a break for personal reasons. They must see to it that provisions like crèches and flexi-time are used positively.

“Employers can empower women,” adds Cleo Thompson. Having a job can help women remove themselves from a negative environment and add to their economic freedom and independence.

To conclude, in the words of Som Mittal, India’s IT industry needs to be a torchbearer of concentric circles of social change. The industry must reach out and positively influence society and government.

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