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Women in Leadership

Article by Nitin Seth, Managing Director & Country Head, Fidelity Worldwide Investment

Most IT-BPM companies employ a large proportion of women staff- varying from 25 – 45 percent. However, as you get to mid-senior management levels, this proportion drops dramatically to as low as 5 percent. This is a challenge that we need to understand and address as an industry.

NASSCOM Regional Council (NRC) Haryana recently organized a CEO meet on this topic, which I moderated. We had Harmeen Mehta from Airtel, Debjani Ghosh from Intel, Meenakshi from Credit Suisse, Rajdeep Endow from Sapient and Manu Rikhye from Encore on the panel. It was a fascinating discussion with very active participation from the audience, which demonstrated that so many leaders in our industry are passionately engaged in this topic. I am sharing the key insights from the discussion.

Topics discussed:

  • Why is diversity important?
  • Why are there not enough women at mid-senior management levels?
  • What should companies do to bridge this gap?

Why is diversity important?

There was unequivocal endorsement across the panelists that this theme is not just a “nice to have” but is now a very important senior management imperative:

  • It is not just a feminine agenda but a business agenda
  • Men and women have different viewpoints & market insights that enables better problem solving & ultimately leading to better organizational performance. Statistically 80% of consumer buying is influenced by Women. A gender diverse team better aggregates industry knowledge and allows the company to serve an increasingly diverse customer base.
  • Diversity is natural and reflects the composition of the population. Just visualize a male only organization or a female only organization – former might be very boring and the later a bit bitchy!!
  • Women who reach the top are less conventional and bring high creativity and innovation
  • Impact of diversity is backed by many research studies that show organizations with higher diversity in senior roles have superior business results

Why are there not enough women at mid-senior management levels?

There was strong acknowledgement in the panel that currently there is a dearth of women at mid-senior management roles. Many panelists remarked that they often did not find women CVs for senior positions even when they specifically went looking for them. There seem to be four sets of reasons behind this situation:

  • Losing career momentum after maternity. There seems to be an “invisible cliff in movement from low to mid management where we lose large proportion of women. This often coincides with women having the 1st or 2nd child. 1-2 years after having a child are very challenging when many women find it difficult to balance their multiple responsibilities at work and home, and thus lose career momentum
  • “Unintentional prejudices” of the majority. Men who are typically the majority in an organization often carry gender stereotypes or “unintentional prejudices” from their houses to the workplaces. There is often a typecasting of what jobs women would prefer and what not
  • Women carry sub-conscious biases. Women often carry sub-conscious biases where they put limits themselves. They often lack the self-belief and/or the aggression needed to push to the next level
  • Our society. The root cause behind many of the issues we have observed above is the structure of our society and deeply embedded expectations from the respective genders. If we go beyond the relatively privileged middle class in our big cities education and growth opportunities for women are often limited. Even in our cities while many women work the expectations of relatively contributions of women and me at home have not changed. Change in our society will not be overnight,. However, unless we address this issue we might not be able to move the needle significantly on diversity

What should companies do to bridge this gap?

Improving diversity at senior management levels is a multi-dimensional and deep-rooted problem that needs actions at multiple levels. Our panel identified six areas where positive action needs to happen:

  • Support for women after maternity
  • Give power of career choice – don’t impose our prejudices
  • Provide flex-working opportunities
  • Provide crèche facilities in or near office
  • Career support at mid-management level
  • Identify sponsors who will champion a hi-potential women managers case and help create opportunities
  • Provide mentorship – these need not just be women to women. Men to women mentorship can sometimes work even better
  • Set up women networks to not just share best practices and peer networking but also exposure to senior management
  • Catch them young
  • Reach out to girls leaving colleges to shape mindsets
  • Provide mentorship even at junior levels in the organization
  • Raise awareness of role models
  • Rethink practices and workplace design
  • Address possible intake bias through mixed gender panels – “men hire men”!!
  • Bring gender sensitization to workplace design – most offices are of men, designed by men, for men!!
  • Change majority mindsets
  • Build understanding that discussion is not just about diversity but about inclusion. This moves the discussion from form to substance!!
  • Raise awareness of “unintentional prejudices”. Unless the majority mindset changes, inclusion will not happen
  • Steps to change the society
  • A difficult process but something corporate leaders need to consider
  • Focus CSR spend towards initiatives like education and care of the girl child
  • Consider women focused business initiatives – for example, Airtel is opening all-women staffed “Angel stores”

In conclusion, we as an industry do have a problem today on inclusion at senior management levels that we need to address. However, it is positive that most companies seem to be very aware of the issue and are taking a number of positive steps to address the situation. This raises hope that we should be able to improve inclusion in coming years. That will not just be very positive for our business but this would also be a good contribution we can make towards a positive change in our society.