Ravneet Pawha is the Deputy Vice President (Global) and CEO - South Asia at Deakin University, Australia.
The duality of Indian women’s status in society is best exemplified by some interesting data points: India has more than double the number of women pilots than the world average and a fifth of students enrolling for a commercial flying license in India are women, which is way higher than other countries. Take that to the mint street and five of the largest Indian banks have been led by women for a majority of the past decade. The world saw the pictures of Indian women scientists exulting as they successfully guided the Mars mission in 2014 to an impeccable touch down. India has had more women political leaders running the country and its states for longer stretches than any other in the world. Indian women leaders have not confined themselves to Indian shores. They have led global corporations like Pepsi, created global companies like Biocon, headed the IMF and more.
These accomplishments stand in striking defiance to the other reality of women’s status in India. The country stands at a lowly 120 among 131 countries in female labour force participation rates and rates of gender-based violence remain high, according to the World Bank. The economic contribution of Indian women to the gross domestic product (GDP) at 17 percent is less than half the global average and nowhere close to the 40 percent in China. As the World Bank’s Annette Dixon put it last year, India could boost its growth by 1.5 percentage points to 9 percent per year if around 50 percent of women could join the work force.
While the reality of the mass of women in India cannot be wished away, the success of Indian women is intriguing because it is not about a few shooting stars. There are whole reefs of women jumping social strata and leading the charge to the highest echelons. Take for example a report that pointed out that the number of women in specialist IT roles in India is significantly higher than in the UK. The study found that 35 percent of people with specialist technology roles in India are women, compared to 17 percent in the UK.
A look at some of the reasons why women are able to break away from the larger gender context may lead to a better understanding of how India can accelerate gender parity. One clear giveaway is educational parity. An Open University research found 90.77 percent of women in India claimed their academic track record and background is what encouraged them to pursue a career in technology, which was true of only 77 percent of women in the UK.
A similar study found that women in engineering in India emerged as the most confident group and felt more comfortable in their environment as compared with male engineers and all non-engineering students. Even within the non-engineering set, females consistently reported to be facing lesser barriers than males. What is interesting to note from this study is that there is a huge imbalance in attitudes faced by women in the technical work force in the US as against those in India. Over 51.8 percent of female engineers in their senior year in the US felt isolated while a mere 7.84 percent of female engineers in India felt isolated. Nearly 97 percent of female engineers in India found themselves respected by their peers.
This positive inclination to parity in the technical workforce in India possibly has its roots in India’s late arrival in organised, big corporation driven manufacturing and engineering work forces. These new work places not only escaped from the tyranny of long established male dominant work place culture, they benefited from the rise of a completely new domain–-the software and the BPO industry. A growing and large middle class with a strong Indian cultural inclination towards education seems to have worked to unleash a new class of working women who are setting the rules.
A similar cultural alignment is seen in the financial sector in India where relatively new operations came into play after the economy opened up in the mid-1990s. While banking in the West has largely been a male bastion, in India, the financial sector performs the best in terms of gender diversity at the company board level with nine of the 11 banks listed on BSE-100 having a woman on their board.
Indian women also benefit from the focus on women in governance and policy. India today has nearly 1.4 million women village-level (panchayat) leaders. Companies are focusing on hiring women as a conscious policy. From vocational education to entrepreneurship programmes, there is significant investment being made in getting women active in the workplace and breaking through patriarchal mindsets.
There are three compelling aspects of India’s women in high power, cutting edge, economy-critical work zones. First, they are not products of diversity hiring but have earned their place based on their education and merit. Second, most of these new work places are giving women an opportunity to define the work place, principally because a large number of these companies, indeed, industries are evolving along with them. Third, education has been a key enabler in creating a reef of women who are slowly filling up the ranks.
So, India’s women leaders appear to be as much products of their own enterprise and brilliance as, reassuringly, a system that seems to work to give them an equal space. The real challenge will be to ensure that the majority of the women get the same pathways to success.
The author is Deputy Vice President (Global) and CEO - South Asia at Deakin University, Australia.