The Outlook for High Potential Women in India and the 3 Approaches to Improve It

By Kayla Turo

Another demonstration of gender inequality is exposed in India, research from Catalyst shows in their latest report, High Potentials Under High Pressure in India’s Technology Sector. In general, even the most capable, post-MBA Indian women fall short of men in terms of pay and position in most of the country’s industries.

At first glance, however, the technology sector seems to be a light on the horizon for Indian women, hiring ambitious male and female graduates with an equal amount of pay, but according to a recent Catalyst report, within 12 years in the same job and all other factors being equal, women’s salary falls behind their male coworkers by an average of Rs. 3.8 lakhs (6,000 US dollars).

“We cannot blame the gender gap in pay and position to lack of aspirations on the part of women,” said Aarti Shyamsunder, Director of Research at Catalyst, and one of two contributors to the report. 79 percent of both men and women starting out in India’s technology industry aspired to senior executive positions. Data shows that throughout their careers, male and female workers received analogous amounts of training through formal programs, and were likely to “job hop” in search of greater career advancement, a common factor within the industry.

The Power of Social Pressures
One explanation for the salary decline is the lack of women landing “hot jobs” or long-term international assignments that lead to more opportunities for future career growth within their industry. Statistics from the report reveal that only 18 percent of women were able to relocate abroad for 3 or more years at a time, compared to 57 percent of men. Women with children were reported as less willing to relocate compared to men with children, and twice as many men accepted the international relocation positions they were offered.

Likewise, 54 percent of women reported taking leaves of absences (LOAs). This is twice that of men, who also tended to take much shorter leaves than women. The Catalyst report details that women were three times more likely to take LOAs for childcare related-reasons compared to men (not including childbirth and maternity leave), while men were three times more apt to take leaves for personal welfare. Even in dual-career marriages, almost three times more women took on the role of at-home caregiver compared to a small percentage of men.

Given the context of the surrounding cultural expectations, these findings are not surprising, according to Shyamsunder. She stated, “I don’t think it’s realistic to expect women to suddenly stop taking leaves to care for their children, or to overcome centuries of socialization of overnight.”

Changing the Corporate Culture
Shyamsunder suggests that in order to better support women in their careers, companies should evaluate the overall credentials and potential of executive candidates based on their abilities to perform the job, “not on proxies like tenure or role maturity,” insists Shyamsunder.

She added, “Women who’ve had to take career breaks are disadvantaged just because they don’t have the required time-in-role, although they may be as qualified or even more qualified than male candidates who haven’t had these breaks.”

Based on the practices and policies of Indian organizations that are successfully addressing gender bias, Shyamsunder has identified three approaches to improve the outlook for women in India’s technology sector:

  • Commitment from senior leaders: The organizations leading gender equalization in India prove that progress requires a certain amount of passion from executives. Senior level executives who act as advocates of gender parity can function as role models whose views and ideas trickle down to others within the organization. “If senior leaders don’t create scalable and sustainable mechanisms to ‘pay it forward’ and develop a culture of inclusion, their message might stay with them and not get transmitted broadly,” explained Shyamsunder.
  • Bold and focused interventions: Organizations that are serious about stamping out gender inequality must face the issue directly and energetically. Those companies leading the way toward gender parity take active steps toward building a foundation in which women can advance with fairness. “By ‘bold’ and ‘focused’ I mean something that goes above and beyond what is required by law or demanded by the Board or by shareholders – something that is progressive and disruptive,” said Shyamsunder.
  • Specific use of accountability and measurement: Like all areas of growth in a company, the process of eliminating gender bias should create measurable results. Shyamsunder stated, “Business leaders are compelled by numbers, metrics, results and evidence. Knowing where one is currently is the first step towards changing oneself – and accountability and measurement gets you there.”

Overlooking Women: Missed Opportunities
“In general, India has a long way to go,” Shyamsunder admits. The country ranks 105th out of 135 countries on the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

“Organizations (in India especially) must realize that the missing, underpaid, or passed-over women in represent a huge opportunity,” said Shyamsunder. Beyond aspirations, potential, and talent, women were more likely to show a deep amount of loyalty to their current positions, according to the Catalyst report. For instance, 80 percent of women with older children stated that they would be happy to remain at their current jobs for the rest of their lives, compared to only 41 percent of men.

Shyamsunder noted, “This group of women has presumably crossed that stage where they’ve struggled with balancing childcare and work – and they’ve come back or stayed on to work for these organizations. They didn’t give up their careers and they didn’t settle for a less demanding job. I think that for these women, the investments they’ve made in their career, and that their organizations have made as well, make them more committed and indeed, loyal.”

A Land of Contradictions
The fact that women begin their careers on equal footing as men in the technology sector is highly significant. It demonstrates that appreciation for talent, regardless of gender, is indeed relevant to some extent in India.
After all, Indian women have had the upper hand compared to many other countries: having always had the right to vote and who have enjoyed a female head of state (Indira Gandhi, 1980s), among other achievements, as Shyamsunder reminds us. “Activism, legal changes, and globalization have all contributed to great strides in women’s health and education, and I think the future holds great promise.”