Update: Professional Women in India and the Landscape for Working Women

Ben Rozon

This article is part of’s annual women in Asia feature running throughout the month of August.

How easy is it for Indian woman to climb the corporate ladder in modern day India? For the last decade India has been experiencing a quiet revolution in both gender relations within the workplace and familial relations at home that has impacted India’s professional women profoundly. Indian women now make-up 40% of the Indian college level student body with many earning degrees in the more traditionally male dominated subjects like science, engineering and I.T.

Indian women have also achieved recent success in politics. India’s former President and First Lady, Shrimati Pratibha Patil, and Shrimati Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the former ruling party, the Indian National Congress Party have both helped change the view of acceptable women’s roles within India. In other high profile jobs women sometimes have better representation in India than in the US. India’s female pilots make up 11.6% of all airline employees. This is miles above the 3% global average. But India is still facing a problem with women in professional upper management roles. The percentage of women in management in India is roughly 3-6% with only 2% in India registered Corporations. But like many developing nations, this figure is predicted to rise swiftly.

Top Indian Women in Business highlights some of the top women in the country in business and finance.

Chanda Kochhar
Kochhar is the Managing Director and CEO of India’s ICICI Bank which is the largest private bank in India. In this position she oversees nearly $125 billion in assets and this year announced an 18% increase in profits.

Shikha Sharma
Sharma is the current Managing Director & CEO of Axis Bank. Axis, the third largest private sector bank in India was established in 1994. Sharma recently fought very public opposition from the outgoing chairman over her new job. This march she led Axis to its first billion dollar net profit quarter.

Mallika Srinivasan
Srinivasan transformed her small regional tractor making company into the third largest agricultural machinery manufacturer in the world.

Aruna Jayanthi
Aruna is the Chief Executive Officer of Capgemini India, an international I.T. giant. She has been ranked 3rd in Fortune India’s list of 50 Most Powerful Women in Business 2012 and has a growing 40000 strong workforce.

Zia Mody
Mody is the managing partner and co-founder of the uber successful law firm AZB. Mergermarket ranked AZB as the most active Indian legal advisor by volume for 2013. In the first 3 months of 2014 AZB had already mediated deals worth over 1 billion USD.

Vinita Bali
This year Bali stepped down from a nine year position as Managing Director of Britannia Industries LMT. Bali was the first woman to head a major consumer goods company in India and her recent retirement has drawn heated debate about where her “Midas touch” will land next.

Shobhana Bhartia
Bhartia is the Chairperson and Editorial Director of the Hindustan Times Group, one of India’s leading newspaper and media houses. In the year 2001, she received the Outstanding Business Woman of the Year award and is an elected member of the upper house of the Indian Parliament

Chitra Ramakrishna
Chitra is the first female managing director and chief executive officer of India’s National Stock Exchange. She was part of the first team which succeeded in calming India’s trading floor while also setting up a pan-India VSAT network and building the legislative framework for India’s first depositor.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
Mazumdar is an entrepreneurial leader in India’s growing pharmaceutical industry. She is the founder of Biocon, India’s largest listed bio-pharma firm and producer of medications. She was recently awarded the Global Economy Prize by Germany’s Kiel institute in June 2014.

Frenny Bawa
Bawa is the former Managing Director of RIM, the makers of blackberry. Bawa headed RIM’s operations in India, while also overseeing the company’s business development in the Middle East and Africa. She oversaw a 30% increase in RIM in India and was listed on Forbes most powerful Indian Women list. Bawa is now leading Nanotech Security as their chief commercial officer.

The present reality and the future progress
Despite a booming economy the choice between the opportunity of the new India Inc. and the traditional Old India is seen as Indian women’s biggest barrier to high level occupations. After a promising education and initial career start, many Indian women perform what is known as “Off Ramping” where they choose to step back from their occupations to perform traditional familial roles. 73% opt for part-time work, flexible work arrangements, or a position with fewer responsibilities, compared with 58% in the U.S. and 49% in Germany.

Indian women also face significant career barriers within the workplace due to career advancement oversight. Lack of their company’s investment in their professional development is what 48% of women chose as their biggest personal barrier to promotion.

A significant lack of female role models at the top of the pyramid affects a lack of motivation and confidence for many young professional women in India. Moorthy Uppaluri, CEO of Randstad India says, “Building a pipeline of women at the executive level is the need of the hour, and it can be achieved over a period of time through conscious and concerted efforts of both corporates and the government.”

Despite the hard facts and figures there is currently a general sense of optimism among many young professional women in India. According to a survey pubished by LinkedIn, 93% Indian women believe it is possible to “have it all”, in terms of career and family life. This is significantly higher than the global average of 74%.

Women in India also shared a liberating sense that in the Indian corporate world, there is a distinct lack of correlation between personal appearance and success in the workplace. 70% said a woman’s appearance was irrelevant or had no major impact on her career. While in Germany at 26%, the US at 21%, and Singapore with 20%, more women found this to be significant.

Women in India also have a more successful time finding full time, mainstream jobs after long periods of absence, namely pregnancy and the subsequent raising of children. 58% were successful compared to the U.S. at 49% and Germany at 34%. It should also be noted that India topped out on motivation to get back to full time work at 91% compared to Germanys 78%.

However, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Chairman and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation points out, “72% of women who want to on-ramp do not want to return to the company they left. Dissatisfaction with their rate of career progression drives almost as many women out of the workforce as childcare”. It seems that getting back to work is easy for Indian women. But regaining career momentum and trajectory can be problematic.