Looking Ahead – Women in Workforce

Swapna Narayanan

Earlier this month, I was invited to participate in the Gender Equality Summit 2023 arranged by the UN Global Compact Network India in New Delhi. The summit theme was ‘Gender Equal Future: Technology, Innovation & Inclusion’ and was aligned with the International Women’s Day 2023 theme DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality and their own priority theme from the UN’s Commission on Status of Women – to use innovation, technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

I joined them as a panelist for a plenary session titled as –  Women in Business: Primary Challenges and Pragmatic Solutions.

And as I was preparing for this event, I paused, looked back and saw my journey of the last decade or so as a business woman and was able to actually stand apart and see the transformation that has occurred in our country today. That said – there is a long way to go. Yet, it did help me take stock and appreciate how far we have come.

So what has changed?

Primarily, I see three big changes that are defining where we are headed: 

1. Technology has been a key enabler and a great leveller – a decade ago when I was trying to set up a company in India, the kind of limitations and challenges I faced are nowhere to be seen now. Back then, for one of my organizations, I had to go and sit at the government offices and ensure my company gets registered. And along with it came the nuances of walking into offices and the associated aspects of – the stares, the lackadaisical attitude towards a woman entrepreneur, and the unsaid discouragement which almost said – Madam, why do you want to start a business and all? Do you not have children at home? Who will take care of your family? 

But now, it is immaterial who is starting a company. Since largely the process is software driven and online, there is no need for any physical visits and the gender of the business person has no role to play at all in the company registration process. 

2. Despite the pandemic, and the associated setbacks to women entrepreneurs, we have had many a women led startups entering the unicorn club – Falguni Nayyar of Nykaa, Upasana T of Mobikwik, Ghazal Alagh of MamaEarth, to name a few. They dared to dream, persevered through the long years of hard work & toil and eventually broke the glass ceiling. And there is more to come.

As we speak the next generation of young woman founders are on the journey to spearhead the movement and ensure more women led startups dominate the world. It is a proven fact that (contrary to popular belief) women led startups generate a higher return on equity and also manage to build culturally strong companies. 

3. I see more women being promoted to managerial positions. There are more women in leadership positions as well. Of course, this got a boost when the our company law mandated listed companies, and public companies above specified thresholds, to have women directors on board. Resultantly, almost 95% of NIFTY500 companies have one female board member, up from 69% in 2017, as per the data provided in the Ernst and Young report on ‘Diversity in the Boardroom: Progress and the Way Forward. However, less than 5% of companies have female chairpersons, so there is still room for improvement. Overall speaking, we currently have 18% female representation on the boards here, indicating India still has room to grow.

That said, how do we ensure a perfectly gender balanced society?

Let us first understand the societal reasons for this lag: 

1. Marriage continues to be a barrier in enabling more women to join the workforce. While we have made significant progress in female literacy, the conversion from graduates to employment sees a huge gap. It is definitely not due to lack of employment opportunities. It is clearly because of restrictions created by the society around us. 

2. Motherhood is another aspect which leads to women dropping off the workforce. With the evolved ecosystem around us where we have ample support around us – child care facilities, food and grocery delivering apps, work from home options and significant ease of life using technology, I believe a little nudge and encouragement will enable these mothers to explore motherhood along with their careers.  

3. While the government, and the society in general, is doing enough to encourage women to come forward and join the corporate or business world, nothing is being done to educate the men in the same world to be truly encouraging and supportive! How many of these men honour and respect the gender inclusive initiatives in letter and in spirit? 

As I said, we still have a long way to go. 

And I feel that we – the current women in the workforce – must set the stage and inspire other women to join the workforce. After all, seeing us, more women will feel inspired to continue working or ensure that their daughters and daughters in laws join the workforce. 

Coming back to the panel discussion, the event went extremely well. Moderated by a senior business leader – Mr. Suhas Tuljapurkar, Founder-Director, Legasis Group, the panel consisted of, along with me, a senior academician – Dr. Padmakali Banerjee, Vice Chancellor, Sir Padampat Singhania University, Dr. Shikha Nehru Sharma, Founder, Nutriwel Health India Ltd, and a young entrepreneur Ishu Shiva, Founder, Sanitree from Rajasthan who is bringing in a significant social and mindset change in her State.   

The discussions were very rooted and touched upon many aspects leaving both the audience and the panelists with some great pragmatic takeaways that could be implemented immediately to progress further on our gender equality goals.  

*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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