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Celebrating the Spirit of Women:
Respect, Recognize, Reward Women in the workplace
Zero tolerance for gender-bias

WILL Forum Column, Times of India, March 8, 2014


Corporate India today stands at an important cross-road, where it has the invaluable opportunity of embracing the high value that 500 million Indian women can bring to business and society, and make the transition to a “new-age” nation that respects, responds, and reaps the rewards of a vibrant, innovative and inclusive workplace.

It is now also clear that women are the 3rd largest emerging market – after India and China – and the vast potential of women as employees, investors, customers, suppliers, stakeholders can be ignored by corporates, businesses, and society only at their own peril.

It therefore remains a complete dichotomy, how corporate India continues to ignore the fact that India stands at the lowest ranking of 139th on the global gender gap of the World Economic Forum, as measured by education, employment, and healthcare of women. Or that corporate India sees nothing wrong with having only 5% women on corporate boards and only 10% women in senior management, which is one of the lowest as compared to other civilized nations where the figures are about 20-25% for women in senior management for business success.

It is time to stop recycling the arguments of business leaders in India that there are not enough qualified women in the talent pool, or that women do not want to take front-line assignments. The truth is that there are enough qualified women, but they are not “visible” in the male-dominated networking circles, as the women are pre-occupied with doing justice to the gift of motherhood that they have been born with, and are committed to spending time with their children. And the reality is that these women are sometimes more qualified than their male colleagues for front-line assignments, but the companies simply do not “bet on their women” due to false stereotypes of barriers of working mothers “off-ramping” their careers, that belong to the last century when virtual technology was not yet discovered. Companies like International Paper in the U.S. have bet upon women like Carol L. Roberts who was assigned as Chief Financial Officer, and is today doing one of the finest jobs, with background only in engineering and human resources.

Corporate India needs to keep a sharp focus on the loss to wealth-creation – when 94% of the women who leave their jobs want to come back to work, and only 74% of the women find re-entry, with only 40% finding full-time jobs in companies. For those who manage to re-enter the executive workplace– like Sharvani Dang, Head of Corporate Communications at Avantha Group, there is plenty of heartache, doubly-hard work to make sure that you are recognized, and continuing pressure to perform better than your peers, only because you spent time raising your children as good human beings. Women like Sonali Dua, at Deloitte were more fortunate after she returned to work from extended maternity leave, as her women mentors “rolled up their sleeves” and ensured she was given her location of preference without compromising her seniority. The rest of the 24% of bright smart women, start their own businesses or take up part-time jobs -- simply because they do not want to comprise on the second-class status that they will get when they re-enter companies, on a lower “bell-curve.”

The WILL White Paper on “What Can Companies do to Stop the Off-Ramping of women,” finds that women clearly do not perceive a “level playing field” when they return back to work – and that this is an emotional problem of re-validating their self-worth, as much as a challenge of male-managers and senior leadership response where they are clearly not being listed for the top-running anymore. There is an unending list of women who will state at focused-group mentoring sessions -- that they are facing a huge gender-bias when they get back to work, which takes away all their aspiration at carving a real-time career.

As a civilized nation, we need to first “accept” that there is a lack of equal opportunity for women in the workplace; then put eco-systems in place that will support zero-tolerance for gender-discrimination of women at work; and then “validate and verify” that your company is a best employer for women, with cross-industry benchmarking.

We would like to celebrate the courage, conviction, and confidence of all the bright, smart, and hardworking women and mothers – in whatever space they are gainfully employed or at making their homes a beautiful place – and hope that the companies will commit to validating benchmarks for women’s advancement, rather then keep recycling policies and anecdotes. And remember “Smiling mom’s keep the nation happy!” – President Abdul J. Kalam.

Poonam Barua
Founder Chairman
Forum for Women in Leadership
& CEO, WILL Forum India


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