Gender inequality in boardrooms is an ugly truth: Geeta Kannan,

With companies claiming to have a gender-diverse workforce across all levels, it seems like Indian enterprises might have finally caught up to speed. But why are reports saying otherwise, asks Geetha Kannan.

Last year, we asked several leading female CIOs of the enterprise whether gender bias still exists in the boardroom, and asked them if they’re grooming the next line of female CIOs. While most said that they are not, one went on to say, “Women are not only well represented but also have made their mark in terms of representation in the C-suite.”

However, numbers state otherwise. In a global survey by Grant Thornton, India ranked the third lowest in terms of having women in leadership roles for the third consecutive year, with only 17 percent of senior roles being held by women. In fact, Grant Thornton also reports that 41 percent of Indian businesses surveyed in their study have no women in leadership roles. Deloitte reports that out of over 9,000 leadership roles in India, only 597 positions are held by women, a mere 5 percent.

If that wasn’t all, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report states that women will need another 217 years to achieve gender equality. Additionally, the Monster Salary Index (MSI) 2016 reports that women in India earn 25 percent less than their male counterparts, with a staggering 25.8 percent pay gap in the IT sector.

Geetha Kannan, MD of India, says that it is quite a common trait for present women leaders to forget the hardships and barriers they had to overcome themselves. She asks, “If the glass ceiling no longer exists, and we do have gender equality, why do the numbers say otherwise?”

ABI’s insights into the workforce does reveal that women don't want to be differentiated and do not want any kind of reservation or quotas with respect to hiring. And with more and more women CEOs in the startup space, Kannan hopes that traditional IT companies will follow with more women at their helm. "We hear stories of how these women founders and CEOs hire several women in their teams, which is a very positive step in the right direction," she said.

In a conversation with CIO India, Kannan weighs on special treatment towards women, maternity leave still posing as a hindrance in careers, and how companies are now actually striving to do better.

Edited Excerpts:

Is a level-playing field for women employees going to ensure gender equality in the workforce? Does this level-playing field help in cultivating women leaders?

Evolution has ensured a reservation system for us; but women nowadays are looking for a level-playing field. So, companies are now saying that if there is a female and a male candidate for a job opening, where both candidates are equally qualified and able, they shall choose the female candidate. However, with time, we realized that even this approach doesn't really work because where is the equality in this scenario?

We discovered that even companies doing all the 'right things' - flexible policies, family-friendly policies and women-specific leadership programs were still not seeing the change in the skewed statistics.

One of our partner companies with all these methods in place would evaluate any employee for three consecutive years to be considered for a promotion, something very difficult for women aged between 25 and 35. A lot of things happen during this decade in a woman's life - marriage, pregnancy, or the need to care for a family member.

Not seeing any growth in the number of female employees being promoted, even while having the proper framework in place, the company tweaked its policies by not evaluating the time its female employees took off of work due to these familial and social reasons. Instead, the managers focused upon the level of performance during the other months of the employee's 3-year tenure, thereby not bringing down the average performance levels. This led to quite a positive change in the gender diversity of the company.

It is evident that just having a level-playing field failed on most accounts, and specific policies targeting female employees worked so much better. It is also important to remember that this gap has been present for centuries. Hence, while reservations and quotas might not be the right way to go, an additional support system is required for women to catch up to the patriarchy.

Are companies becoming 'maternity' friendly?

As more and more organizations are understanding the nuances of gender bias and the need for gender diversity, they are reflecting upon their policies to accommodate this transition. However, I am not saying that 100 percent of these policies are working at the moment and although there are companies moving in that direction, we're yet to see a radical shift.

Some companies actually keep in constant touch with female employees who are on maternity leave, and also help them to join training courses from the comfort of their homes. Nowadays, several organizations even reach out to help their female employees in matters of day care, and strive to improve their confidence once they're back in the workforce post a maternity break.

These steps to smoothen the journey for women to join the workforce post a maternity leave are extremely important, especially in the IT space because technology becomes outdated very fast and retraining is vital.

Should companies have specific training programs for women who are going on a maternity leave so that they can come back into leadership roles?

Yes, but companies have to consider that there are two kinds of women who go on a maternity leave - women who intend to rejoin the workforce right after their maternity leave, and others who don't.

The second kind often include women who opt out of the workforce for 2-5 years for personal reasons. This group finds it the most difficult to come back to the workforce because of lack of confidence, lagging in skills, and a shift in their priorities.

So, I'd recommend building two different kinds of training programs. One kind of program is to up-skill women who rejoin the workforce right after their maternity leave. The other type of training program needed by companies should be designed for the women who opt out for longer. These programs need to rebuild the confidence of the women themselves, and try to bring their skills up to par once more.

There are certain organizations who host such programs with 20-30 women at a time, where these women can actually choose to work with them or with another company.

However, a pay gap and the discomfort of having to work under a past junior can also affect the mindset and confidence levels.

Should organizations be looking at training the men in their workforce to make the workplace more conducive for women?

We have had unconscious bias in our systems for far too long. None of us do it deliberately; but it is ingrained into us.

One of the ways to ensure this bias doesn't come into picture is to see if you are using the same words to describe a female employee's performance as you would for a male employee. So, it is a little bit of sensitization and awareness for everyone, male or female.

Another point is that women cannot succeed if the other part of the population doesn't support us. And we have seen a lot of male CEOs support us in these initiatives, as it is really important to have male partners and peers on board for that.

It is important to understand that women have a different way of thinking, learning and imparting knowledge. Organizations really need to look at not only policies but also include them in all their processes. Our studies have shown that while men prefer reading or researching by themselves in order to learn new things, women prefer to have conversations and interact with other people to widen their horizon.

How much of these women-friendly policies are part of a 'trend'? Are organizations really looking at it seriously?

While the needle might not be drastically moving, companies are definitely looking to cultivate a more inclusive space for women. There are several companies with the 'me too' mindset, who just want to solve at least the base of the matter, and some admit to be working on it because their parent organizations abroad are doing the same.

However, we have seen a number of organizations who radically looked at their policies and realized that they have to change the way they work. In our experience, it requires a lot of top management commitment in any organization to reflect the change. However, things are looking up.