The Three Pronged Bias

The bias against women can be seen in various aspects of corporate life and the problem is not going to fix itself in a day; absence of women in senior management, lack of an inclination to hire women in the first place and also stereotyping of women into certain job functions over others are some of the common examples of discrimination against women.

I have had the luxury of being a senior professional in my organization with a better voice in the scheme of things, but even so, I can’t help be surprised at the under representation of women at senior management positions in the Indian private sector, particularly in smaller companies driven more by individuals than policies. India ranked third lowest in having women in leadership roles for the third consecutive year according to a global survey by Grant Thorton in 2017. The most common roles held by women in India are Human Resources Director (25 per cent) and Corporate Controller (18 per cent).  The decision makers are generally men, and it is noteworthy how women get dropped off somewhere on the way up, because at the entry level the number of women is proportionately much higher than in middle and senior levels.

A recent Deloitte report found that women are holding only 12.4% of board seats in India, and this number is a drastic increase because of the mandatory requirement under the new Companies Act, 2013. As per second Proviso to Section 149(1) read with Rule 3 of The Companies (Appointment and Qualification of directors) Rules, 2014, the following class of companies are required to appoint at least one Woman Director- (i) every listed company; (ii) every other public company having (a) paid–up share capital of 100 crore rupees or more; or (b) turnover of 300 crore rupees or more.

The question for consideration is whether the women are voluntarily opting to opt out (the irony of it), or are the workplaces not providing a suitable environment where a woman can feel empowered to be an instrument of change. It might also be the case that the former is sub consciously influenced by the latter, i.e. the unavailability of the right opportunities making quitting an easier and preferable option. A person, gender agnostic, would try to hold onto a job they love and where the growth prospects stretch to the sky. It is also a fact that a woman’s career trajectory is often more subject to ups and downs (often dictated by personal and family commitments) as compared to that of males. Of course, people will retort with examples of the likes of Ms.Kochhar and Ms.Bhattacharya in the banking industry; but a few examples don’t represent the true and complete scenario – especially in sectors which are traditionally not ‘meant for women’, like manufacturing or industrial.

I have witnessed many recruiters say unabashedly and upfront, we only want to hire a male candidate for this job. The excuse would probably germinate in a fake concern for “safety of the women,” arising from “longer working hours” or “running around as being a job requirement.” The dichotomy becomes apparent when one sees women putting in longer hours than their male colleagues, who are whiling away time over cigarette breaks and hence the need to question this assumption, can women not be trusted with responsible positions or handling longer hours? The excuse for safety is a flimsy one at best; a bare minimum of providing appropriate transportation and flexible working hours is the only requirement for providing women the requisite support and comfort. The mindset and perception maybe the problem, but that cannot be changed in a day and is a gradual transition. Bangalore is one of the top cities in offering women work from home opportunities and flexible timings. The world is shifting to remote and online working and physical presence is no longer a requirement for a majority of the corporate functions.

I also take affront to the assumption that women are more suited to certain job functions like Human Resources or Secretarial and not to others. The bias against the female gender cannot be ignored, but it is good to see certain corporates taking a stand on diversity and an inclusive workplace, and that stand also transforming into concrete policy in some cases. Multinational companies like American Express and some leading companies in India like Bharti Enterprises require the recruiting agencies to have adequate women represented in the interview stage, to ensure diversity and an inclusive workforce.  The argument of merit alone being the basis for recruitments is a just and valid one, but sometimes we have to consider the social setting we are a part of, and in which case, it becomes impossible to superimpose our presumptions of justice and idealism over a playing field which isn’t levelled to begin with. Women don’t get a fair treatment in the workplace unless they ask for it, so maybe, we have to start asking for it.    

Mini Gautam is a corporate finance lawyer and writer by profession.