The new world for India’s women leaders

Before International Women's Day, the managing director of ANZ's Bangalore hub Pankajam Sridevi sat down with associate professor at the Indian Institute of Management Vasanthi Srinivasan to talk about the state of play for women in the workplace in India.

They started by addressing some of the cultural constraints in India around the role of individuals in society and the family.

"We have role models but we need more."
Pankajam Sridevi, Managing director of ANZ's Bangalore hub

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Sridevi: One of the things holding some women back in India is the stereotype they have to play certain roles in the family alongside their career. It's true for men also, they have to juggle multiple things, but it's more severe for women.

In India women try to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect daughter and the perfect career woman all at the same time. I think it is not as much of a societal expectation as it is an internal expectation of women themselves. The moment I broke out of it (perhaps after 15 years into my career), I think I was at more peace with myself and could perform better.

In the early days of my career, when my husband would get my son ready for school, I would find 10 problems with how his tie looked, how his laces were tied, because I wanted it to be done the way I would do it. But that doesn't work. One has to take help from the support system and then things get better immediately.

We disempower ourselves with the constraints we place on each other through our culture. We need to break out of these kinds of notions. It's definitely improving but is it where it should be? I think we have a long way to go.

Srinivasan: Post-2000 has been a great period for women in India in general. I think there are a few reasons. I think the first one is clearly the growth of the IT industry, which is basically seen as a woman-friendly industry.

This contrasts with the perception of manufacturing as a masculine field.

By 2000, if you look at the entry of girls into engineering, you can visibly see the shift. From the late 90s onwards the number of women taking engineering courses has increased dramatically. It's reached an extent where today we have all-women engineering colleges. That for me has really been the indication of how much we have grown as a country.

Sridevi: And now 50 per cent of students in engineering colleges are women. Whereas when I started in 1982, in a batch of 800, only five were women!

Srinivasan: Three things have contributed to the significant presence of women in IT. Firstly, since 2000, there has been a demand supply gap in the labour market for engineers.

Companies were looking for alternate recruitment sources. With more women entering engineering colleges and also having the necessary qualifications, they were an attractive talent pool.

Secondly, the IT industry by this time had built a brand for itself and there were already some excellent role models. Working in the IT industry became a symbolic capital for families.

Finally, organisations and the media began to recognise these early women entrants in to the industry which served as a reinforcer to the parents and family.

Sridevi: When I first graduated as an engineer, my mother urged me to take an admin job to help take care of my family. She was very proud I was an engineer but at that point there was little career identity for women. There was an education identity, but little career identity. 

I think over a period of time, that career identity has been built up. It's stereotyping again but that type of thinking is totally changing. We have role models but we need more.

Srinivasan: I think one of the biggest challenges we have is getting different classes of women into the workforce. When I look at India, I think what we've begun to see is middle and upper-middle class Indian women in the workplace. We really haven't touched a large percentage who are in the fringes. To my mind, that is the big problem.

In the last year, we have actually seen a drop in senior and middle management overall.

What's the reason for this? Why are women dropping out? The first reason is more women are turning to eldercare and childcare. The entire system for both eldercare and childcare is not set up well enough that women are comfortable and trust the system.

The second one I'm really worried about is the logic that says “my spouse is affluent and we can manage off his salary, therefore I don't need to work".

I'm not saying every women out there needs to work for a living. But particularly in countries like ours, where the inequality and other issues are so stark, women who have access and who come this far and have acquired such capabilities, when they drop out the consequences are enormous.

It leads to serious self-doubt in the women who are in the organisation and perpetuates the existing stereotype that women are not serious about their careers. The organisations could then use these drop-out women as signals they should not invest in other women.

Sridevi: When I speak to young professional women in India, I ask them: how do you put your strengths to work? Everybody has got strengths and everyone has opportunities for improvement.

You need to put your strengths to work and this gets so much prominence that your opportunities for improvement become negligible.

Women need to also look at the possibilities in an organisation and speak out. Being quiet because you're worried you'll ask a stupid question is the most stupid thing to do. Speak out and make your voice heard. Speak out, ask questions, make your presence felt and contribute!

International Women's Day was celebrated on March 8. Observed since the early 1900s, the theme for the 2015 celebration was 'Make it Happen'.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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