Six ways to combat the female brain drain at Indian companies

India’s leaky pipeline of female talent is unique.
India’s leaky pipeline of female talent is unique.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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For every Indian woman who graduates at the top of her class in college, there are plenty who are dropping out of the workplace just a few years later. India’s leaky pipeline of female talent is unique in Asia.

Nearly 50% of Indian women drop out of the corporate employment pipeline between junior and mid-levels, compared to the average of 29% (pdf) across Asia. This is because Indian women usually marry earlier than their Asian counterparts, and heavy care-giving responsibilities, for in-laws as well as children, usually hit them as early as seven or eight years into their jobs.

Indian companies who want to promote women to middle management say they have very little talent left to choose from.

“Women are filling jobs at entry level,” says Shashi Irde, executive director of Catalyst India, a non-profit which works towards inclusive businesses. “But the number of women in leadership roles is rising very slowly.  Senior leaders always say: ‘Show me the women and we’ll hire them for top roles, but where are they?’” A recent survey by Catalyst says women hold only 9.5% of all board seats (pdf) at BSE 200 companies in India. In the UK, that figure is 22%.

Even if they start out as equals, Irde said, a gender gap emerges over time and women lag financially behind men (to a tune of about Rs3.8 lakh, or $6,000) by the time they are 12 years into their careers. Women also get fewer international assignments and training.

Companies often pay lip service to diversity. “There’s a lot of evangelising, a lot of political correctness, a lot of talk, but very little concrete action from companies,” says Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a jobs and careers community for women. “There’s still a lot of subtle sexism: woman are shunted towards HR, content writing or ‘feminine’ roles. Companies accept women in the workplace, but they don’t want to make an investment in them.”

Now a new programme run by the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, along with Catalyst and IBM, aims to help “high potential” women make it to senior management.

Tanmatra, which means “nuanced” or “subtle” in Sanskrit, has handpicked 30 women from diverse companies, which include Cisco, IBM, Caterpillar, and Dr Reddy Labs. The women are nominated by their employers, who have paid Rs1.5 lakh ($2,412) each for employees to enter. The programme began in October and will end in July, in three modules of five days each, with additional webinars and projects, and visiting faculty from within the industry.

So, what is Tanmatra teaching? Indian companies and career-minded women both need to focus on a number of things, professors and mentors say.

Encourage career identity

“When I meet women who have dropped out, the biggest thing that strikes me is their lack of any career identity, by which I mean, their desire to work, independently of what their families think,” says Vasanthi Srinivasan, one of the professors on the course, who has spent years researching diversity in organisations. “Families want their women to be financially independent, but not at the cost of the family. A father I met whose daughter was doing very well and was hired by Google right out of college said, ‘I want her to work, but it’s more important that she be a daughter-in-law her in laws can be proud of.'”

Ambition in women is seen as an aberration, something to be encouraged only if it suits the family.

Says Sailaja Mullangi, senior manager at Cisco, and one of the women on the program. “I have often been asked as to why I continue to work when my husband earns enough. I say I am ambitious. But often no one gets that.”

Fostering confidence

Women can hesitate to step up and apply to the next level—and that needs to change. “Men will apply for a job even if they are not ready. Women, even with years of experience, rarely ask for promotions,” says Irde.

Tanmatra, she hopes, even if only in a small way, can help women feel more confident. “Companies are signalling that they are investing in these women,” she adds. Mullangi, for instance, is working on a project to rebrand Cisco as a software rather than just a hardware brand, which she expects will bring her huge visibility both within the firm as well as outside.

Bust the “either or” conundrum

Women tend to either work or drop out, without exploring options in between. “Men never talk about dropping out; they ask their organisations for flexible work, or work from home, or find a solution,” says Srinivasan. “But women often hesitate to ask their companies for help in finding solutions, and simply drop out.”

But there are companies that are working to improve the situation. Irde said aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin has increased the number of women in senior roles by focusing on work-life balance and diversity.

Mentorship and personal development

“Most of us are so busy at work that we rarely get time to invest in ourselves,” says Mullangi. “But what got us here won’t get us there—there being senior management. Personally, I find women managers often falter in managing money.”

Women very rarely get to speak to senior women in other sectors, says Srinivasan. “Men have their networking methods, but women mostly rush back home for their caregiver duties.”

Change organisations and start early

Organisations that want diversity will need to change radically. Mullangi, who works for a woman boss who works for another woman boss, credits Cisco’s flexible work hours and work-from-home policies with her success. “Without a supportive organisation behind me, I would have dropped out by now,” she explains. “The pressure of family gets intense as you go up the ladder. And it’s always women who do the heavy lifting.”

Indigenous models

What desi models can Indian companies follow to get women into the workforce? Irde suggests companies introduce short, six-month projects for women returning from bringing up their families, and ensure senior leaders buy in by focusing on small attempts at first, rather than over ambitious blueprints.

Chahal supports virtual workplaces, such as those used by MakeMyTrip, which allow women to work from home. “Companies need to be open to the cyclical nature of careers. Women often will work from home at one stage, then go back into the office later. There are a lot of programmes for women already in the system, but none for those trying to enter the system.”

Irde points to the example of Indian banks, who have a high number of women in senior management.  “As early as twenty or thirty years ago, banks were encouraging women to join them. That’s why they have a diverse work force now.”

“The talent crunch is so acute now that companies have no choice but to bring in women,” adds Srinivasan, “whether they like it or not.”

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