Where have All the Women Gone

Overheard a male colleague making this comment the other day – “Why this brouhaha about not enough women in B-schools, in the workplace and on company boards. Why do we need to bother them when they are doing far more important things for us.”
There is now a ground swell of an opposite view to this one. In fact, there is a growing concern at the under representation of women in business. In the last decade, here and abroad, there has been only a marginal improvement in the number of women seeking management education. Contrast this with the significantly growing number of women in medical colleges, law schools, engineering- particularly computer science, electronics, and a picture begins to emerge.

So why are women less keen on joining the corporate rat race and is diversity relevant and important for an employer?
There is data to suggest that diversity adds to the bottom line; any form of diversity be it nationality, gender, leadership style, thought or experience adds to the skill-set of an organization. Gender diversity has its own advantages when a large number of companies have as many and sometimes more women than men consumers. But most importantly, given the ‘ war for talent’, can organizations afford to ignore this huge talent base that today is giving management education and careers a miss?

In the US, women prefer medicine and law to an MBA education- 45% versus 30%. There are only five women on the boards of the Fortune 500 companies. Not surprisingly, the numbers on the boards of family owned business is much larger. However, women seem to have found their calling in becoming entrepreneurs – founding and starting small businesses of their own.

Things are not very different in India. Some of the most powerful business women in India are from family owned businesses. Now, that, in itself, is an interesting trend. Women do seem to be stepping out of their conservative and traditional role stereotypes. However, among professionals, the showing is poor. One of the primary reasons for this on both sides of the Atlantic, is the mandatory unbroken career path in organizations. The career plan does not allow for career breaks and disruptions that women have to face on account of marriage, spouse transfer, childbirth, aging parents and in-laws. Perhaps, as a fall out of this, there is a rise in women entrepreneurs. This career option provides the much needed flexibility and accommodates breaks and disruptions without loss of seniority and financial benefits.

So is gender diversity in organisations a utopian dream at the workplace and at B-schools?

A recent study commissioned by Indian School of Business gives a few pointers and also raises a few questions.
Work-life balance emerges as the single most important issue and the single most quoted reason for career breaks and disruptions. Women are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the pressures of juggling home and workplace. Carly Fiona, CEO, Hewlett Packard, the most powerful woman in the US according to the Fortune magazine, is not seen as a role model because women do not want the kind of stress that goes with the job. Gloria Steinem, the American journalist and feminist, put it very well – I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine a marriage and career.
There is a belief among employers and employees that the former need to provide more meaningful work-life policies such as reduced–hours, career breaks and flexi-time. These, however, lead to other problems such as reverse discrimination, resentment from male colleagues and compensation. There is, also, good reason to believe that these efforts have not brought in the desired results. Women still leave bringing to nought all the investment put in training them, not to mention the time and effort that they would have spent on the job.

Setting up crèches at the workplace is often quoted as an example of how gender concious and sensitive a company is. This provides a home-away-from-home along with assurance and comfort to the mother who can drop in often to see how the child is doing. However, this facility is relevant only for children in a particular age group, maybe pre primary or pre junior school. Women still leave good careers despite all this. So what do women really want? Do they want the home brought into the office i.e do they want a creche at the office? Maybe not. What if the home was made a safe haven for the children and also did not require all her time and energies as soon as she got back from work? Currently, the domestic staff – the bais and the Ramus are doing the needful. However, there is still something missing.

Given the multi-tasking that women have to do maybe it is time to look at a different approach. Women continue to own two domains – office and home. Is it possible for companies to explore the possibility of a new brand of professionals – para secretaries/ house secretaries (paid for by the company) who support the woman in the home domain just as most men are supported by secretaries at workplace and spouses at home? It might give birth to a new paradigm. The money spent on creches and the cost of career breaks to the company may be better spent on training a new breed somewhere between a housekeeper and a secretary. Imagine a nanny who can drive the kid for a swim, order or buy the groceries, cook a nice meal, make sure the house is organised to entertain guests for dinner, call the doctor if there is a problem and at a pinch, can discuss Shakespeare. For any company, employees are as much stakeholders as they are consumers. Borrowing from CK Prahalad, it might be a good idea to co-create the environment to your bright young lady’s satisfaction at her home, just as you would at the workplace if you want her to stay.
Given the booming service industry in India, today there are enough companies from whom these professionals can be outsourced. There are hospitality industries which provide trained staff to run company guest houses, canteens, housekeeping in hospitals, etc. There are car leasing companies, asset insurance companies and what have you. Once companies take on this idea of the para-secretary seriously, it would not be difficult to enthuse service providers to train reliable and quality staff. Since most programmes and ideas have not really worked so far, it may be worthwhile trying out this one.

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