Women Leaders in India’s Workplace


"No Glass Ceiling. Just Blue Sky". I must admit, Marcy Blochowiak’s book title summarizes my thoughts well! It may be an aspirational statement anywhere in the world, particularly in India, but I would like it to remain on the table.

It is well known that the focus on Women Leadership is driven primarily by two strong pillars - The Business (CEO’s Office) and The Function (HR). It is moving due to pressure from the global eco system from a "good to have" to a "must have". Diversity is increasingly a business imperative that is being watched by both the shareholders and the Board. With this hawk eye, it is not surprising that these pillars are focusing even more extensively on this space.

India is relatively young as far as corporate Women Leadership is concerned, but has played an excellent catch up, by moving quickly forward to be aligned to global counterparts. India’s history with regard to women has been mixed – in the past, women have been worshipped as goddesses, burnt for dowry, killed at or before birth with appalling cases of female infanticide, but things are changing so rapidly, we almost feel we are living in two Indias. From a cultural, social and economic angle, women have put up with much adversity in the past, and sadly some still face huge challenges today. From adversity to diversity now, however! The past is moving away, and the future is a dazzling catch up. Women are moving center stage as political, social and economic beings. While remaining conscious and wary of our history, looking forward and embracing our empowerment is critical.

We have produced some stupendous Women CEOs and CXO level leaders, but they are still not standard issue in India, as perhaps they are in the West. But things are getting better. The pressure on this space comes not only from the Indian set up, but the global headquarters as well, and what is good news is the level of internalization that is taking place in the top ranks of management. Male stakeholders are one of the biggest supporters in the corporate structure of today.

I must admit that there is primarily a focus on the larger corporations in the context of this article - the MNC or large Indian corporates, particularly the IT Majors. That may be kept in mind, as a lot still needs to be done in the SME (Small and Medium Enterprise) space. The Glass Ceiling is typically a phrase that makes most people, especially women (and I must say, that includes me) - many roll their eyes and cringe, as it is such a cliché ! However, like many clichés, I must admit that it has a significant element of truth and foundation.

In India, there are several factors that are impelling senior women leaders to break through the so- called Glass Ceiling:

  • Governmental Initiatives - this ranges from a focus on education for women, better representation in educational institutions, and legislation on safety and empowerment.
  • A larger funnel of middle to senior women professionals that was just not there before – there was simply a limited pipeline, and this obviously impacted the numbers reaching top management.
  • Larger ambition by women to reach the corner office – culturally and socially, women today are feeling the justifiable motivation and energy to get the top job with support and encouragement from family who are far more focused on her happiness and success than perhaps the previous generations were.
  • Strong professional structure - at the workplace, the HR and company structure is gearing itself to incorporate and promote more women leaders than before. Results are already showing up in Corporate India.
  • A greater sensitivity and acceptance of the woman as part of a larger entity i.e. the family, and therefore more openness to build this into rigorous office structures and schedules.
  • Mentors and Role Models - not enough has been said on this important issue and its impact on pushing women up the ladder. Without adequate role models, many of us would not be able to see a demonstration of the success we want! Mentors are increasingly used and depended on by many career oriented women. Senior women leaders are getting more conscious of their impact on this space, and are willing to give time and direction to younger women leaders and the organizational process to attract and retain them.
  • The development of technology has resulted in a more virtual world that is less dependent on presenteeism, and physical presence. This results in a greater span of control for women.
  • Globalization has given more visibility and opportunity to today’s woman, and she is using this to her advantage.
  • Search Consultants and HR Staffing Leaders are under increasing pressure to source more and more women for senior roles, so several talented women professionals who may have been below the radar are getting the visibility that they need to make it to the top.
  • Diversity and Women Leadership initiatives by many corporates to create and sustain talent within, as well as by powerful Industry bodies like NASSCOM and CII certainly help to mainstream this, and create critical mass.

My thought is that one way or the other, the next 5 years is going to be an interesting place for senior women leaders in the corporate world in India. We are going to see an increasing number make it to the top, and what is more important and critical is that they will stay there.

BlueSteps is the exclusive service of the AESC that puts senior executives on the radar screen of over 8,000 executive search professionals in 74 countries. Be visible, and be considered for up to 75,000 opportunities handled by AESC search firms every year. Find out more at www.BlueSteps.com 

Priya Chetty-Rajagopal

Vice President & Client Partner, Stanton Chase International

Priya is a very well known industry figure in Bangalore. As the head of Corporate Practice, her focus with Stanton Chase Bangalore is to implement a non IT focus in a completely IT-oriented city. A member of Stanton Chase International’s Business Excellence Committee, Priya has also played a large role in establishing its Global Diversity Practice. She has successfully led Chief Executive Officer level search assignments for a diverse selection of companies in India.

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