Tuesday, 22 January 2008


I was travelling back home as a young student on a train from New Delhi after my bachelor final exams and I met a mother with two hyperactive under ten sons. We got talking and I liked her simple straightforward nature.

I don't remember much of the conversation I had with her, but one thing has stuck in my memory. When asked whether she was working, she answered, poker-faced, ' yes, I work. At home'.

Many years later, this memory got jogged when I was going through the Telegraph newspaper. An interesting article as to why women top in schools and colleges but do not reach top positions at work. So here goes:

What women want

They certainly don’t look for burnouts and marriage break-ups

Talking heads on the idiot box and conference junkies have a subject they turn to again and again — the empowerment of women. In the HR arena, the so-called glass ceiling seems to be reflected everywhere. A single Indra Nooyi making it to the top of Pepsi International provokes tonnes of pontification. Reams are written on how we need to throw up more opportunities for the fairer sex.

At the bottom of the pyramid, this is a non-issue. On farms or at construction sites in cities, women shoulder as much of the work as men do. They get paid less, true. But that’s another issue. In terms of opportunity, they probably are on a par with men, particularly as they are more responsible and less liable to disappear on jags. Workplaces that make provision for childcare report a far better response from women than men.

It is in organised sector jobs that women seem to get a raw deal. A new study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce says that only 3.3 per cent of working women reach top slots and 17.7 per cent the middle level. The study surveyed 1,053 women — 222 rural, 363 urban and 468 from metropolitan cities.

It you look closely at the findings, you will see that it is not principally the environment or society that stops these women from making it to the top. The bigger reasons are lack of support from their families and their own personal inclinations.

“It is fashionable to say that society is depriving women of job opportunities,” says Mumbai-based HR consultant Shashi Rao. “Women say so too. But do they really want to be part of the rat race?”

According to a study by consulting firm Accenture, most people (70 per cent of women and 50 per cent of men) do believe that a glass ceiling exists. Other studies show that American women get paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. But 60 per cent of them are happy with their salaries, compared to the slightly higher 67 per cent for men.

“Women know how to achieve a better balance,” says Rao. “If it is necessary to compromise on career ambitions to take care of the family, they are prepared to do so.” Rao points out that studies of Indian Institute of Management graduates show that very few women reach high levels in the corporate world. (Nooyi is an aberration.) But many of them seem to be doing very well as entrepreneurs or consultants. “They are very successful,” says Rao. “But they have made their own world where they can work at their own pace. The last things they want are burnouts and marriage break-ups.”

“Yes, there is a case to be made for discrimination in pay,” continues Rao. “But when it comes to a promotion or rising up the corporate ladder, it is very often the woman’s own choice. Don’t pity the mid-level woman manager whose male colleagues have left her two rungs behind. She is perfectly content where she is until the do-gooders start talking about how she has been discriminated against. This is an equally important pro-choice issue.”

Most of the “break the glass ceiling” advocacy comes from the US. But how does it really fare on this score?

Consulting firm Grant Thornton’s 2007 study on women in management — part of its International Business Report — says that the proportion of businesses with women in senior management is the highest in the Philippines (97 per cent) followed by Mainland China (91 per cent). The US is No 13 with 69 per cent. India records 56 per cent. The US has the same rank when it comes to women in senior management. It chalks up 23 per cent against 50 per cent for the Philippines and 42 per cent for Brazil. India has 14 per cent.
So is it good or bad for India? Leave it for the women to decide.


Where they work
Private sector 47.1%
Government 24.7%
Public sector 15.3%
NGOs 12.9%

And what holds them back

Lack of time (for networking etc) 42%
Reluctance to change jobs or geographies 34.66%
Family responsibilities 16.67%
Others 6.67%

(Source: Assocham study — Women Top in Education: Why Miss Top Positions?)

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