More Bangles on the Shop Floor

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Why women could be our greatest economic leverage:

“The 21st century is not about India vs. China. It’s about women!” Banker turned entrepreneur, Nirmala Sankaran of Chennai based Heymath!, a company that provides online math tutorials for school children, is totally convinced. “The skills we most need today are collaboration, knowledge sharing, communication, multi-tasking and flexibility – most of which comes naturally to women. With India projected to have 66% more women than in China in the 20 to 25 age category by 2020, and the total number of women in the overall working age category (20 to 60) expected to be close to 500 million women, we are undermining India’s competitive potential by not investing sufficiently in enabling women to become a significant part of our workforce.” How is that for big picture and long term visioning?

Cut back to 2008 what is the reality on the ground?

With the demand for quality talent outstripping supply by a wide margin, HR Heads of IT and BPO companies, large and small, are constantly thinking of ways and means to alleviate the problem.

Companies such as Wipro Technologies and TCS have used the strategy of hiring Science graduates, imparting relevant training and deploying them on Infrastructure management and testing engagements. Setting up operations in tier 2 and even tier three cities is another strategy to tap into a larger pool of talent.

A third strategy that companies are now seriously considering is to attract more women into the workforce. Just recently, Infosys has announced that it is planning to have 1-2% part time employees in its BPO division to attract a section of the workforce to whom this may appeal- women and retired people. According to the company, the objective is to “expand the available talent pool, meeting client requirements for work bits that do not require full time employees and meeting work life aspirations of women employees who are not able to work full-time.” Infosys has also created a framework for managing Gender Inclusivity and nurturing Women leaders, namely AIR – Attract, Increase and Retain.

Wipro Technologies’ exit analysis indicated that most women leave owing to personal reasons such as setting up a family or relocating with their family or to provide a support system at home. The company reasoned that addressing some of these needs would help retain women. “We have instituted support systems like extended maternity leave, a company supported crèche, special work options, and these are well appreciated by our women colleagues. However, what many have shared with me that they like best is the care we take to support their careers. And that is reflected in our growing women team in all levels,” explained Sunita Cherian – GM, HR.

It is clear that tier 1 companies have realized the advantages of gender diversity and the benefits of women in the workforce. What about emerging companies? Are there examples of companies that have explored this strategy and what have been the results? What are the issues that need to be looked into if women become a significant part of your workforce?

Tushar Bhatia, CEO of Noida based Saigun Technologies, which interestingly is in the HR software products business, shared his experience of employing women at Saigun. “Women are highly focused and productive and, deliver better results oftentimes. Thus, it is a great idea to include them in the employee mix. Women are loyal and lend stability to the workforce.” On the flip side though, attrition for personal reasons is higher and inability to work long hours could sometimes pose a problem. Similar thoughts were echoed by Suresh Sambandam, CEO, OrangeScape, a product startup based in Chennai.

Fast growing BPO Indecomm Global Services is an interesting case study. Indecomm is a rare example of a company that has several women in leadership positions. Sudha Prakash was the H-HR and later successfully led Indecomm’s foray into retail banking services. Vidya Ravikumar, H-India Operations, has created a robust multi locational operational model which is a key differentiator for the organization. According to Sudha Prakash, women are able to work well in a constrained situation (typical of young, growing companies) and get the job done with little fuss, exemplified by Vidya’s and her own contributions to Indecomm. She also added that a supportive environment is a must for women to succeed, and she acknowledged the role played by CEO, Naresh Ponnapa, in creating such an ambience at Indecomm.

Nirmala talks about her own experience at Heymath!, a company that has nearly 50% women. Nirmala feels that women adapt better to an entrepreneurial set up and are excellent “situational leaders.” This goes back to the now recurring theme of being able to get the job done unmindful of constraints.

Corroborates Padmini Sharathkumar, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, Polaris Software Labs, “Women are natural multi-taskers and make very good project managers.” She says, however, that the support ecosystem in India for working women is still under developed leading to a large number of women quitting full time jobs either because of marriage or to take care of the family. This has resulted in a fairly significant number of potentially employable women in the age group of 25- 40 who are not a part of the workforce. Imagine the leverage companies would have if they could tap into this pool.

Simar Singh, Chairman and Founder, Compare Infobase has indeed walked the talk when it comes to creating an equal opportunity organization. The numbers say it all. A 1000 people strong organization, Infobase has about 43% women in its workforce. Nearly a half of the company’s 25-person management committee are women. Many of its business divisions, including Media and Content Generation, have women in senior positions or heading it. Says Simar, “The Company has a zero tolerance philosophy towards any kind of bias – be it gender, religion or ethnicity and has ensured, from day one, that this philosophy is implemented in letter and spirit.” In fact, the company has tried its best to provide a supportive environment for its women – allowing flexible work hours or even home working options – for proven performers. He believes that this has helped women “Compares” tide over transient phases (such as starting a family) without a complete career break. Interestingly Simar has not spent time measuring the outcomes of the company’s bias-free environment. As he says,” This is the core of what we believe and there is no need to measure that!”

To sum up, it is clear that women can contribute significantly to the growth of the IT and BPO industry in India. While there are examples of progressive companies that have realized the advantages of having women as a part of the workforce, women remain today, an underleveraged resource. While the IT industry has set an example by creating more opportunities for women, there is more that can be done to create a win-win situation – for employable women and for the industry.

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