View from India: Celebrating International Women’s Day

As we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) today, VFI offers a sneak peep into the lives of women achievers. These are individuals who began their career in the pre-digital era. Many of them have gained global recognition for their contribution towards the corporate landscape of the country, as well as gaining billionaire status.

These individuals started out at a time when society didn’t necessarily understand what they were doing. The kind of opportunities and encouragement that prevail today did not exist then. Still, they made it to the top, against all odds. Many of them have gained global recognition for their contribution towards the corporate landscape of the country, becoming billionaires in the process.

Corporate India is well represented, as many women have shattered the proverbial glass ceiling. Several such personalities come to mind.

Take the case of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who is the chairperson and managing director of Biocon Ltd, Asia's premier biopharmaceutical company. Her early days were spent in doing research in a garage in Bangalore four decades ago. Today, her expertise in biotechnology has led her to take key products like Insugen (rh-insulin), Basalog (Glargine), Canmab (Trastuzumab), Biomab-EGFR (Nimotuzumab) and Alzumab (Itolizumab), a ‘first in class’ anti-CD6 monoclonal antibody, from discovery to commercialisation. Several coveted honours have enriched her portfolio, including the fact that she is a recipient of the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, the two most prestigious national awards.

In the banking sector, Chanda Kochhar, CEO of Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI) Bank, received the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Award for Global Citizenship. As the first Indian woman recipient of this award, she has joined the league of Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. ICICI Digital Village, the community outreach programme has brought vocational training to over 11,000 villagers in 17 states, apart from equipping entrepreneurs with financial tools. Largely, Kochhar is acknowledged for shaping retail banking in India.

Anu Aga is the former chairperson of Thermax a Pune-based engineering company, established by her father and later headed by her husband Rohinton Aga. After her husband’s demise in 1996, her corporate responsibilities increased multifold as she stepped in as chairperson. The company grew from strength to strength until it evolved into a global turnkey player in the energy and environment sector. Thermax Group is an INR 4,704 crore company that provides a range of engineering solutions to the energy and environment sectors.

I have just selected a few examples and by no means does it justify the presence and contribution of women in leadership roles in corporate India. In fact corporate India does have a fair share of women executives. However, the representation is not uniform. A large segment of women are in entry-level and middle-management posts, while there are few women occupying top posts. For this we need more family-friendly policies. An encouraging ecosystem and rewarding work culture are important. Organizations that understand the business imperative for gender balanced teams will go a long way, thanks to their ability to build a culture of inclusion, diversity and talent development.

As for the startup scenario, it is etched with several success stories of women entrepreneurs. People such as Twinkle Khetan, whose startup Zoozy is slowly beginning to change mindsets when it comes to having food in offices, as it has aggregated food trucks to the offices. Then there’s Kiran Bhivgade, who began Crispy Games, which is among India’s top mobile gaming companies. Niharika Jhunjhunwala began Sugarbox, a gift subscription service for women. The list goes on.

Even before startup became a catchword with today’s women, Ela Bhatt kindled the entrepreneurial spirit in women four decades ago. She has empowered women through grassroots entrepreneurship. To her goes the credit of founding Self-Employed Women’s Association in India (SEWA) in 1972. By encouraging low-income, independently employed female workers, SEWA has become the largest organisation of informal workers in the world and largest non-profit in India. Not one to rest on her laurels, Bhatt is involved with The Elders, an independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights. Her efforts in this initiative are towards the equality for women and girls.

Moving on, let’s look at STEM (the acronym for science, technology, engineering and maths). There seems to be a divide in this segment. Technology and engineering do have a sizeable number of women professionals many of whom are part of the corporate workforce. In comparison, science and math have relatively fewer women.

To analyze this, I go back in time to the formative years of an individual. Probably this has to do with the fact that right from the school days, around middle school, boys get subtle messages that math and science are for them. Somewhere along the line, stereotyping creeps in and girls are invariably nudged away from these subjects. In turn, boys are encouraged to think cognitively, a skill which helps in shaping their analytical abilities. The fact that they are oriented towards thinking differently has led to diverse career choices.

Though the attitude is changing, by and large this could be the reason why fewer women pursue pure sciences and math. Nevertheless, ‘softer’ sciences like psychology and biology tend to become a woman’s choice. Management degrees, too, attract a sizeable number of women, if not for pure maths.

There are other reasons, too. Male math and science professionals could perhaps have a stay-at-home partner, a choice which addresses domestic-related issues, whereas female maths and science professionals may end up with someone from the same profession. This may or may not augur well for their professional development in the long run.

In order to make pure science and maths a mainstream option for women and help women reach positions of academic leadership, in practical terms, the hiring procedures, grant-allocating processes, research and publishing routines need to be more welcoming and open towards them. A supportive network along with mentoring is also required. These mentors should be the people to go to for discussing ideas before firming up a profession. Donors and sponsors need to come forward to provide a financial arm for maths and science programmes for female students.

Considering that in 2017 Nirmala Sitharaman became India’s first full-time woman defence minister, one hopes that she inspires women to enter the profession of aerospace and defence.

Here’s wishing you all a Happy International Women’s Day!

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