Global Diversity Best Practice: Flexible Workplaces in India

January 23, 2013 4:12 pm

By Barbara Frankel

Global Diversity: How Does India Combat Gender Issues in the Workplace?Gender issues in India have attracted worldwide attention recently because of the gang rape and murder of a young female student. For companies doing business in India, one of the world’s growth markets, the greatest issue has been how to retain and promote women, and how to help them integrate family and career demands. The companies also are trying to attract and retain other underrepresented groups, including ethnic and religious minorities and those from traditionally lower castes or with regional/language differences, as well as dealing with a very young workforce.

Attitudes in India toward gender equality in the workplace remain a challenge. A Pew Global Attitudes Project survey found that while 92 percent of Indians say women should have equal rights, 84 percent say that when jobs are scarce they should go to men. That was the highest percentage giving that response anywhere in the world. And 63 percent of Indians say a university education is more important for a boy, also the highest percentage giving that response in the world. The World Economic Forum ranks India 105th out of 135 countries in its 2012 Global Gender Gap survey.

Data from our recent Global Diversity Research of 203 companies in 46 companies show the gap for women in India. Women were 29.2 percent of the workforce and 12 percent of senior management in India, compared with 43.8 percent of the workforce and 20 percent of senior management for other Asian countries. Europe and U.S. percentages are significantly higher.

“Gaps continue to exist even today. Our society is highly patriarchal in nature,” says Aparna Vishwasrao, Associate Director of Human Resources for Merck’s MSD Pharmaceuticals in India.

“What is challenging in Asia Pacific is finding at the sourcing stage that we have enough women candidates to apply. We have a leaky pipeline of female talent. India is losing female talent in the middle,” says Ronnie Ong, Senior Director HR Generalist Asia Pacific and Japan, Dell.

We interviewed diversity leaders from Sodexo, Merck, Dell and Deloitte about their best practices in talent development in India. Here are highlights of their responses:

Resource Groups

Sodexo started its Women’s India Network, a volunteer organization with male and female representation. The resource group’s first challenge was women on the frontline, those who have the first contact with the food-service provider’s customers.

“A lot of the women we have in Sodexo India tend to be that level, with an eighth-grade education,” says Cecy Kuruvilla, Global Director, Leadership Development/Diversity. “We train them around customer service, communications, interpersonal skills, and help them with the work/life balance. We give them strategies around planning so they aren’t so harried in the morning and trying to have conversations with husbands about what things the men can do for themselves.”

It also means having conversations with—and sometimes bringing in—extended family so they understand the importance of the work the women are doing. Yoga programs have been introduced to help the women relax and center themselves, she says.

The group also established lunch-box sessions for women in staff roles in the corporate offices to improve skills and networking as well as to educate them on health and wellness.

Merck uses its Merck Women’s Network as a platform to educate women about career management and development. A key area to address, Vishwasrao says, is attrition of sales representatives. “They have long hours of work and travel to areas that may not be safe. We try to assign women to hospitals so they don’t have to travel around to have gender sensitivity around these matters,” she says. The group took on the challenge of improving representation of women in the salesforce and increased it from 3 percent to 6 percent in only eight months.

The Merck Women’s Network is sponsored by a female Business Unit Director, Monica Chaudhari. The group’s steering committee has women leaders from multiple functions.

Dell has nine highly developed chapters of its WISE groups (Women in Search of Excellence) in the Asia Pacific region. The biggest challenge, Ong says, is overcoming the male chauvinist culture. 

Leadership Development/Mentoring

Sodexo has started a one-year pilot program called Accelerated Leadership Development, giving six women managerial and self-development training, including one-on-one mentoring with a senior leader.

“The women go through a three-month stretch assignment, giving them an opportunity to see if they really want to stay in operations or move to another part of the organization—and the mentors are sponsors as well,” says Kuruvilla.

She notes that the mentoring process is different in India. “In the U.S., the mentee drives the process. In India, with the senior leader as the one who is the mentor, mentees are intimidated about speaking up. So there is a great opportunity for the mentors to learn how to do exploration with the mentee rather than giving the answers,” she says.

At Deloitte U.S. India, “our culture of sponsorship has taken mentorship to another level. It’s about taking ownership, and creating opportunities for the growth and advancement of our professionals,” says Amita Kasbekar, Inclusion lead, Deloitte Consulting India Pvt. Ltd.

“Our growth in India has been amazing. The leadership understands the challenges,” she notes, adding that “we have incorporated elements into the manager training and development program that help bringing about greater understanding and appreciation between the two genders.”

Flexible Workplaces 

All the companies interviewed put an emphasis on flexibility in the workplace. Sodexo invited family members in to understand the conflicting demands of home and work. Deloitte US India invites family members to the office once a year, to express appreciation for the support they provide and for them to understand and experience the environment at Deloitte. “This can instill a sense of pride in the families and can help enhance retention of our people,” Kasbekar says. She notes that whenever possible, Deloitte U.S. India offers its professionals a choice of which city they work in, and also has a Buddy Program for New Moms to leverage advice from senior women in the organization and provide “inspiration and psychological support as well as real-time information on what the organization offers.”

That includes Deloitte U.S. India’s Mass Career Customization program, which allows professionals to reduce workload for an extended period of time for personal reasons. The firm also has concierge services to help its professionals with paying bills, booking tickets and other personal needs. Physical-fitness centers are available, with classes in yoga, Zumba and the martial arts. 

Setting Goals 

At Merck, the leadership in India set specific percentage goals for HR for recruitment of women, promotion into management and increasing senior-management roles. For the 30-person leadership team, for example, the goal is to raise female representation from 1 percent to 4 percent within a year and then raise it to 8 percent the following year.

Reaching Younger Workers

Merck’s workforce in India is very young (50 percent under age 34). To reach this demographic, Vishwasrao cites increased social networking; increased virtual and in-person “getting-in-touch” sessions; focused initiatives on career development for younger workers, including “quick wins, without which we may end up losing them”; and increased focus on employee engagement, including a project aimed at retention and engagement of younger workers.

Deloitte U.S. India, which also has a young workforce, notes generational differences. “The younger generation comes in and wonders why we even need Diversity and Inclusion as a focus area. But the minute they get married and start to raise families, they tend to realize they need support systems to grow and achieve their goals in the organization,” Kasbekar says.