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August 1, 2014

The Great Divide: Myth or Reality?

Posted by Aruna C. Newton (View Profile | View All Posts) at 7:47 AM

Indra Nooyi says that women cannot have it all [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8yi5Cz2oH4]

Being a passionate professional, driving woman's leadership and empowerment, I am deeply interested in gender studies and movements. Did you know that India has 614.4 million women, which is roughly about 8.77% of the world's population and 300 million more people than the entire population of the United States of America! And, as a country, we have been ranked 101 out of 136 countries in the 2013 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report, which benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education and health-based criteria.

According to a study titled 'Women in America - Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being' by the US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration in 2009, only 7 percent of female professionals in the country were employed in the relatively high paying computer ($1,253 median weekly earnings) and engineering ($1,266 median weekly earnings) fields, compared to 38 percent of male professionals. In 2009, nearly one-fifth of all women were employed in just five occupations: secretaries, registered nurses, elementary school teachers, cashiers, and nursing aides. The US ranks 23rd in the 2013 WEF report. Norway, which was ranks 4th in the same report, widely adopts an approach of Gender Mainstreaming that calls for the integration of gender perspectives into all stages of policy and processes − design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation − from government to private enterprises.

A company is only a microcosm of a larger social entity, and suddenly it is not so difficult to believe these telling statistics.

It was my fifth conference on the subject of diversity and inclusion. Predictably, the session started with 'sharing of best practices' which ran to "we know what our women need, so we have policies like flexi work hours, crèches/day care facilities, and many leadership programs for women, some of which are even facilitated by men!" Needless to say, this was followed by a round of applause!  In my opinion, this is a classic case of managing the over-representation at the bottom and under-representation at the top. In my opinion, there are two ways to compare different companies' gender equality policies. You could look at the number of women reaching positions of power, or you could look at 'current' policies. The two don't necessarily tell the same story.

Going back to the conference. Not to be outdone, a young lady from another organization got up and said, "We have a unique mentoring program for women.  In this program, women learn a skill they don't do very well--networking!" Another young lady from the audience stood up and said indignantly: "Are you suggesting that we start smoking and drinking to become part of the men's club? After all, all decisions of importance are taken in 'Smoking Zones' or over drinks in the evening!" There was a collective gasp from the audience who was predominantly women.

In truth, these conferences tell women what they already know.Well, there is nothing wrong with all these conversations. They represent a maturity of the journey that women have undertaken over the decades. Some resigned to their fate, others chafing at the bit and a few continuing, their energy unchecked.

Indra Nooyi, in a recent and candid interview said, "I don't think women can have it all." And suddenly there was food for debate! Or Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In said, among other things, 'don't leave before you leave' and don't get bogged down by 'the myth of doing it all' - and became an instant celebrity. As Polonius in Hamlet remarked, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it."

In the world, today, more and more women are getting an education and opting for professional courses. It is no co-incidence that in an industry like ours about 55 percent or more of our new graduate hires are women. But, after that auspicious start, the numbers dwindle down quickly to about 25 percent for personal reasons like getting married or having a baby. More than 50 percent of these employees don't come back to work, ever! Now, that's a real shame.

What's not being studied enough is the speed at which the 25 percent that remains, dwindles to single digits in a couple of years and finally vanishes from the horizon, so that at senior management levels, you can actually count them on the fingers of one hand! And therein lies the problem.

Recent studies suggest women don't negotiate their salaries as hard as men do and maybe also their job roles (positions). An article in The Wall Street Journal in September 2013 suggests that women earned 76.5 cents for every dollar that men did last year, moving no closer to narrowing a gender pay gap that has barely budged in almost a decade. The Centre for American Progress in an article titled, 'Top 10 Facts about the Wage Gap' contends that if progress continues at the current rate, it will take 45 years to eradicate the wage gap. Over a 40-year working career, the average woman loses $431,000 as the result of the wage gap. What's even more intriguing is the observation that more than 40 percent of the wage gap cannot be explained by occupation, work experience, race, or union membership!

Well, these facts aside, I firmly believe that women are trying too hard. Trying too hard to get into male-dominated bastions, training ourselves to cope with it through building those 'otherwise deficient skills' and if that does not work, training men to cope with us under the label of 'sensitivity.'

Stop changing the rules! It's clearly time to change the game. I've often wondered what if women said they were not keen to engage with today's corporations but would work only if they got what they wanted on their terms. And the industry would try everything they could think of to get them on board!

If education drives economic growth and social development, the day is not far when women will be in the driver's seat. What do you think?

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