• Do we really care for our women staff?

An inexperienced HR manager asks on a legal networking site: Is my IT company a factory? A factory — a manufacturing entity having the specified number of workforce — has to provide a crèche facility for its women employees. She was concerned, as space for a crèche could not be carved out in the high-end office complex where the company was based. Distributing cupcakes on Women’s Day won’t bridge the gender gap. Concrete practical measures alone will help.

Nearly 15 crore women make up 26% of India’s total workforce. According to a government employment review, in the organised sector, this ratio with 60 lakh women employees is 20.5%. The breakup between those employed in factories (and governed by the Factories Act, 1948) and those in commercial service establishments (covered by the state-specific Shops and Establishments Act) is unknown. But it’s reasonable to estimate that a fair chunk, especially in urban India, is employed in the services sector.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2014 Global Gender Gap Report ranks India at the bottom of the pile at 114 out of 142 countries. India reflects the highest difference of 300 minutes per day when it comes to time spent by women and men on unpaid work (read: household work). While Indian women spent 352 minutes per day on household work, men’s share was just 52 minutes. Contrast this with the US, where the difference is 87 minutes. Today, 56% of households in urban India have four or less members pointing to a predominance of nuclear families. As far as household work is concerned, however, women continue to bear the brunt.

The WEF report benchmarks national gender gaps of countries on economic, political, education and health-based criteria. The top three countries — Iceland, Finland and Norway — may not make for suitable comparables. Sadly, other BRICS nations also fared better than us. South Africa was ranked at 18, followed by Brazil (71), Russia (75) and China (87).

Women empowerment at the workplace is best reflected by the economic participation criteria, which the WEF measures in terms of the labour-participation gap, the remuneration gap and the advancement (promotion) gap. Here, India’s rank at 134 is much lower than its overall rank of 114. The female-male labour-participation ratio in India was the lowest among BRICS nations at 0.36 against the highest of 0.87 in Russia. As regards wage equality for similar work, India and Brazil had low ratios of 0.56 and 0.51, with other BRICS nations having a higher than 0.60 ratio. In the US, which has a ratio of 0.66, equal pay for equal work has become a rallying war cry.

According to Grant Thornton, globally, 24% women occupied senior levels. In India, this was 14%. With a paucity of women at senior levels, it wasn’t surprising that companies faced difficulties in filling up the women directors’ quota. Sebi has now extended the deadline for listed companies to April 1, 2015.

A Bill to amend the Factories Act will be discussed during Parliament’s winter session. If passed, it will enable women to work in factories during night shift, provided their security is taken care of and night crèche facilities available. Women in the services sector aren’t shackled by laws and work during night shifts. Yet, they aren’t entitled by law to a crèche facility at all.

We need to also take a look at the needs of women in the services sector. A simple facility such as a crèche either in the office or in close proximity to office districts sponsored by the company could help retain women talent. Taking care of such minor needs, could help more women reach senior positions in the corporate hierarchy and a resultant healthier diversity in boardrooms.

The duration of maternity leave could also be re-looked at. Brazil and Russia provide for 120 and 140 days of paid maternity leave, respectively against our three months. It wouldn’t harm to thrown in a few days of paternity leave also, as many countries have done – provided Indian men learn to pitch in and help.

A nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether, and how, it utilises its women. Beginning with simple steps, we need to bridge the gender gap.

The article appeared in the Economic Times. The article can be found here.