A study published by leadership advisory firm Russell Reynolds Associates in December 2023 confirmed what we had already known about Indian companies — they just don’t have enough women. Higher the position in the company, the lesser the number of women.
The analysis found that only 10% of executive directors in the top 200 listed companies in India were women. The number was slightly higher in the category of independent directors at 27%.
The analysis highlighted, as have others that preceded it, that the number of women who hold executive positions in India continues to be skewed. More women as independent directors is because of a Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) mandate that at least one woman independent director should be appointed in the top 500 National Stock Exchange (NSE)-listed firms by 1 April 2019 and in the top 1,000 listed entities by 1 April 2020. Another mandate that came with the Companies Act 2013 made it compulsory for listed companies and public limited firms beyond a certain size to have at least one woman as a member of its Board of Directors by 1 April 2015.
The gender disparity in the board of these listed companies is symptomatic of a deeper problem. A range of factors such as casual sexism, inflexible work hours and work rules that were made keeping men in mind mean that not many women are able to climb the corporate ladder.
Professor Neharika Vohra of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad told The Core, “For now, Indian companies are just meeting the mandate and the mandate itself is weak. Board members aren’t aware or even inquisitive of what women bring to the table and are doing it for the sake of compliance.”
There are greater challenges for women to rise from the ranks and be discovered for these positions. “There are enough women with expertise and experience to be on these boards but no one is going out to look for them,” Sairee Chala who serves on multiple boards told The Core. She is also the founder of Sheroes and Mahila Money, a community platform for women to find their way into the economic mainstream.
Why And How Are Women Getting Appointed
Data on women in higher positions in the corporate workplace shows further how little is done for inclusivity. A report titled “Women on Board in India” published in 2020 and authored by Vohra showed that a majority of women were appointed only close to the last date of implementation.
Data from EY’s report from October 2022 showed that about 60% of the Nifty 500 companies have just one woman board member, while less than 5% of the companies have women as chairpersons. Only nine of the Nifty 500 companies have 50% women’s representation, per primeinfobase.
“The average number of women on boards is still hovering around 1. This shows that companies do not want to go out of their way to hire more women on their boards. If they have one woman on the board, they do not look for more women when hiring another board member, ” Vohra said.
Larsen & Toubro, which has a 19-member board, has just one woman on their board. Even as board sizes get bigger, the mandate of one woman on the board is where corporations are drawing the line.
Deloitte Global’s Women in the Boardroom report also sheds light on the increasing stretch factor in boardrooms. This metric shows how many boards a singular director is on. The higher the stretch factor, the greater the number of board seats the same director occupies. For women, the stretch factor increased from the 2018 figure of 1.26 to 1.30 in 2021. This indicates that a smaller group of women are taking on a large number of board seats as compared to men, as the same women are being appointed on multiple boards.
Another worrying metric from the study by Vohra revealed the pay gap between male and female directors. An analysis of pay and benefits data of 5,155 directors (men and women included) in the top 480 NSE-listed companies showed that women directors were getting paid approximately 55% less than men in the same position.
Women Aren’t Able To Move Up The Ranks
In an ideal scenario, women rise up the ranks, prove their mettle and get appointed to boardrooms on the back of their experience and expertise. However, workplaces in India are not conducive to women’s growth.
“The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough women who are capable. But their experiences in workplaces have been so toxic and unpleasant that they have had to resign citing personal reasons,” Vohra said.
A survey by Deloitte found that 14% of women who participated in the survey left their jobs in 2022. The major reasons cited were - lack of flexibility (26%), role doesn’t offer a positive work/life balance (26%) and that the pay wasn’t high enough (18%).
Archana Khosla Burman – who chairs the Mumbai chapter for FLO, a platform under FICCI to foster women’s contribution to economic development – told The Core, “The patriarchal mindset that still permeates society, the expectation for women to shoulder the primary burden of childcare and family responsibilities and the policies exacerbates this challenge.” With work for office becoming increasingly mandatory, flexibility that came with the pandemic – and allowed many women to join the workforce – is now disappearing.
Add to this, the health-related issues. The Deloitte survey found that over 40% of women experiencing challenges related to menstruation and 20% related to menopause said they worked through their discomfort.
Burman highlighted that leadership positions are increasingly being offered at a younger age, and this coincides with a critical phase in women’s lives, as they navigate the delicate balance between professional aspirations and family commitments. This convergence intensifies their struggle.
The lack of flexibility or safety, casual sexism and boys clubs that continue to make women’s lives in the workplace difficult. “When put in such an over-cautious environment, women are less likely to take risks and it becomes hard for them to be wrong and this eventually impacts their productivity too,” Chahal said.
Ultimately, workplaces reflect our society and the experience of women at workplaces is not very different from what they experience in society in general.
Are Mandates Doing Enough?
As for the mandate, it requires tweaking too, academicians argue. “One woman in the boardroom is not enough. At any position having two of the kind is essential for support and connection,” Vohra said.
She also shed light on the psychological impacts of being the only woman in a male-dominated boardroom, “When women find themselves alone, there is a sense that they’ve been chosen to satisfy the mandate and not for what they bring to the table. The intent behind their hiring greatly changes their contribution too.”
This is not to say that mandates do not help. Nordic countries like Sweden and Norway have brought in stricter mandates which have greatly helped improve contribution and inclusivity. A shift in attitude along with stricter mandates is essential, experts point out.
While a top-down approach, like enforcing these mandates, is crucial for solving this issue systematically, there also needs to be a greater participation of women across levels. A McKinsey study found that for every 100 men who get promoted to a managerial position, only 87 women get that promotion.
“The barriers to promotions and senior leadership roles for women in India are deeply rooted in cultural norms and biased hiring processes, as also emphasised by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. India’s lower rankings in women’s economic participation underscore these challenges,” Burman said.