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World Economic Forum: Is gender bias still a reality in India?


At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in New Delhi, Gita Gopinath, professor of economics at Havard University, Priya Hiranandani Vandrevala, co-founder and chairman of Hirco group, Aparajita Gogoi, executive director at centre for development and population activities and NDTV's Shweta Rajpal Kohli discuss the ability of corporates to ensure gender diversity at the work place.

Here is the full transcript. See the video here.


NDTV:  Profit, growth, share-holder value are some of the traditional goals for the senior management of any company, but increasingly top leadership is also being assessed on its ability to ensure gender diversity at the work place. Hello and welcome to this very special panel discussion. We come to you from the World Economic Forum in India and it's such a pleasure; we have with us here three lovely and very successful women - Priya Hiranandani Vandrevala, co-founder and chairman of the Hirco group, Gita Gopinath, professor of economics at Harvard University and Dr. Aparajita Gogoi, executive director at centre for development and population activities. Many thanks for being with us. I know it's a bit clichéd for women to sit and talk about gender diversity at workplace. Despite all the noise around it, data still, at least in India, points to it being anything but equitable for women. Why do you think so Priya?


PRIYA HIRANANDANI VANDREVALA: Well, I think first of all women need to have five rights - the right to be born; we know of the 100 million missing women in India and China who haven't been born; the right to be educated; the right to have equal work and equal pay for equal work and the right, after they have children, to have child care, and the right to be able to live alone. These are simple rights; some of them are cultural, some of them are social. The solution will come from both aspects - one - celebrating and appreciating women and men who endorse and support such rights, and also in legislation, which provides child care, education and which mandates that. I think we have done wonderfully well in 60 years, but there's a lot to be done on this aspect.


NDTV:  Gita, you're someone who makes all Indians proud; you've done wonderful work in the area of academics. Academics is an area, which is seen to come naturally to women. Would you agree with that? Are there some myths, perceptions associated with the kind of professions women really take up?


GITA GOPINATH: Well, I come from an institution, which is research-based. Harvard University is an educational institution, but it is also strongly a research-based organization. Actually, the representation of women there is very small. So, for instance, in my department, we have about 40 senior faculty members of whom two are women, and that includes me. So it's a very small number of women at that level. Then, when you have the perception that women are more? You observe women in academia - the kind from the teaching profession, which is the schools and which are purely teaching jobs.


NDTV:  And also a more India based phenomenon?


GITA GOPINATH: No, no I think that's true everywhere, even in the US, in most parts of the world. If you look at schooling, women do make up a big chunk of the teachers. It's not one of the under-represented sectors, but if you go higher up and start looking at universities, and you look at positions that are research-based, there is a steep drop off; you hardly see any women especially in economics or sciences; you hardly see any women at top academic positions.


NDTV:  Is it the whole work-life balance issue that perhaps prompts women to take up professions that are a bit easier?


GITA GOPINATH: It's true, yes.


NDTV:  And is academics easy - that is also my question?


GITA GOPINATH: Again this comes down to the dichotomy between whether it's a teaching institution or a research institution. So, if it's a teaching job, then it's certainly true that you have the flexibility; you get the vacations that the students get; you get a lot more flexible work day. But if you're in a research institution where I was, you work 24x7. Basically, you're doing research all the time; it's publish or perish. Again you can say why it's biased against women, because it becomes harder for women to do that because women at my age are typically married and married to particular men, who also have serious jobs; they typically find it hard to balance and it becomes very hard to balance family life and work life. So once that happens, once you're in a job that requires a lot of your time, women find it harder because you're typically married to people, who are also in a job that is very demanding.


NDTV:  I think we should accept it; it's something we shouldn't try and run away from. Aparajita, it is true we keep talking about women's rights, equality at the work place, gender diversity, but we have to face it, women do have dual roles in society; we will see a lot of them taking a back seat and ensuring that they can be in professions that give them that extra flexibility. Do you think those are just stereotypes that are here to change now?  


APARAJITA GOGOI: See I agree that we do talk about and actually practice gender diversity, but I want to take you two steps back; you look at what is happening in Indian society, you may have 4 per cent representation, 10 per cent representation. But it doesn't really make a difference if girls and women are not empowered in the true sense of the term. You may have an HR manager, who is heading the gender sensitive committee in the organization. But if he goes back to his house and expects his wife to do some very gender-stereotypical roles, if he wants to invest more in his son's education and not in his daughter's education...


NDTV:  Is that still a reality in most of India?


APARAJITA GOGOI: Yes, it is. In at least in 80 per cent of India, that's still a reality. If you go to rural India, look at cultural practices. We talk of women and nutrition - mothers, bahus in the house eat last and eat the least; that's a tradition that nobody is talking about. Theories of gender empowerment and that practice is actually being carried out in families like yours and mine.


NDTV:  Okay, so let me actually get Priya's perspective on family run businesses in India, because often when we refer to corporate India, we like to include the family-run businesses. So when we say that we want to ensure the boardroom is more equitable, there are more women who're part of boards of companies. What about women as part of succession planning? Do you think family-run businesses in India have that openness? Are they changing their mindset to include women within their overall succession planning?


PRIYA HIRANANDANI VANDREVALA: Well, I think it depends on the families really. You have people like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Anu Aga and Swati Piramal and people like that, who run businesses and on the other hand you have families who will abort a child if the child is female...


NDTV: notwithstanding, status in society notwithstanding...


PRIYA HIRANANDANI VANDREVALA: Absolutely, and lot of it is cultural; a lot of it is the fact that the society evolves. For instance, the forward society in this aspect is the western Europe, where you get up to 52 weeks unpaid leave or even several weeks of paid leave for people when they have children; that's one extreme, while in the US, which I consider the middle of the road, you get 3 weeks of paid leave if you have a child and then we have India and China, where we still don't celebrate women like we do men. So, in the work place in the west, you have 52 per cent of women, who are employed, while here in India, we are absolutely destroying our women by not giving them education, by not giving them simple nutrition. This is a cultural problem, we have to deal with; this has to be obviously legislated, but it is also cultural. We also have to evolve in society to appreciate and understand that women can contribute in different ways and can be very big contributors to the work force.  


NDTV:  But it's perhaps this generation that's also setting that change, Priya, the fact that a lot of family-run businesses are giving equal rights to their daughters and to their sons. Do you think that's really happening on the ground or do you think that's only a perception issue, that yes they're open to that change, and they're accepting women as leaders, as successors to their businesses, as they're accepting their sons for instance?


PRIYA HIRANANDANI VANDREVALA: Well, I mean the clear majority is not, but there are certainly very very good strong instances. I mean, would we celebrating a black President being re-elected with a middle name Hussein and a pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company Marissa Mayer? There are certainly wonderful people to look up to; they have broken the glass ceiling; they have shown that all that there is, there is no reason why it shouldn't happen, except that we haven't done enough of it and rightly so. We need to make sure that we evolve to the point, where we do much more of it. I think the vast majority is still not; there is still less women in the work force than should be and less women being born than should be. So we have to increase the funnel; we have to promote women all along the line and not just say, you know, the EU considered a proposal 2 weeks ago to have 40 per cent reservations in boards in Brussels and this was for all big public companies.


NDTV:  I'm going to come to that, that are we taking the gender diversity issue at work place a bit too far and that was actually the theme of discussion, that when you say you need to have reservations in boards of companies, is that taking it a bit too far Gita?


GITA GOPINATH: I think what's really interesting is that Priya mentioned that countries in Western Europe have much more liberal attitude towards women. This is not what we are talking about - which has one of the highest levels of equality for women? They instituted this requirement that 40 per cent of people on the board need to be women. So think about this, this was made mandatory; that had to be done in a country, which has one of the highest levels of equality. No, that's what is interesting, because that's what came up, it was first pushed; everybody made this big hullabaloo about the fact that, that's going to be anti-meritocracy, that you're not going to find enough qualified women. But now we have enough data coming up after this particular policy was put into place; everything points to the contrary. In fact, everything points to the fact that women, who are on these boards do as well, if not better a job, than the men on those boards do. So there's now widespread acceptance of it. So I think this actually makes an interesting point, which is that can we expect that change will happen on its own?


NDTV:  So do you favour this kind of reservation? As a woman, as a successful woman, do you favour reservation for having women on the boards of listed companies? Is that something that should be mandatory and will bring about that much needed empowerment of women as decision-makers, would you support that?


GITA GOPINATH: I think what I truly believe in is that you have to make some positive effort to have more women representation; just sitting back and hoping that things will happen on its own doesn't work. Here's another example of that, the reservation of the leadership positions of gram panchayats for women happened in India many many years ago; that's an example where we now have a lot of scientific evidence of trying to study the impact of that kind of reservation, and the results are really amazing and very heartening as a woman I have to say. The good thing about this particular policy, the way it was implemented, was that villages were selected randomly as to who got this particular reservation and who didn't. So you could actually do this study scientifically and what you found was that in villages where women were made Pradhans, the biases against women went down considerably. In fact, in future elections, even in seats that were not reserved, women had a better chance of actually winning those seats. So, I actually think that there's always an initial knee jerk reaction that this kind of reservation is going to be bad and it is not going to be meritocratic.


NDTV:  There would be those who were critics of reservations per se; reservation for anybody is something many people object to, but you seem to echo the sentiment that Gita is talking about, is that right?


APARAJITA GOGOI: Absolutely and to give you a real life example, Bihar has 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayat and last elections you had 54 per cent women in elections, which means that there were women who actually may have been in the reserved slot in the first round but they were good enough. We are working with around 1200 of these women elected leaders and let me tell you they are the leading voices in their villages, in their blocks and in their zillas. When it comes to getting girls back to school, when it comes to getting women their rights and these women are not just working on just health and education; we have Pradhans who have taken up fight against the public distribution system, which is extremely corrupt to say the least. So they are really looking into issues that matter to people in their village and their blocks; they are talking about getting old age pension for older people; they are looking at getting scholarships for students who come from marginalised societies. So I think reservation is a good wind of opportunity to bring women into the fold because they also need that opportunity to really show their best; they need that space under the sun to make a difference.


NDTV:  So how do women make a difference at the work place? That should be the next area of discussion and I'd like all of you to possibly talk about the skill sets that women bring. Why is it that corporates should actually ensure that there are women as decision-makers in senior leadership positions? Do we as women bring certain skill sets that men don't?


PRIYA HIRANANDANI VANDREVALA: I would like to think so anyway. No truly we do; it's been proven. As Aparajita said correctly, women when they get a wage, spend more money on food, on education, on children than men do when they are in the same situation. So clearly it has a huge benefit in the social aspect. But coming back to business and the boardroom so to speak, I think women bring different qualities because we are different, you bring a different point of view; our consumers are men and women, we bring that perspective, our employees are men and women, we bring that perspective, the world is comprised of men and women and therefore we bring a point of view; in my opinion, that is unique to us and nobody has to second guess that we can sit in the boardroom and say how we feel about work life balance; how we feel about the fact that we might be selling an apartment to a consumer who's a woman and could also be a man and we can present the woman's point of view. So I certainly think that it has huge advantages because you have the mind, the thinking and of course women have proven to make better emotional decisions.


NDTV:  But are emotional decisions necessarily good for a business is the question?


PRIYA HIRANANDANI VANDREVALA: Well are they necessarily bad though, we should have two points of view.


NDTV:  Right, right but Gita Marissa Mayer is something that Priya had mentioned and she is really now a case study when we talk about gender diversity in the work place. The fact that you have got a large corporate hiring a pregnant CEO, is that something that has sent out the right message that nothing can really stop women, we can break the glass ceiling if we want to?


GITA GOPINATH: Oh, I think there is, even before her, we have had women who have been put in prominent positions, but they are few and far in between. Coming back to your question whether women bring in other skills to a particular job, I would have to argue that we do not need to bring in other skills. We can be very good and even better than men at the same skill and so the question is about providing the same level playing field.


NDTV:  You know the stereotypical question I would say is we in many ways add to those stereotypes about men and women being different?


GITA GOPINATH: No, I can only talk from my perspective which is in academia. I don't think I bring in anything difference to the research skills than my male colleagues do.


NDTV:  But you can multi-task better, can't you?


GITA GOPINATH: No, I probably don't even multi-task well. So that's another stereotype. But I think I am very good at the same set of skills and to the question of whether it is about reservation, let me be clear here, everything cannot be reserved; you cannot have reservations for all kinds of jobs. So for instance in academia by the time you come to the point where you need somebody to have a PhD and be able to do research at that point, the mandate that we are going to reserve positions for women is a bit too late in the game; the pipeline has to be prepared for it; you have to target women much earlier in the education process; you have to make them aware of the opportunities that exist, that they get the right training. On the other hand, for something like the gram panchayats, I'd say, go ahead and make the reservations.


NDTV:  So what is your message really to policy makers, to corporate India, when it comes to ensuring gender diversity? Aparajita we'll start with you.


APARAJITA GOGOI: I think first thing is to really practice what you preach; ensuring gender diversity is not just checking boxes saying okay we have 40 per cent women in our board. It is really doing what the philosophy behind it is. I think secondly we really have to change the language of the discourse; you talked about women in US getting maternity leave, many organisations in the US actually call it disability leave; just because you are biologically able to produce a child and you need leave, it's not a disability. I think we have to be less patronising and we really have to say yes it's an open field. Some people will rise because they are capable, some may fall by the wayside. But I think it's time for us to practice what we are talking about and not just check boxes.  


NDTV:  Okay we should not be checking boxes and in this whole mandate of checking boxes and ensuring that we have the right representation, are we somewhere losing sight of the goal because we hear of HR professionals and head hunters almost being told, you know what find us a woman who can be on our board, find us a who can possibly take up a senior leadership position and they are saying they are not out there, where do we get them from?  


PRIYA HIRANANDANI VANDREVALA: Well, certainly if that is the message they are getting then that's awful. I think Gita said it well. I think we'd like to think of us as equal contributors and not as people who have been given a position because of our gender and that will be insulting.


NDTV:  Absolutely, that's the flip side of the entire debate.  


PRIYA HIRANANDANI VANDREVALA: But on the other hand if you don't promote and say that it's very hard for someone to do it for the first time, and so if there's a position where you'd say we actually like a symbolic person to be there, to send a message that a very large organisation is promoting women; for instance in Barclays bank there are several women on the board, if you want to send a message that we celebrate women across the organisation and we have 200,000 employees, we'd like a woman in that position, I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all; it's a gesture. It's important to send that gesture and people do it in politics all the time; people do it in companies all the time. I suppose if you get promoted and you get supported for the first time, that's probably something that's necessary and we should all do it as women and as a man.


NDTV:  And why do we only talk about leadership positions and why do we only talk about boardrooms? It should be across the entire value chain that we see enough women, and there are enough examples in India. For instance today we read about how Yamaha seems to be doing it - finding women on the assembly line or finding women attendants at petrol pumps; it's something that we need to see, we need to see more women at the work place, no matter what position it is, is that right Gita?


GITA GOPINATH: Oh, I agree, I think in India it's one of the things that is very important is to provide a secure environment for women. I think what is very disturbing is to continuously read in the news about how unsecure it is to be a woman in any of these work places.


NDTV:  But do you see that changing, because now there seem to be enough sensitive corporates who take that into account, do you believe that's changing for the better?


GITA GOPINATH: Obviously, at too glacial a pace. The fact that it's still in urban India that women are not safe in their work place is a disturbing idea, and obviously change is not coming fast enough. So I think that needs to be done; there has to be change, when you are talking about women in all different spheres of life. I think it's important for women to feel like they have the opportunity, that it's safe to be in these kinds of environment. The reason I think it is important for women to be in leadership positions is because whatever said and done, people end up being mentors at some point and if you do not have women mentors, it's very hard to get the girl, who comes in at the entry level, to a leadership position. So I think it is important for women to be in leadership positions.


NDTV:  Okay, women as mentors - that's an important point you've raised, Aparajita. We just need to do much much more to ensure that we at least end that discrimination. Do we still feel that there's discrimination against women at the work place? Do you think that concept is still there, where women are discriminated against just because of their gender?


APARAJITA GOGOI: I think it comes to mindset. Like I said, you may be having the perfect policies; you may be checking the boxes. But if you don't change your mindset, there is going to be discrimination. Take an example of a girl from Haryana who stays in a town, which is ruled by the Khap panchayat, who says you cannot have a cellphone, you cannot go to the market alone, you cannot do this and you cannot do that; she suddenly can't get empowered even if she's walking into an office where there is perfect gender diversity equity as the conditioning is happening outside the work place. So how do we reconcile to that? How do we reconcile that the conditioning that is happening outside in the culture doesn't infiltrate and how do we ensure that the gender equity that we are providing in our work places is actually extended to society? So I think, we really really have to look at what's happening to women in countries like ours. Priya has referred twice to missing girls. So why are girls still being killed? The richest community, the richest area, the richest colony in Delhi may have the lowest sex ratio; these are rich people; these are educated people; why are they still killing the female fetuses? I think we really need to understand the causes before. Yes, gender diversity at work places is one of the solutions, but we need to look at much deeper, long-lasting solutions, and really take the issue head on. We can't just tackle the issue by having a good work place policy which ensures gender diversity.


NDTV:  Alright that in fact should be a must. But the fact remains that however much we talk about this issue, we still have a long long way to go before we can say that yes the work place and the society are becoming more and more equitable. Many many thanks to all of you for joining us and sharing your views, it was such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you

Story first published on: November 09, 2012 13:45 (IST)

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