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'Indian women are among the most highly motivated in the world'

Apr 04, 2013

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is president of the Center for Talent Innovation and Sylvia Ann Hewlett Associates. In a new research she conducted she discloses a startling fact: that India's women professionals in some critical ways are far ahead of their counterparts in the United States, Germany, and Japan. She talks to OneWorld South Asia about her study and the state of work for Indian women.

Sylvia Hewlett

OneWorld South Asia: What do you think makes Indian women so successful in the corporate world?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett: India owes its surging economic growth of the past decade in no small part to a new generation of ambitious, educated women. Women now account for nearly half of India’s undergraduate students, a percentage that has grown steadily and is only expected to rise. Armed with their freshly minted diplomas, Indian women are hungry to prove themselves. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that educated Indian women are among the most highly motivated in the world: Over 80 per cent describe themselves as ambitious and 86 per cent aspire to hold a top job. Furthermore, 85 per cent describe themselves as “willing to go the extra mile at work.”

As India’s economic growth engines diversity from low-wage back-office administrative and technical operations to independent functions that add real value, the attributes that ambitious and qualified women bring to the workplace are more and more critical to a company’s ongoing success. “Successful women are redefining the classical definition of talent,” says Sunil Nayak, CEO of Sodexo India, quoted in “On-Ramps and Up-Ramps India,” a recently published CTI research report. “It’s no longer about the ability to work long hours and control stuff but about being collaborative and using your intuition to achieve objectives. There’s a lot of work to be done but there are so many opportunities for companies and women.”

OWSA: How favourable is the corporate world for women returnees?

Hewlett: According to recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation, India’s women professionals off-ramp (take a voluntary time out of six months or more) at roughly the same rate as women in the United States and Germany (respectively, 36, 31 and 35 per cent). However, the average length of off-ramps in India (11 months) is much shorter than that of their counterparts in the U.S. (2.7 years) and Germany (1.9 years).

The good news: An overwhelming 91 per cent of Indian women want to return to work, similar to the U.S. (89 per cent) and significantly more than Germany (78 per cent). The most startling figure is not that so many want to return but that so many succeed: 88 per cent are able to find work and 58 per cent find full-time, mainstream jobs, dwarfing their counterparts in the U.S. and Germany. Unlike women in those countries, who routinely pay a penalty for off-ramping in decreased salary, diminished management purview, reduced overall job responsibilities and a lower job title, most Indian women encounter only a modest bump in their career path.

However, if on-ramping is easy, up-ramping, e.g., regaining career momentum, is not. At a time when they are most in need of flexible work arrangements, more than half of on-ramping survey respondents (57 per cent) believe they will be penalized if they choose that option. Women who have taken a scenic route, e.g., opted for part-time or flexi-work, are significantly more likely (65 per cent versus 53 per cent) to feel stalled at work than their peers who have followed a more conventional career path. Returnees to full-time schedules also feel stigmatised for having taken a leave: Suspicious that they might off-ramp again, women find that co-workers resent them and managers often marginalise them in dead-end project work.

OWSA: What kind of strategies will help the corporate sector retain more number of Indian women?

Hewlett: Forward-thinking companies can proactively plan a woman’s on-ramping strategy before she takes an off-ramp through an upfront discussion between the woman and her manager. The organisation can help by providing a formal framework for that discussion.

Companies can also foster vital connections: between women and designated mentors; with role models who have successfully on- and up-ramped; through informal networks of colleagues. “That way, when you come back, it’s not a strange place,” notes a general manager for a multinational financial firm who was interviewed for the CTI report. “You know what’s changed and you already understand what’s going on.”

Most important, organisations can begin to tap the rich potential of female talent by shifting their mindset about on-ramping women. Sunil Nayak explains, “Taking a break from work is not a loss of experience but a career plus: Many women who take breaks come back with stronger views and different perspectives.”

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