Lessons Learned From My “Passage To India”

January 24, 2014 in Mentoring by Connie Glaser

What are the challenges when 4,000 years of tradition clash with high-tech innovation and workplace diversity? This is the question I pondered as I set out for a two-week speaking tour in India. Every year the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi invites experts to tour and lecture on topical issues. During my visit, the impact of women in the economy was identified as a top priority, and I was honored to be selected as their guest speaker.

India, the world’s fourth-largest economy, has a problem. Fortunately, it also has available solutions. And U.S companies can learn a lot by watching how India implements those solutions.

With an annual growth rate of 7 percent, India is in the superpower class of nations. Inhibiting further growth, however, is a troubling reality: Women constitute less than 25 percent of the workforce. With an anticipated shortage of 5 million skilled laborers in the next few years, India has a pressing need for more women in the workplace if the economy is going to continue its exceptional rate of growth.

Many of the Indian women I met were eager to pursue careers, but the challenges they confront are great. Social and family expectations often discourage women from careers as Indian tradition dictates that a woman’s place is in the home, tending to her children, husband, parents and in-laws.

At the Jharkhand Chamber of Commerce I observed this conflict between traditional values and the aspirations of young women when a disgruntled middle-aged man stood up and asked, “But if women take jobs outside of the home, who’s going to do the housework?” A young female journalist there to cover the program couldn’t restrain herself. “With all due respect,” she said politely to the older man, “my mother is a physician and so is my father. In our household, chores were evenly distributed between my parents.” The man bristled at her response and walked out of the room. Tradition is not easily surmounted.

In preparation for my trip, I learned all I could about the challenges of women in India today, and was prepared to share strategies that U.S. companies deploy to address our own cultural barriers. Yet, on my journey, I realized how much we can learn from how India is handling this clash between centuries of traditions and the need for innovation and economic growth.

Indian business leaders recognize the competitive edge that can be gained by the advancement and retention of women. Here are a few important lessons we can learn:

  • Recognize the importance and value of mentoring. The majority of young women entering the workplace today are first-generation professionals. They lack role models and mentors to show them the ropes and provide encouragement and professional guidance. Genpact, a global business and technology management firm, has created a formal mentoring program to develop and retain its female talent. The innovative program, called WeMentor, pairs high-potential, middle-management women with experienced leaders in the company to assist and guide them professionally.

In the U.S., mentoring often happens on its own and is informal, but even U.S. companies with a long history of formal mentoring programs can learn from the innovative approaches taken by top Indian businesses.

  • Understand the cultural challenges and address them through creative workplace practices. Traditional Indian family custom frowns on young women traveling alone. So how does a company deal with job-related travel for aspiring women? Should women be disqualified from these positions because of social judgment? German pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim Gmbh has an innovative solution. It will pay for an employee to bring her mother along on a business trip, if she desires.

The lesson here is not that traveling with mother is a secret corporate weapon. Rather, it is to recognize the power of creative accommodation to overcome cultural obstacles.

  • Create a forum for open discussion to enable women to share ideas. A leading organization for women, the Forum for Women in Leadership (WILL), brings together senior women executives from across India for an open dialogue on their aspirations, opportunities and mentoring experiences, the objective being to gather and implement ideas for improving the workplace. These forums have been hosted by major corporations including Tata Consultancy Services, Deloitte and KPMG.

Many U.S. companies also have Women’s Leadership Forums, but candid discussion isn’t always “encouraged.” As a result, women are sometimes reluctant to express their personal concerns about workplace challenges. Doing so feels risky because they may come across as complainers, which could affect their career advancement.

  • Recognize gender diversity as an economic issue, not just a women’s issue. Indian women currently account for 42 percent of all college graduates, 44 percent of degrees earned in the sciences, and more than 30 percent of software engineers. In order to sustain its economic vitality, India needs to capitalize on this enormous reservoir of talent. According to Suresh Vaswami, former Wipro CEO and current chairman of Dell India, “Bringing more women into the IT workforce is the key to inclusive and profitable growth.”

In the U.S. there are several initiatives to attract young women into the traditionally old boys’ network of STEM (science, technology engineering, math). With mentoring and exposure at the secondary school level, more young women are entering these fields. And with women being named to the helm of Yahoo, IBM, and GM, we’re beginning to some cracks in the glass ceiling – though it’s far from being shattered.

In this age of globalization, knowledge and best practices transcend country boundaries. Every country, including the U.S., has unique and persistent cultural traditions. This heritage can be an asset or liability. It’s a timely opportunity to help companies distinguish the difference.

–Connie Glaser

Comments? Questions? I welcome your feedback. You can post your thoughts here or email me at Connie@ConnieGlaser.com.