gender equalisation

Womenomics revolution

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Affluent countries have recognised the power of professional women who are now increasingly playing an important role in shaping their economies. Sadly, despite the clear advantages, India’s top corporates, are not yet ready to take advantage of the ‘womenomics revolution’

A day after International Women’s Day, women’s empowerment received a huge boost with the passage of the women’s reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha. But, apart from rejoicing over future political representation, little was done to celebrate Indian women’s present achievements which are by no means small. Today, thousands of professional women are occupying decision-making positions in the corporate sector, in senior bureaucracy, in IT, in the media, as engineers, doctors and lawyers. Affluent countries having already recognised the power of professional women have begun forecasting Indian women’s (spending) power by drawing a parallel with Western developments.

Aviva Wittenberg Cox is the author of Women Mean Business which was named the business book of the year. Last week she was the keynote speaker on gender equality at a workshop organised by OECD in Paris. I listened to her as she presented fact upon fact which has begun to make business sense in Europe and the US. According to independent research as well as surveys and data collected by Goldman Sachs, Mackenzie and her organisation ‘20-first’ which works with companies around the world, BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China )women will become an increasing force on account of their spending power.

In the US women now make 80 per cent of the consumer goods purchasing decisions; they were responsible for starting the majority of new business initiatives in Canada; in the UK they are expected to own more than 3/5ths of all personal wealth by 2025. More than half the university graduates in Europe and North America are women and the majority of the eight million jobs created in the European Union since 2000 have been filled by women. Since 2007, more than half the managers and professional staff in the US are women. No wonder then that top consulting and investment banks have been busy identifying companies that can benefit from increased female disposable income. According to Goldman Sachs, the Indian middle-class will throw up millions of new consumers with expanded purchasing power. And within that women’s purses are going to become increasingly significant as they become economically more successful.

With greater influence, and an ‘edge’ of a different kind, women are also destined to rise higher as members of the board of management of companies whatever be their current representation. Studies in Canada have shown that women board members contribute immensely because they pay a lot more attention to important areas like audit and risk oversight. They take into account the needs of a wider variety of stakeholders. They are prepared to go into the details of management and organisational performance. They have been more responsible than men for insisting on conflict of interest guidelines as well as performance evaluations. Makes for good corporate sense.

But according to Aviva Wittenberg Cox, despite these attributes, the boardroom may not be the best way of judging gender balance in decision-making. According to her, it is relatively easy to appoint a woman or two onto a corporate board but it is very difficult to actually groom women to exercise power. Boards are oversight bodies which do not operate the levers that actually run the company. Cox has, therefore, demanded more representation for women on what she called the executive committees, which she identifies as those members of senior management that report directly to the chief executive officer. But according to her, even within the executive committees there are those occupying ‘line’ or ‘staff’ roles with the former having direct responsibility for profit and loss decisions-to be distinguished from those that function in staff areas like HR, communications or legal-with no responsibility for operational judgements.

Seen in that light, she has exposed how India’s top companies, despite clear advantages are yet not ready to take advantage of the “Womenomics” revolution. A survey of the top 10 ET500 companies undertaken by her organisation, using published data, showed that Indian Oil Corporation had one woman on the executive committee as a line manager and ICICI bank also had just one. The rest of the top industries, Reliance, Tata Steel, Bharat Petroleum Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, State Bank of India, Oil and Natural gas Corporation, Tata Motors and Hindalco Industries had zero women on their executive committees, responsible for line responsibility.

At the 54th session of the Commission on the Status of Women held on March 5 at Geneva, India’s permanent representative harked back to the mother goddess of the Indus Valley civilisation and the special place that women have occupied in the Indian psyche since times immemorial. Followed by a resolve to provide literacy, education and health to bridge the gender divide, he ended with a quote from Manusmriti:

“Yartra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devataha.”

(Where women are worshipped, there the gods reside.)

Instead of worshipping women as goddesses, perhaps a mention of the expanding Indian middle-class and women’s achievements within that might have better signified the prospects that lie ahead — whether women get worshipped on merit or on the potential of their purse. As India grapples with improving women’s health, literacy and education, the possibility of gender equalisation within the middle-class is definitely cause for celebration.