A recent Harvard Business Review analysis showed women score more highly than men in these essential skills. Despite this, only 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, with figures in other types of business similarly poor. Figures in India are particularly disappointing: A 2019 report states that of companies listed on the National Stock Exchange, just three out of every 100 top leadership positions are held by women.
Despite the numbers, the women who found power and position in the C-suite are advancing and reshaping technology, and in turn, the world around us. Among them are Rekha M. Menon, Chairperson and Senior Managing Director, Accenture in India, Debjani Ghosh, President of the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) and Dr Sukanyya Misra, Senior Vice President at MasterCard India Tech Hub and Advisors CoE. These veterans of technology are paving the way for the digital transformation of a resurgent India after COVID-19.
So, despite graduating top of her class from the Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur, Rekha Menon stepped foot in a world that was full of biases and where opportunities were hard to come by and she became used to being the only woman in the room and, often enough, the only one on the entire office floor. With sheer grit and determination, she made a mark for herself and climbed up the corporate ladder.
Today, she is the Chairperson and Senior Managing Director at Accenture in India, one of the country’s largest IT sector players and a leader in inclusive work practices, which she joined in 2004. “The world is changing and there are several examples of women who have risen to the top of the corporate world, holding significant positions in the boardroom. Yet, overall numbers remain low. If we look at the NIFTY 500 companies, women represent less than 4 percent of Chairpersons and approximately 17 percent of the directors,” says Menon.
Menon believes many around the world are suffering the destabilizing effects of the pandemic, and “COVID-19 has exposed underlying weaknesses in global economic models, business operating structures, and the ability of countries to cope with large social and health crises.” She says, “Its dramatic impact on the lives and livelihoods of billions across the world is a powerful reminder of what our priorities need to be and is an opportunity to resolve underlying issues.”
The baseline forecast in the June 2020 Global Economic Prospects envisions a 5.2 percent contraction in global GDP for 2020 — the deepest global recession in decades.
From a macro-economic standpoint, the crisis presents long-term opportunities for India, for example, a chance to become a global hub for pharma and biotechnology manufacturing. As large corporations look to diversify their supply chain and production base, India can also take the lead in manufacturing, research, and services.
A recent viewpoint published by The Lancet concludes that the integration of digital technology into pandemic policy and response could have contributed to how some countries have flattened their Covid-19 curves and maintained low mortality rates.
Commenting on the long-term impact of developing an advanced technology-based response, Menon says, “This period has proven that digital technologies play a vital role in helping humans achieve their potential. Let’s consider Artificial Intelligence and Extended Reality as two major interventions. These have many areas of application and can drive impact across sectors. For example, they can improve healthcare outcomes by aiding drug discovery, improving the reach and impact of healthcare services, and enabling more precision in clinical decision-making, diagnostics, and care processes.”
For businesses, the complex challenges posed by the crisis have resulted in the rapidly shrinking the period of digitalization from five years to a few months.
Over the long term, as work environments become more digital and elastic, organizations will have more agile and hybrid workforce structures, with a blend of remote and in-person interactions and humans and machines working side by side. The gig economy will grow further, and geography will cease to matter, especially when it comes to hiring the right talent.
In March 2020, as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health crisis, and India declared a lockdown, Accenture was able to mount a quick response. Within a matter of days, Accenture transitioned a majority of its workforce in India to working from home.
The pandemic has certainly established the efficacy and acceptance of the work-from-home model. It is creating new opportunities that could increase women’s participation in the workforce. It is especially beneficial for women who want to work but reside in tier 2 and 3 cities with limited options.
However, the silver lining in the work-from-home model fades once women are expected to be responsible for childcare, homecare and eldercare, on their own. “We need to consider entrenched cultural attitudes that expect women to prioritize their personal lives over their professional lives. Attitudinal barriers make it much harder for women to work from home as they also have the primary responsibility of managing the home.”
Accenture believes that a culture of diversity and equality drives innovation and has set bold goals towards attaining gender equality. Menon reveals, “At Accenture a few years ago, we set ourselves a goal of achieving a gender balanced workforce by 2025 and ensuring that women represent 25 percent of our managing directors by 2020. We track these metrics like any other business goals, and today, globally – women represent 36 percent of our board of directors, 27 percent of our global management committee, and nearly 25 percent of our managing directors. In India, they form approximately 40 percent of our overall workforce.” Menon opines that in order to achieve gender equality, corporate India must have a welcoming culture, and work towards becoming more inclusive. She stresses,
Organizations need to commit to creating gender balance and ensure that workplace equality is treated like any other business priority – with clear goals, leadership alignment, and a strong execution engine.
Watch Rekha M. Menon share her insights on the possible actions individuals and businesses in India can undertake to navigate a post pandemic world.
Prior to NASSCOM, she spent 12 years with Intel, rising to be their first female Managing Director for Intel India. She was also the first woman to head the Manufacturers’ Association of Information Technology (MAIT).
For Ghosh, the coronavirus pandemic is a chance for India to set things right — to reset and reboot. “We have a golden opportunity to rewrite the playbook to make it much better than what we had in the past.” In her vision of the future, she believes there are four building blocks that will serve as foundation of the new normal:
Trust, talent, people-led innovation and agility. We can create a new normal for the Indian IT industry that is truly more productive, more effective and more humane.
The post-pandemic world will also redefine what it means to innovate, Ghosh adds further. “Innovation can’t be about how cool the technology is but how big a problem we are solving, how inclusive the impact of that problem is, and what kind of difference does it make to our lives.”
And, it is very important for us to ensure that we build very strong design principles to ensure that as we see mass scale deployment of tech and we ensure that tech is being used to drive inclusivity in India and not create deeper biases. Inclusion and ethics are going to become extremely important guard rails for us as we build the framework.
After working globally, Ghosh came back to India in 2012 expecting many biases but India turned out to be a breeze. “I found the least biases and the least resistance,” says Ghosh. In her journey, she found great collaborators, but the same is not true for all women entering the IT industry.
Being a female voice in a male-dominated industry is still not that easy.
The Indian tech industry is actually a role model industry when it comes to diversity. At hiring, we are 50 percent diverse. Unfortunately, we lose women along the way.
If a woman is working from home, then the work for home, cooking and cleaning, has to be shared. It can’t be gender-based. If we can bring about that change in mindset and culture, it will open the door tremendously to women participating more in work and the economy.
While eagerly waiting for an effective vaccine to arrive, Ghosh is taking this time to look ahead and imagine what a better future would look like. Between keeping house and professional obligations, she is investing in actions that will help ensure this new beginning is 100 times better than the past and where trust, ethics, talent, inclusion, and equal opportunity are the norm.
The most important skill that a company looks at today in an employee is the ability to unlearn and learn. Do you have a trainable mind? Do you have an adaptable mind? Can you unlearn what you have learned if it’s not useful? And, how quickly can you learn the new thing? Learning doesn’t stop.
Will now define the industry going forward. It took us only ten days to move to a remote work model with 98 percent of a 4.35-million people industry with secure assets. It was the ultimate stress test for leadership. We did it to an extent that business has continued with higher productivity than before, clients are happy, and employees are safe.
Ghosh emphasizes, “our schools need to build the foundation of science and math and then, focus on those skills which are critical for success such as effective communication, the ability to continuously learn, teamwork, project management, design thinking, and curiosity. These are some of the foundational core competencies which our education system needs to build in our future workforce so that the industry can then take this talent and train them and continue to train them for whatever the new technology skills are required at that time.”
The lockdown revealed an opportunity to develop an entirely new way of working, which Ghosh believes,
will now define the industry going forward. It took us only ten days to move to a remote work model with 98 percent of a 4.35-million people industry with secure assets. It was the ultimate stress test for leadership. We did it to an extent that business has continued with higher productivity than before, clients are happy, and employees are safe.
The pandemic provided a level playing field for women, who still bear the burden of most domestic work and childcare, when work-from-home opportunities increased significantly.
JobsForHer revealed a 30 percent increase in work-from-home jobs posted on the website in March this year compared to the same period a year ago, along with a 50% increase in women's applications. However, Ghosh reveals it hasn’t been leveraged fully. “To do so, we need to drive a significant mindset change where men not just work from home but also work for home. If not, it will only add to the burden of the woman and make it even more difficult for her to invest in her career.”
In the new normal, the pace of change will be accelerated, and with it, the pace of learning.
No one is going to be looking at how much of an expert you are in Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning because whatever you have learnt by the time you finish your 15 years of education, all of that would have become outdated, something new would have come along.
Ghosh is also clear-eyed about the world we are progressing towards.
The new normal is a hyper digital world where technology will shape how we work, how we play, how we communicate, and how we travel. Tech is going to reinvent business models across every vertical.
We got a lot of encouragement at home — be it the opportunity to go to the best schools, to pursue higher education, or to make a career of our choice,” she says. “That was definitely something that came from my family.
But the direct encouragement of having a role model, studying to become a doctor, was a watershed.
"It definitely had a deep influence on me.” Today, Dr. Misra is paying it forward as a mentor to many young women in the tech industry, and within her workplace at Mastercard - India Tech Hub, where she is a Senior Vice President.
I don’t come to work thinking I am a woman. I come to work thinking I’m a highly capable and a skilled professional and I am adding value and I can contribute. I look at a woman and a man in equal terms — that everybody is capable.
The case for gender diversity in the workplace is real, believes Dr. Misra. “More and more corporates are realizing that it is of tremendous value if they have diversity in the boardroom because it adds a lot more perspective and creativity,” she says. “That trickles down to the workspace as well. But in order to create a paradigm shift in the workplace we have to ensure that a young woman can see herself in a career in tech or STEM.”
In 2018-2019, women in India earned over half of the undergraduate degrees in both information technology and computers (50.7 percent), and science (54.1 percent) but remained underrepresented in engineering and technology undergraduate degrees overall (31.4 percent).
Dr. Misra observes that it is essential to showcase
young girls that these jobs can be…
It has to be overall as a society, industry, and government that we raise the focus of women education at every level.
In a Mastercard study, it was noted that 93 percent of the girls surveyed in India in the age group of 12-14 years considered STEM-related careers early on. Still, 38 percent believed that they are less likely to take up STEM because they perceived the industry as male dominated.
Tremendous work remains to close the gender gap. “While governments can play their role in accelerating the progress through bringing in more legislation, fiscal measures or even women-centric policies, corporates should also focus on creating a truly inclusive workplace,” Dr. Misra advocates.
They can do so by promoting equal pay, implementing impartial recruitment strategies, addressing unconscious biases and providing a better work-life balance for both genders. They need to offer training and mentoring for everybody and ensure their policies against harassment and for building a safe workplace are strictly adhered to.
Digital trends transcend any geographic barriers, and this is accelerated in India with its startup and innovation culture riding on IT and IoT.
In this changing tech landscape, organizational resilience and innovation will probably be the theme that will gain maximum importance.
The future will also call for different skills and competencies that go beyond technical knowledge. During the pandemic, we realized the importance of skills like agility, resilience and transparency. That is something that all employers are looking for in the coming times. It is also important that employees develop the aptitude to learn new technologies and skills so that they can work more effectively and efficiently.
“I consider myself to be among the fortunate few who had access to resources while our technology infrastructure was in place at the time of this pandemic. Life has changed forever and not being able to meet our friends and families has been tough for everyone,” shares Dr. Misra. But as the world has settled, thanks to technology, it has been possible “to stay in touch with them. I feel the situation would have been extremely bad had this happened 10 or 15 years back.”
The silver lining through this pandemic is the transition to remote work, Dr. Misra believes.
What it has done is not only allowed organizations to continue their businesses because everyone could work from home, but it has also opened some opportunities for women employees to achieve work-life balance.
Dr. Misra’s vision of the world after this pandemic will be a much more resilient one, with learnings to take away from what we are going through as a human race right now. “Greater collaboration will become the new normal,” she adds. “It makes us more digital, and help us build products that are a lot more efficient and address the real business challenges.”
She is optimistic that the coming together of governments, organizations, civil society, and individuals reflect deeply on our tremendous resilience, will power and compassion at the time of a crisis. “I hope we understand and continue to be responsible towards our ecology and build a sustainable environment for our future generations, remain empathetic and collaborative with each other and the larger society.”
To break through societal structures is a huge challenge with no one formula to address it.
It requires a multi-pronged approach and some of it needs to be conditioned from childhood, in terms of how a girl is perceived at home.
There is no field that has been left untouched by technology.
If we can create awareness on the benefits of technology early on, it will help girls to look at more tech oriented higher education and careers.
“Before the pandemic, 90 percent of retail transactions in India were still cash,” says Dr. Misra.
Due to the pandemic, we leapfrogged and got into digital-all mode. From shopping to connecting with people — technology is playing a lead role everywhere.