After graduating at the top of her class in international business at Ohio State University in Columbus, Bavleen Sawhney had the chance to join a top Indian bank or consulting firm. Instead, she became a personal shopper.
“I’ve told my dad I don’t want to work,” said Sawhney, 22, who travels around New Delhi’s malls in a chauffeured sedan to browse shoes by Jimmy Choo Ltd. and handbags from Bottega Veneta Srl for wealthy clients. “A nine-to-five job doesn’t suit me.”
While India has a slew of handicaps that disadvantage women in the workforce, from low education levels to early marriage and gender bias, Sawhney is among a growing group of key potential managers who are opting out as a surfeit of cheap domestic labor allows more middle-class graduates to stay home. That’s compounding one of India’s worst skills deficits: a shortage of technical, professional and managerial staff that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says is constraining growth.
“Increasing women’s participation in the workforce could be one of the most powerful ways to boost growth, incomes and consumption” in India, said Roopa Purushothaman, managing director and head of research at Everstone Capital Advisors in Mumbai. “As women become more educated, it appears that they work less and less,” she said.
The number of women studying for commerce-related degrees in Indian universities per 100 men almost quadrupled to 63 from 1980 to 2002, while the ratio in engineering and technical degrees rose to 33 from eight, based on census data, according to Everstone, which advises on $1.6 billion of private equity and real estate assets primarily focused on India. Once women leave college, those gains disappear.
The rate of India’s female graduates entering the workforce is only about 22 percent, lower even than the rate of illiterate women finding a job, according to Everstone. In South Korea, the ratio of female graduates working is more than 40 percent.
In the World Economic Forum’s ranking of gender parity in economic participation, India is above only Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen, a gap that “will be detrimental to India’s growth,” the Geneva-based organization said in a 2011 report.
If even half of India’s working-age women were employed, incomes would rise by more than 12 percent by 2025 and gross domestic product would increase by $110 billion in a decade, said Purushothaman. She was one of the authors of the 2003 report from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. with Jim O’Neill that coined the term BRIC for the emerging economic powerhouses of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
The low numbers of women graduates in work are reflected in India’s boardrooms. Of 1,112 directors in the 100 companies on the BSE 100 stocks index, 59, or 5.3 percent, are women -- less than half the ratios in the U.S. and U.K. -- according to Hong Kong-based Community Business, a non-profit organization that surveyed gender in the workplace in six Asian countries in 2009 and 2011.
Indian women hold 9 percent of jobs at the director level or higher -- behind all countries except the United Arab Emirates and Japan, according to a 2011 report by Grant Thornton International Ltd. Worldwide, women managers average 20 percent of executive jobs, the London-based consultants wrote.
Addressing the gap is an uphill task in a country with a tradition of women staying at home and where a lifestyle with full-time domestic servants is relatively cheap. A helper in India’s capital will cook and clean for as little as 8,000 rupees ($151) a month, a cost affordable even for many graduate trainees. Added to that, most companies don’t provide the facilities and flexibility that would attract women trying to balance a career and family, said Aparna Banerji, diversity and inclusion manager at Community Business.
“The government and companies need to do a lot more to get women into the workforce and keep them there,” Banerji said.
Some of India’s most successful companies are taking steps to try to recruit and keep female graduates amid a shortage of skilled staff. Information technology and financial services companies have the most women on their boards, data compiled by Bloomberg shows. The top three technology companies by revenue, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Infosys Ltd. and Wipro Ltd., had the highest percentage of female staff in the workforce -- up to 34 percent.
Software services companies have attracted female graduates with their portrayal of a youthful, less hierarchical workplace, offering pick-up and drop-off services for those on late shifts and flexible hours.
Multinationals such as Procter & Gamble India offer additional maternity leave, while lender ICICI Ltd., which has produced seven of the country’s 14 top female financial services executives, gives young mothers extended time off and more options when they return to work.
“Having more women is really about having the best talent,” said Naina Lal Kidwai, country head of HSBC Holdings Plc in India, which offers flexible hours and sabbaticals to some executives. That has enabled the bank to retain senior women managers who may have otherwise quit, said Kidwai, who joined the board of the lender’s Asia-Pacific operations in 2010.
“Especially for women for whom the economic need is less, the challenge is finding them work that is interesting and challenging, and also making them feel rewarded,” said Kidwai.
In an effort to lure back women who have quit work, Mumbai-based Tata Group introduced a Second Career Internship Program on International Women’s Day in 2008. More than 125 women have completed the course at India’s biggest business group, with about one-fifth taking full-time jobs within the group and a quarter finding work elsewhere, according to Radhakrishnan Nair, a vice president at Tata Group Human Resources.
“This is a huge, untapped talent pool with very valuable experience and skills,” Nair said in an e-mail. Initiatives such as SCIP “are necessary to meet the talent crunch.”
Ruma Rao, 35, who took the course in 2009 after an 18-month break from her previous sales job to have a child, now works in Tata’s human resources department, with flexible hours that give her more time with her young daughter.
“Women should be encouraged to stay in the workforce,” Rao said by telephone. “A lot of women would opt to keep working if companies offered more options, more flexibility.”
Meanwhile, India has tried to tackle the inequality in basic education and has stepped up enforcement of working rights for women. A drive to get families to send their daughters to school improved women’s literacy levels to 65.5 percent in 2011, from 53.4 percent in 2001. The government has clamped down on marriages below the legal age of 18 for women, outlawed pay discrimination and mandated maternity leave of up to 12 weeks.
At a conference in January, Prime Minister Singh said India would only reap the benefit of its young population provided they had the education and skills to earn a decent livelihood. “There is a significant gap between the requirement and the supply which, unless checked, will constrain our economic growth,” he said.
The government said in February the economy probably would expand 6.9 percent in the 12 months through March 2012 from a year earlier, the weakest pace since 2009.
Parliament is debating a bill that would reserve a third of its seats for women, a proposal backed by Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress Party, and Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the country’s first female president, who is nearing the end of her term in office.
Banerji at Community Business said the country has made “real progress” to overcome traditional cultural gender bias. “Consider that women were not even allowed out of their homes during the time of our grandmothers,” she said.
Those like Sawhney, from the rising generation of wealthy middle class, provide the government and companies with a new challenge.
“I wasn’t brought up in an environment where I am expected to go to an office every day,” she said. “I would have quit within a week if I’d joined a bank.”