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From shop floor to C-suite — economic liberalisation helped shatter many glass ceilings

The expansion of Indian businesses and the entry of MNCs in manufacturing and services opened up opportunities for women to excel.

July 26, 2021 / 08:23 PM IST

Over 2,000 women currently sit on the boards of companies listed on the National Stock Exchange but Vibha Padalkar alone figures as a top female boss of a Nifty 50 company currently. Padalkar is the managing director (MD) and the chief executive officer (CEO) of HDFC Life Insurance. At its promoter company, HDFC Ltd, Renu Sud Karnad is the MD, a post she has held for over 10 years, but the chair of the CEO is occupied by Keki Mistry. HDFC Ltd is also an important constituent of the benchmark Nifty 50 index.

Padalkar was not the first to be named to the top position of a Nifty 50 company. Arundhati Bhattacharya, Shikha Sharma and Chanda Kochhar have helmed the State Bank of India, Axis Bank and ICICI Bank, respectively, in the last decade. Professional women executives have helmed several other top companies since the turn of the century. For instance, Vinita Bali, the former MD and CEO of Britannia. She was the first female professional to be appointed to the top post of an FMCG company in India in 2005-06.

Grit and hard work

Most of these women began their careers in the 1970s and early 1980s and rose through the ranks to top positions through their grit and hard work. They have gone on to prove that women are as competent as their male counterparts, particularly in the complex area of banking and finance. Women have done well in many other industries too.

For them and thousands of well-educated women who were building a career in the 1980s, economic liberalisation started at an opportune time. As multinational companies started investing in India and Indian companies started to expand, demand for good talent soared. Needless to say, it opened up many more opportunities for women to climb up the corporate ladder. And, they did shatter many glass ceilings. Naina Lal Kidwai was one of the most sought professionals in the financial services sector in the 1990s and one of the highest-paid executives in the country by the turn of the century.

The past two decades have seen many women rise to coveted positions in the corporate world. Women have done well in the public sector also, as many were appointed as CMDs of public sector enterprises and public sector banks.

However, boardroom doors stayed mostly shut for women till the Companies Act 2013 was passed and implemented. The new Act required listed companies to appoint at least one woman director to sit on their boards. But it was only after the markets regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), cracked a whip that India Inc complied. At the time of writing, there are about 69 NSE-listed companies that did not have a woman director.

More jobs for women

As things stand, there are 2,068 women holding directorship of NSE-listed companies. About 1,260 are independent women directors, data compiled by Prime Database show. Most of these women hold a single directorship.

The economic liberalisation created more jobs all around and drew thousands of young women into the labour force. Thousands of jobs were created on shop floors, in retail trade, IT and IT-enabled services, hospitality and services every year.

A comparison of the Third Economic Census held in 1990 and the sixth one carried out in 2013 show a sharp increase in the number of women employed in non-agricultural activities. While the overall employment in the own account enterprises and establishments increased by 61 percent from 67.31 million to 108.41 million, the number of women employed in these units jumped 126 percent from 10.69 million to 24.15 million. Yet, their share in the labour force grew slowly – from 16 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2013. The share of women workers in the total pool is believed to have declined in the last few years as more female workers lost their jobs than their male counterparts when businesses were disrupted by the demonetisation, implementation of the Goods and Services Tax and the Covid19 shutdowns. The Seventh Economic Census can throw some light on women’s share in the labour force if it is carried out soon.

Various employment-unemployment and labour surveys carried out by the Union ministry of statistics and programme implementation show that the labour force participation rate for women had been declining after peaking at 29.4 percent when the 2004-05 survey on employment and unemployment in the country was carried out. It declined to 23.3 percent in 2009-10 when the survey was conducted as India and the world was coming out of the financial and economic crisis of 2008. The rate declined further to 17.5 percent in the 2017-18 periodic labour force survey (PLFS). The 2018-19 survey recorded a small improvement to 18.6 percent.

Fresh interventions

These surveys also show that rural women continue to be predominantly engaged in agriculture but many are taking up work in construction, manufacturing and various services such as trade and hospitality. The proportion of women engaged in agriculture declined from 84.7 percent to 71.1 percent.

The impact of economic liberalisation on women workers were more visible in the urban centres – there was a big shift away from the primary sector to the services sector. Of the females in the labour force in towns and cities, the proportion in trade, hotels and restaurants and other services was estimated at 59.4 percent in 2018-19 PLFS, up from 37.6 percent in 1987-88 employment-unemployment survey. The proportion of female workers in agriculture declined from 29.4 percent to 7.8 percent during that period.

Fresh interventions by the Union and state governments can encourage more women to seek employment or set up businesses. Females constitute about 50 percent of India’s population and more active participation by them in economic activities can boost India’s GDP by several points – up to 27 percent according to one estimate of the International Monetary Fund.

Tina Edwin is a senior financial journalist based in New Delhi.
first published: Jul 26, 2021 08:23 pm