A belief held by many in the West is that although sexism may be prevalent in the tech sector in North America, the UK and Europe, gender inequality is much worse in regions such as India. But this perception is misleading, which is why 451 Research felt it was worth drawing attention to how the Indian IT-BPM sector is currently working to maintain its leadership in attracting women into the workforce.

The number of women employed in the IT industry in India has seen a rapid increase over the past 10 years, with more than 30% of employees now being female – which contrasts with stagnation or decline in the participation of women in IT in many Western countries. According to NASSCOM's Women and IT Scorecard – India, a study undertaken with the UK's Open University, women represented 46.8% of the postgraduates in IT and computing during the academic year 2014-2015 in India. This is more than double the rate seen in the UK.

The 451 Take

Women now make up 34% of the IT workforce in India, with the majority of these workers under the age of 30. Indeed, the youth of the Indian IT labor force has significantly powered its rapid growth, and the country is now almost at 50:50 gender parity rate in STEM graduates. The next challenge is retaining gender diversity through into middle management and leadership roles. Given Indian government policies, NASSCOM initiatives and some of the inspiring work undertaken by the IT service companies themselves, it will be interesting to see if they can replicate this success at graduate level to maintain gender parity momentum through to management layers.


Irrespective of your political beliefs, there is an increasing amount of evidence to show that a more diverse workforce creates a more successful, sustainable business. For example, McKinsey and Company in its report Why Diversity Matters has shown that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Meanwhile, companies in the bottom quartile, both for gender and for ethnicity and race, are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns than the average companies in the data set (that is, bottom-quartile companies are lagging rather than merely not leading). If you add to this finding the reality of the tech sector, where there is a global scramble for skills in emerging digital technology areas, it becomes even more important that the industry has access to a wider talent pool.

Yet many countries in the West are seeing a decline in the number of women participating in the tech sector. According to the Women in Tech: The Facts report from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), the US has witnessed a continual decline in the number of women working in its IT sector. The percentage of women in the sector dropped from 36% in 1991 to 24% in 2015. The participation of women in the UK is even lower. In the period 2005-2015, the percentage of women in the sector has fluctuated between 16-18% according to the annual publication Women in IT Scorecard by the British Computing Society. The rising trend in India is in contrast to the decline in the US, and stagnation in the UK.

Gender parity at the graduate level

NASSCOM, the trade association of the Indian IT BPM industry, launched its first diversity initiative over a decade ago when the Indian tech industry had around two million employees. The industry was growing so fast that it was important to address issues such as staff attrition. Sangeeta Gupta, who is SVP at NASSCOM and responsible for the communications and strategy function, said that one of the initiatives that would help India do that was to increase diversity in the workforce.

NASSCOM looked to organizations such as IBM to learn from their approach, and it set up an annual diversity event with awards to recognize best practices, addressing areas such as flexi-working, return to work after maternity leave, transportation services for workers, and all-round education for the HR services functions. This was the first industry phase within India to tackle gender inequality.

Speaking with Ushasri Tirumala, who is the senior vice president and general manager for Manhattan Associates in India, it is clear she is an ardent champion of women in technology. Tirumala is a co-chair for WIN, a diversity initiative of Manhattan Associates. She said that culturally and politically in India there is great interest in women doing engineering, where STEM topics are seen as a natural career path for women and an area where they can shine. India now has a large influx of women taking up education and building careers in the tech sector because the country has encouraged this over a period of time.

This is reflected in India's strength in enrolling women in ICT as a tertiary education field of study as against the US and the UK:
India's IT-BPM industry currently employs nearly 3.9 million people, and over 34% are women (~1.3 million). While this percentage is much better than the overall female share (24%) of India's total workforce, an analysis indicates that over 51% of entry-level recruits are women, over 25% of women are in managerial positions, but less than 1% are in the C-Suite. As Tirumala said, "now we need supportive policies for midlife, to manage work and life in a corporate environment. We now have a large base of women engineers, we need to ensure they are represented at management level."

Family responsibilities

It is well understood in the West that marriage and motherhood handicap many women in their career progression. This is no different in India, where the government has recently introduced 26-week maternity leave for the private sector, up from the prior 12-week period. Other advantages of the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act include daycare facilities or creches for working mothers, a nondiscriminatory performance appraisal system that acknowledges the female employee's absence, and work-from-home policies.

As more and more women in India make their presence known in the workplace, the IT services companies that have championed India's software skills internationally are working hard to achieve a gender-diverse workforce. One of India's largest IT companies, HCL Technologies, recently launched its iBelieve initiative, which is a second career program designed for women who have taken a career break and are now keen to rejoin the workforce.

Women who join the program undergo extensive training to upgrade their technical and business skills, as required for today's work environment. The duration and type of training depends upon their previous experience and interest area. The company reports that it has received an overwhelming response for the program, and is currently in the process of evaluating candidates for the various courses on a self-support basis, but with the incentive of a job offer from HCL upon completion of the program. HCL already provides flexible working, daycare facilities, 'pink parking' and work-from-home options for improving the work-life balance of its women employees. It reports that now 99% of female employees that take a maternity break are returning to work.

Of course, family responsibilities are not only about raising young children, but also about caring for parents and for older children. To address these types of issues, TCS, the largest of India's IT companies, has a flagship program for women leaders at the mid-level – nudging them to get out of their comfort zone. Ritu Anand, Deputy Head Global HR for TCS, said that middle-aged Indian mothers often choose to take time off to support their kids applying to university. The company is trying to help them by providing flexibility in terms of working closer to home, so they can continue to grow in the corporate environment while ensuring that their teenage children get the support and guidance required for university entrance.

Where the husband and wife both work in the same organization, there is often a lot of geographical mobility required. TCS has for some time provided the flexibility to join partners wherever they are working by either finding a project for them to do in the new location or providing leave to be the guest spouse. Anand says she is increasingly seeing applications for the man to be the guest spouse. The company formed a small group 10 years ago to track the effectiveness of its diversity and inclusion policies and has developed a methodology around developing conversations at different levels of the organization to generate solutions that work.

Tackling career advancement, Sangeeta Gupta says that after tracking annual diversity awards around six years ago, it was clear to NASSCOM that the number of both male and female roles at entry level had grown. But there was still a big gap between male and female roles at a middle and senior management level. NASSCOM put a number of programs in place in various cities in India to address this and to create and promote role models for women.

HCL has designed focused programs and initiatives at senior leadership levels to achieve gender parity. Anuradha Khosla, AVP Enterprise HR- HCL, said there is an internal leaderboard for each line of business to assure each business line head and their minus 1 level have women leaders as a direct report. Each business line leader is responsible for the retention of women leaders, and to increase the diversity ratio with focused hiring. The company provides a networking platform to its women leaders, where they have an opportunity to interact with top leadership and the board of directors.

Other such platforms like Feminspiration, Women Connect and Women Affinity Groups provide opportunities to interact with successful women within the organization and industry. To advance the career of women in functional leadership roles toward senior leadership cadre, there is a very focused career development program called ASCEND for high-potential women leaders. Under this program, the women leaders have freedom to choose their aspired role at the next level. They are aligned to senior leaders as mentors to support their role aspiration. The mentors are the guides who help them create their development action plan, and provide them with an opportunity to learn new skills of leadership.

Peer coaching, experiential learning, networking workshops, leadership talk sessions and self-paced learning modules are some of the important elements of the program. HCL reports that the program has achieved a 96% retention of women leaders who completed the program. HCL's diversity practices ensure an inclusive workplace through various workshops and training programs for the leadership, which focusses on identifying unconscious bias and behaviors. The leadership is provided with tools to deal with these biases.

These programs are then cascaded through different levels of management. The company is also ensuring that women leaders are present for important sessions like client presentations, business reviews and senior leadership reviews as part of their development journey. HCL also has a Driving Talent Summit that features a Why Not? list of women who have had two positive appraisals. HCL wants to ensure that they are considered for promotion to the next level.

At 451 Research, we know from our own US studies (run in association with WITI) that these types of programs are a good fit for women employees that want career advancement:
As indicated by the mentorship data, female respondents cite other people as a factor in their career advancement more than male respondents do. While past or present managers were the most-cited factor helping women's careers (74.4%), in contrast to just 62.5% of men. For men, reading books/articles proved to be more helpful (66.3%).

Women also are more drawn to professional groups outside of work and to mentoring. Slightly more female respondents (43%) credit professional groups for career advancement, in contrast to 34.4% of male participants. While 13.9% of women found diversity programs helpful to their career, less than half that percentage (6.4%) of men did. Taking a look at the responses across ethnic groups, Black/African American (21.8%) and Latino/Hispanic (16.5%) respondents see the greatest value in these programs.

Career inhibitors

Our research also shows that while in the US all respondents cited lack of opportunity for promotion as a top career inhibitor, but when it comes to secondary factors, the data showed a divergence along gender lines:
For example, more women (42.1%) felt that discrimination has hurt their career than men do (27.7%). Women also feel that an inability to adequately negotiate for a better salary has had a negative impact on their career. The role of family care also has a far greater impact on women than men. Nearly a quarter (24.5%) of female respondents felt that taking time off for family has hurt their career, in contrast to just 16.5% of their male counterparts. Men, on the other hand, cited lack of job skills (21.7%) as a much stronger factor than women did (12.4%).

In India, both NASSCOM and the Indian government have been proactive in tackling some of the secondary inhibitors cited by women in 451 Research's US study by introducing the 2017 Maternity Bill, as well as by tackling sexual harassment in the workplace. Now companies in India must report sexual harassment incidents, and their resolution in their company's annual returns – it is a compliance issue. So, companies in India are setting up committees and awareness programs to address the problem. The Indian government is also stipulating that each company must have one female board member, which should create more female role models.

Gupta says that over the years, what NASSCOM has learned is that it is important to have a diversity head within a company. Initially, NASSCOM would have a high number of women participants at its diversity events, but usually no senior decision-makers. Now at NASSCOM diversity events, around 40% of attendees are men. This inclusive approach means there is a broader acceptance of the need for diversity in the workplace, and so NASSCOM is now focusing on policy development.

The future

In middle-class India, parents continue to expect their sons and daughters to get into engineering or science because these are the aspirational sectors to work for. Engineering is still viewed as a preferred profession. As the Indian market develops, there will be more career choices for this demographic, as there is in the West.

But until this shift happens, India will remain a leading source of gender parity graduates in STEM subjects. Indeed, the Digital India initiative launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 continues to act as a powerful agent in changing social norms within the country, and has boosted the profile of science and math, especially in small towns. The tier 3, 4 and 5 Indian cities are proving an excellent source for engineering skills because, in these areas without Wi-Fi, state TV has catalyzed a huge interest in STEM subjects among Indian youth.

Of course, India is not a paragon of workplace diversity, and it is aware that racism, caste, sexuality and disability are all areas where far more work is needed. Furthermore, Indian tech companies need more women leaders, and the sexism in the entrepreneurial VC culture in India also needs to be tackled, as it does globally.

However, it is interesting to see how India and its leading tech companies have taken the sourcing of female talent seriously, and have powered ahead of the West in achieving gender parity at the graduate level. Possibly, India's will to achieve higher levels of workplace inclusion may well help the country overtake the West in achieving a far more diverse leadership pipeline in the next decade.
Research Director, IT Services

Dr. Katy Ring is a Research Director for IT Services at 451 Research. In this role, she covers consultancies, system integrators and outsourcing companies applying advanced technologies to deliver digital transformation services. Katy has more than 25 years of experience in the IT industry, providing strategic advice to C-level executives at vendor and end-user organizations.

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