Increasing automation poses a challenge for the female workforce, even as age-old prejudices and commitments force many to quit. But while there is impending job losses, new avenues will also open up

Women at work: How are they faring – at home and abroad?

The development of new technologies with each passing day is posing job threats for millions of people across the globe. That, combined with age-old prejudices, is proving inimical to women. What does it mean for the Indian women workforce, especially for those at the top? 

Global Transitions

Up to almost a quarter of the global working women’s population may be forced to retool themselves by 2030 so as to adapt to new occupations, predicts a new study. 

This is because the jobs they hold now will become automated, says the study from McKinsey Global Institute, covering 10 economies including India.

Titled The Future of Women at Work: Transitions in the Age of Automation, the McKinsey report released this June said, anything between 40 million to 160 million women or 6%-24% of the female workforce globally may have to transition across occupations.

The sweeping range, spanning some 120 million women, is because of the uneven rate at which automation will take place at different places, the report said.

The McKinsey report covers both developed economies and emerging economies, with Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the UK and US in the first lot, and China, Mexico, South Africa and India in the next.

In mature economies, jobs requiring college degrees will see growth, while in emerging ones, employed women will have to learn new skills to stay employed, it said.

Related: Inspiring and successful stories of women in India's banking sector 

India Predictions

Indian women will be hit hard in cold numbers. The country will see its women workforce erode by up to 12 million over the next decade - thanks to increasing use of automation in the sectors identified.

The total loss of jobs for them will be smaller than that of Indian men. Almost a fourth of the 44 million male labour force will become redundant over the next decade.

However, what is worrying in the case of India is that the impact of automation would be most felt in three sectors where women from the rural poor segment are engaged in the most – agriculture, forestry and fishing.  

In urban areas, women workers employed in transportation and warehousing will also be affected. 

“Women across these five sectors will require future job seekers to upskill themselves and gain secondary education,” McKinsey said. Its reasoning - preparing them to move up the skills ladder would open up new economic opportunities. 

There was also another danger. McKinsey also warned that excess supply of low-wage workers, including men retrenched from other sectors could force women to quit working altogether. 

India Currently 

The warning seems uncannily prophetic. Not only does it come at a time when India’s overall employment numbers have plummeted to a 45-year low, but it also coincides with India’s female workforce falling to its lowest in 13 years in 2018.

According to a Deloitte report released earlier this year, the population of working women fell from 36.7% in 2005 to 26% the last year in the country due to a host of reasons, the primary being lack of or access to quality education, and the digital divide. 

Titled Empowering Women & Girls in India for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Deloitte also echoes McKinsey in identifying technology as being a major threat to low-wage workers, including women.

Describing this as “a definite concern”, it said the advent of technology, digitisation and automation would likely push women, especially those who were largely employed in low skills and low paying jobs out of the workforce. 

Like McKinsey, it also advocated that women be reskilled through technology-linked training and employment options in four skill categories – workplace readiness, soft skills, technical expertise and opportunities for entrepreneurship.

Related: Why are women missing from the boardroom? 

Beyond Numbers

What McKinsey and Deloitte called “upskilling”, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) referred to in a 2014 report as “relevant education” for Indian women.

Calling for a comprehensive approach that included access to relevant education, maternity protection and safe travel, ILO said the need was also to look beyond standard labour force participation rates.

“Policymakers (in India) should be more concerned about whether women are able to access better jobs or start up a business, and take advantage of new labour market opportunities as a country grows,” it said. “Gender-responsive policies need to be contextually developed.”

This was important, ILO argued, because ultimately, the goal was twofold - increase women’s participation in the labour force, and create decent work that helped their economic empowerment.

ILO also noted that irrespective of whether they were from rural India or urban, women were tilting towards family commitments rather than paid work outside.

“In 2011-12, 35.3% rural females and 46.1% of all urban females in India were attending to domestic duties, whereas these rates were 29% and 42% respectively in 1993-94,” ILO said.

Executive Blues

The scene is no different with women from more privileged backgrounds in India, shows data from Catalyst, a New York-based women-centric non-profit. According to it, they quit at a higher rate at executive levels than at other levels.

So much so, nearly 50% of Indian women dropped out of the corporate employment pipeline between junior and mid-levels, compared to 29% across Asia, it says. 

In a July 2018 report, Catalyst said, “the problem began at hiring and continued upwards - the pipeline for women starts small and continues to shrink”. Thus, in 2017, Indian company boards had only 104 women, or merely 12.4% of board seats, and just 3.2% of board chairs.

There is another reason, says Tara O’Sullivan of US education tech company Skillsoft. The problem was one of second-generation bias – apparently gender-neutral practices that actually discriminate against women because they reflect male values.

“When job descriptions include competencies that we traditionally associate with the masculine, some Indian women are deterred and don’t feel motivated or encouraged to aspire for these positions,” O’Sullivan writes in a company blog. 

Related: Why women-led start-ups are a better investment? 

Senior Posts

At senior levels in the corporate world, there seems to be some progress, but very slow - just to be on the safe side of the law in making an adequate representation of women.

However, it is still better than some of the other Asia Pacific economies, as per the findings of a report from Grant Thornton, titled Women in Business: Beyond Policy to Progress.

According to it, the percentage of senior roles held by women in India increased from 14% in 2014 to 20% in 2017 and marking a consistent improvement each passing year. On the other hand, in Japan, women remain under-represented in senior teams with just 5% of senior roles held by women.

Kavita Mathur, People & Culture Leader at Grant Thornton Advisory said, “While the representation of women in top leadership roles is on the rise, the process is limited to the dated approach of ticking the diversity box.”   

This is borne out by National Stock Exchange (NSE) data. Of the total 11,294 individuals holding directorships of NSE-listed companies, only 1903, or 16.85%, are women.  

Dominating HR

The one sector where women are slowly making their own across the globe is Human Resources, or simply, HR. In the US, over 60% of managerial posts in HR are held by women, Business Insider magazine says, quoting official data. It is the general trend globally as well. 

The woman-specific website, Smart Indian Women says, “In India, this sector has witnessed steady feminisation over the years. And unlike Public Relations, where men dominate managerial posts despite huge numbers of women in executive positions, HR is seeing women enjoying extensive leadership roles and holding nearly 50% of all HR heads and Vice President’s positions”.

So what is that makes women shine in the field of HR? The reason, it is generally believed, is because women have better communication skills than men and adopt a more empathetic approach.

“It can be said that women with their sensitive, polite, cooperative and nurturing attitude justify HR roles to perfection,” writes the Smart Indian Women admin. “And when it comes to dealing with people, these characteristics make them perfect for the HR industry.” 

Related: 5 Professions dominated by women 

Global Scenario

Actually, this seems to be the trend globally, as reflected in the findings of Grant Thornton, released this March. In the report, titled Women in Business: Blueprint for Action, it says globally women still find it easier to progress in certain roles, HR being the area they shine the most.

“Human resources far outweighs all other departments for female leadership, while of the C-suite, the top finance position has twice as many female appointees as any other role.”

So much so, 43% of HR directors are women globally compared to 17% of sales directors and 16% of chief information officers. US shows data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics, 80% of HR managers were women in 2018 – the highest.

But overall, the share of women in senior roles globally is increasing, albeit incrementally, says Grant Thornton. In 2019, women held 29% of senior management roles, the highest number ever on record, with HR leading, followed by CMOs at 20%.

As for CEOs and managing directors, globally, women accounted for only 15%, just behind CIOs at 16%.

Indian CEOs

Indian women have shone in financial sectors such as banking, more than sectors such as manufacturing, and have reached the top positions in many banks. The financial sector is eminently suited for their inherent qualities. They are diligent, good with numbers, generally have more integrity and relatively fewer diversions than men. Plus, banking as a career provides better work compared to manufacturing; it involves less travel and less field work. 

Till recently, women CEOs swamped the Indian banking and financial sector, though most have since retired. Let us have a quick look at the list, current and the immediate past:

  • Naina Lal Kidwai, Country Head, HSBC India
  • Kalpana Morparia, CEO, JP Morgan India
  • Bala Deshpande, MD, New Enterprise Associates, India
  • Kavita Nehemiah, Co-founder and COO, venture capital firm Artoo
  • Renuka Ramnath, founder CEO of Multiples Alternate Asset Management

Among the recently retired are:

  • Arundhati Bhattacharya, CMD, SBI
  • Chanda Kochhar, CEO, ICICI Bank 
  • Shikha Sharma, CEO, AXIS Bank
  • Archana Bhargava, CMD, United Bank of India
  • VR Iyer, CMD, Bank of India
  • Shubhalakshmi Panse, CMD, Allahabad Bank
  • Snehlata Shrivastava, Acting chairperson, Nabard
  • Usha Ananthasubramanian, MD and CEO, Allahabad Bank
  • Chitra Ramkrishna, MD and CEO, National Stock Exchange of India
  • Usha Sangwan, MD, LIC

Last Words

To wrap up, while the McKinsey report dwells at length on the threat to women’s jobs posed by automation, it also talks about the new opportunities that are going to open up. It is just that women have to be prepared mentally and upgrade their skills. The future with automation will be different and challenging, but if the new technologies can be harnessed successfully, it can also prove much richer. Follow in the footsteps of these women investors to learn how to invest in a business or start-up.