Skillsoft Blog

Women Leadership in Indian Companies: A Persisting Glass Ceiling

By Tara O’Sullivan

These are sobering stats about women in India:

In slightly better news, a report from Grant Thornton shows that the proportion of women occupying top leadership positions in domestic companies increased from 17% in 2017 to 20% in 2018.

The inspiring success stories of the likes of Vinita Bali and Chanda Kochhar remain more the exception rather than the norm when it comes to Indian women breaking the glass ceiling. It appears many Indian enterprises listed on the  National Stock Exchange of India keep ticking the gender diversity box, simply to comply with the SEBI norm that mandates organisations have at least one female director on the company’s board; as of October 31, 2017, women still accounted for only 15% of directorship positions in NSE-quoted companies.

Chup, the Hindi word for the imperative “Quiet,” is a new book by Deepa Narayan and is based on over 600 interviews with women and men from across India. Today the word ‘Chup’ has become so ubiquitous in silencing women that it was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary. And this silencing of women is universal — just how outspoken the critics of equality for women demonstrates how unacceptable it is to express such ideas.

The business case for women leaders

Research undertaken by the World Bank, IMF and various think tanks in recent years has proven beyond a doubt that gender diversity in senior leadership roles boosts business performance. What that means for India is that the potential for women to contribute meaningfully to the country’s economic growth is immense. Why is the opportunity passing? Back in 2015 IMF chief Christine Lagarde predicted that higher participation of women in the labour force could result in a 27% surge in the country’s GDP. If such a forecast could come true, imagine the growth India would enjoy.

Plus apart from the considerable financial reward the inclusion of females in leadership brings, we’ve repeatedly seen how organisations with greater gender awareness demonstrate faster innovation, better customer relations while also attracting top talent.


This begs the question – Why are Indian enterprises still so slow in walking the talk?

Multiple factors are at play.

First, while many leaders proclaim an equal-opportunity work culture, they continue to exhibit blatant biases and preferences when appointing crucial, high-pressure roles.

Second is the prevalence of “second generation bias,” discrimination that’s less overt, making it tougher to deal with. For example, when job descriptions include competencies that we traditionally associate with the masculine, some women are deterred and don’t feel motivated or encouraged to aspire for these positions.

Third, and this is the one I feel is easiest to address, many Indian corporates have yet to develop a defined succession management framework for future women leaders.  As a result, the female talent pipeline continues to be very thin when it comes to filling C-suite positions.

“It is no secret that the gender gap widens at the higher echelons of the corporate ladder. So, it is vital to ensure that there is a strong pipeline of female talent. Our gender-neutral parental leave policy and other tailored training and development programmes — focused at the middle and senior management level — have been introduced to address this issue.” Madhavi Lall, Deutsche Bank India HR head

Finally, the work-life equation for women remains significantly unbalanced, making it hard for women to overcome the different roadblocks relating to assuming and continuing with leadership roles. Many so-called “key result areas” (KRAs), including motherhood, are imposed upon women, making pursuing a leadership role, or even a career, extremely difficult.

Addressing the pain points

What steps can Indian companies take to improve the situation?

For starters, organisations must build a company culture that doesn’t discriminate between women and men, but one that promotes gender equality. They must strive to create a work environment with gender equitable policies and family-friendly practices including flexible schedules and child care.

Senior management must commit to working proactively to boost gender diversity. Specifically, they should set targets for the proportion of women in top positions, invest in unconscious bias training, and, importantly, anchor mentoring initiatives to bolster a pipeline of female leaders.

In addition, organisations must identify their high-potential female employees and train them so that they can progress from junior to middle- and senior-level positions. Incentives–both monetary and non-financial–must be structured accordingly.

How can eLearning help?

 Finding the most relevant and appropriate leadership training is a challenge, and even when you do select some, it can fall short and fail to provide high-impact content for continuous learning and constant reinforcement of that learning.

Skillsoft’s Leadership Development Program is designed to democratize leadership and help to prepare women (and men) in all stages of their careers, with the underlying content aligned to their respective relevant competencies. The program delivers quick, convenient access to learning content that fosters the development of leadership skills, and addresses the unique challenges faced by women in business. Emphasizing on self-paced learning via eLearning resources, the high-impact women leadership program comprises various “learning templates” including recommended videos, book summaries and full-text books. The program, if implemented in the right way, can help organizations scale women leadership development projects in an economically scalable manner.


With women representing half of its population, India cannot afford to ignore female representation in its workforce, particularly senior positions. Realizing that potential requires proactive efforts from organisations, who must aggressively leverage technology, and how it is transforming corporate learning, to strengthen their competitive advantage and boost profitability.

Tara O’Sullivan is the Chief Creative Officer and Executive sponsor of the Women in Action Programme at Skillsoft.


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