Corporate India has a gender promotion gap problem. Only one in nine female employees got promoted in 2023, as against one in six men, according to a study covering more than 600 companies in over 40 sectors.

Women are also getting a smaller chunk of the promotion budget. Of the entire promotion budget that companies have, women are paid Rs 88 for every Rs 100 that men are paid, according to data from global professional services firm Aon, shared exclusively with ET. This indicates that women are not getting higher-paying jobs or are getting fewer high-paying roles.

Experts said this is mainly due to the bias in assessing the potential. Also, a huge dropout happens at the mid-management level and a fewer number of women reach influential positions.

“Traditional workplace success stereotypes tend to favour masculine behaviours and traits and women don’t measure up. On the other hand, culturally, girls and women are discouraged to speak up and ask for what they want or negotiate for promotion and pay, which adds to the problem,” said Shilpa Khanna, Aon’s DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) practice head and people advisory leader, India.

Leaders need to build equity in processes and practices like goal setting, performance rating, pay and promotions, which is critical to help neutralise human bias. Data make bias visible. A strong starting point for companies is to analyse employee data to see if there is a problem and where it lies, she added.

Compared with other Asian/South Asian countries, a huge dropout happens at the mid-management level in India. Combined with a lack of concerted focus on the part of organisations to plug this gap, a fewer number of women reach influential positions, said Saundarya Rajesh, founder–president of the Avtar Group.The leaky talent pipeline is an area of concern when it comes to women at mid-to-senior levels, the study shows. In corporate India, women accounted for 26% of the headcount at junior levels, 18% at middle levels and 13% in senior roles in 2023. Among CXOs, this was 10%.“Women face the life stage challenges — maternity, childcare, elderly care, and societal expectations. Our data show that 68% of companies do not have a structured return-to-work programme, leading to a leaky pipeline,” Khanna said.

According to the McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2023 report, because of the gender disparity in early promotions, men end up holding 60% of manager-level positions in a typical company. Since men significantly outnumber women, there are fewer women to promote to senior managers, and the number of women decreases at every subsequent level.

“It’s a numbers issue,” says S Venkatesh, group president at RPG Enterprises. “Unless you get the diversity numbers right, you can’t fix this problem.”

Gender diversity as a practice has matured in the industry over the last few years, leading to improved inclusion but promotional biases still largely exist. Women who tend to take career breaks to balance home and life at large or maternity leave lose out on progression, said Rajesh Padmanabhan, CEO of business transformation lab Talavvy.

Many a time these biases are overlooked and unless a specific intent is made to find out data on exceptions on gender, this will not come up, he said. “Leadership needs to commit to this cause and will need to factor extrapolation concepts of performance based on past performances for breaks and not normalise the same as standard bell curves,” he added.

According to Avtar’s Rajesh, it is important that career advancement rates with a gender lens are part of every CEO’s dashboard. As companies deepen their gender diversity efforts and put into action more initiatives to attract, retain and develop female talent, it is also important to ensure a level playing field.

Shrinking Talent Pool



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