WHEN I was in college in 1974, I got a scholarship to study in America and I was preparing to go there. However, one day I came across a TELCO job vacancy advertisement but the advertisement mentioned that only men can apply. This made me furious. I decided to write a letter to the company about the matter but since I didn’t know the person to whom I had to address the letter, I wrote a postcard to JRD Tata complaining about the “only male” employees policy and stated my point that women work better than men and if they are not given the chance, they won’t be able to prove themselves,” this was the legendary social activist, writer and Infosys Founder N R Narayana Murthy’s wife, Sudha Murthy, during an appearance on Kaun Banega Crorepati some year back. Completing the story she said, ‘’”JRD Tata was a man with an extraordinary vision. He changed the only ‘male employees’ policy and ordered to conduct interviews and examinations for female applicants also.” She was interviewed and appointed.
That was decades back. In the years since then, the needle hasn’t moved much. Slowly but surely, though, things are changing. For example, a spanking new L&T campus at Mannapakkam near Chennai that is still under construction has an all-women ensemble from the project manager to the onsite engineers and workers. The consequence is that the L&T women employees have moved from a downright anaemic six per cent to 8.3 per cent in the last couple of years.
“We are changing the mindset that women can’t work on project sites. Though we have hired a lot of women for engineering design and research centres, apart from finance, HR and other corporate roles, over 80 per cent of our business happens on project sites where we hardly have women,” C. Jayakumar, executive vice president & head, corporate human resource, L&T told Fortune India recently.
Less women on the shopfloor are also actually bad for business. It reflects negatively both in terms of productivity (where women score hugely over men) and in diversity. Bosch is one of the pioneers of employing more women on the shopfloor in India. Their Oragadam plant outside Chennai is entirely operated by women. Another plant at Gangaikondan, in Tirunelveli district (100 miles from land’s end at Kanyakumari) is dominated by women, who make up 80 per cent of its workforce.
Companies like Bosch and L&T are only following what companies in Europe have done decades back. Germany, Poland, and Czech shopfloors are dominated by women. As the Fortune piece reported,’’ an engineering company in the Czech Republic took help from Randstad India for hiring women from India when it fell short of welders. “The company was open to women welders, so we made a hiring plan. We hired women ITI diploma holders and got them certified to work there,” says P.S. Vishwanath, MD & CEO, Randstad India.’’
Hiring women and ramping up their percentage in the workforce is also good politics. It helps companies meet diversity goal objectives as well as fulfil the acute shortage that often confronts them while expanding their manufacturing prowess. Jayakumar is absolutely right: they are close to 50 per cent of the population and not hiring them means missing out on invaluable human resources.
According to the India Skills Report 2023,’’ The percentage of the employable women workforce has increased to 52.8 per cent, compared to 47.2 per cent for men’’. The report further added, “The consistent rise in women’s employability over the past ten years is a positive sign of radical changes in India’s developing labour market. Increased participation of women at work will give industries an edge with key roles already being occupied by women as we go into 2023,” the report said.’’
Talking to the Economic Times, Jayant Acharya, joint managing director and chief executive of JSW Steel, said that the company’s new unit in Kashmir will have a majority of women workers. Already the company’s unit in Bellary is entirely managed by 60 women engineers. Aditya Birla Group’s Santrupt Misra is right when he states that it is “a combination of factors (that)is leading to this change.”
In the end, it is society that has evolved. Laws have changed allowing women to work in different shifts including at night. The mindset that the shop floor is heavy-duty and meant for the men force who can take on the rough and tough has changed. Most of all women with their exceptional skills have made a profound difference as a workforce. And all this has come a welcome change in attitudes.