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March 26, 2014When I was growing up in India, the ideal Indian woman seemed to be characterized primarily by the attributes of being a good mother and a good wife. After all, most of my friends’ mothers were stay-at-home mothers, and while my mother taught at my school, it was clear that her top priority lay at home. Nowadays, however, I find that “good employee” is a descriptor that has been added to this archetype.

Women in India of my generation—I am a millennial—are expected to be successful at work and at home. A recent article in a local newspaper indicated that Indian women’s average employability score is much better than men’s—42% versus 33%. However, this is not reflected in workplace gender ratios (76 men for every 24 women across all industries). Even in the much-lauded technology sector, women represent only 29% of the workforce.

One of my law school friends talks despondently about how she’s unable to find mentors or sponsors at her traditional firm and has no one to  advocate for her. Without these key advocates, she is thus unable to build the needed skills, gain knowledge about unwritten rules, and make professional connections as effectively as her male colleagues.  Recent Catalyst research reflects this dismal scenario—even among high-potential employees in India’s technology sector. Women seem to start off on equal footing with men, with similar positions, similar responsibilities, and comparable salaries, but they soon fall behind, lagging behind men in pay and job level.

This is especially disheartening when one considers that most women start their careers aspiring to reach the top. What causes this widening gap? Catalyst research suggests that women receive less on-the-job training, which is more critical to career advancement than formal development programs, and are also faced with socio-cultural factors such as the pressures of balancing home life with work.

All of the above lead to women dropping out of the workforce at a higher rate than men. This results in a loss of talent that can be quite harmful to organizations. 

Fortunately, breaking barriers in the workplace does not have to be a one-woman battle. A holistic solution might be less arduous and more long-lasting. Organizations are well-positioned to lead the charge in breaking these barriers. They also have a strong impetus to do so: Catalyst research indicates that women tend to stay committed to their organizations. This is especially true of working mothers; women with older children are more likely than working fathers to remain loyal to the companies they work for. Organizations can benefit tremendously from women employees’ loyalty and commitment.

Companies must be proactive in not just offering women formal development programs, but also giving them on-the-job opportunities. Another friend of mine speaks favorably of an opportunity her supervisor gave her to go on a foreign assignment. Her company later benefited from her experiences when they received foreign delegates and were able to tap into her newly acquired knowledge.

By addressing gaps in compensation and responsibilities and reassessing family leave policies, as well as cultivating returnship/second-career programs, flexible work options, and senior leadership support for such programs, committed companies can help plug our leaking talent pipeline.