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Glass Ceiling in India: A Reality for Women?

with Hema Krishnan, Professor, Xavier University

A "glass ceiling" refers to that invisible barrier beyond which minorities, in particular women in middle level management, never rise. Silent, yet unbreachable, this barrier is one of the root causes why the percentage of women occupying top-level management is much lesser than men. There are a handful of women who have breached this barrier like Indra Nooyi, Simone Tata and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. In this interview with our distinguished alumna, Dr. Hema Krishnan who was the first woman to be employed in Sales division of HPCL, India, and is currently a Professor of Strategic Management in Xavier University, USA, we present her views and studies on the prevalence of the glass ceiling both globally and locally.

    Reasons for Prevalence of Glass Ceiling

    tejas@iimb: Women are generally not regarded as a serious threat to men in the corporate sector in most cases. There are however, instances of some women reaching the top in a very male-dominated world. Is the glass ceiling a myth or a reality?

    HK:The forces (socio-cultural, legal, personal, and organizational) that affect a woman’s rise to the upper echelons of an institution are for the most part, universal. Theoretically, every woman is capable of reaching the top of her organization. What sets women such as Indra Nooyi and Chanda Kochchar apart from the rest of the similarly talented women are: a high level of sustained self confidence and emotional quotient, persistence and patience, the right mentors at various stages of their career, an extremely supportive family and a little bit of luck or opportunity.

    The glass ceiling is a reality! This is not only because women are held to higher standards than men but also because they are neither made aware of, nor given opportunities that would catapult them to the upper echelons. Often, women with technical competencies in line functions such as manufacturing, R&D and operations end up in staff functions. Experience in line or operational functions, during one’s mid-career are often an unwritten prerequisite to getting into the C-suite.

    tejas@iimb: Women are perceived as being more emotional and family-oriented 1. Is the stereotyping of women as not being shrewd or aggressive enough a detriment to their career growth?

    HK: Men and women are likely to be equally emotional and family-oriented although they may espouse different approaches to parenting and other issues related to their personal lives. However, women are perceived as being more emotional because their management and leadership styles are different. Women bring a holistic approach, are more nurturing and are willing to share power and information. These traits stand to benefit women because the world has transitioned from an industrial age into an information age during this century. The information age calls for structures and cultures in organizations that promote the spread of knowledge and is more accommodating of diversity of thought and people, than the industrial age which was more focused on capital and labour.

    Impact on Organizations

    tejas@iimb: Women gain social acceptance as doctors and in positions of leadership in traditionally woman-dominated fields like education. Is the glass ceiling sector-centric?

    HK: There is some truth to this notion. We see more women in the C-suites of certain industries such as publishing, education, entertainment, healthcare, etc. and negligible representation in defence and aerospace, banking, and engineering especially in the Western economies. Self-selection could be an important reason for this gap. In business administration, although women are a majority, there are very few women in disciplines such as accounting or finance. Having an advanced degree in these two business disciplines is a stepping stone to the upper echelons of the organization.

    In India, women are entering professions that were once dominated by men. In sectors such as advertising, banking, engineering, civil services, manufacturing, and the civil services, there is an exponential growth in the number of women. One major reason for this development could be the change that has occurred at the grassroots level. In absolute numbers, India has one of the largest pools of female students in engineering and IT in the world.

    tejas@iimb: There have been studies that have shown that the financial performance of a company is better with a higher percentage of women at top levels 2. What relevance does this gender-ratio have on the performance of a company?

    HK: All studies, be it academic (including research by Catalyst) or anecdotal, reveal this fact. This is very relevant for the following reasons: First, organizations are competing in an increasingly global environment which calls for greater adaptability and a superior combination of technical and survival skills. The challenges that women face when climbing the corporate ladder equip them with the skills to cope with uncertainty and to adapt. Second, having an increased representation of women in top positions sends a positive signal to the rest of the organization and augurs well for the treatment of other women. Third, a woman’s leadership style, often perceived to be nurturing, inspires confidence among her peers and subordinates, and especially among the other women. Fourth, women play multiple roles in their personal lives which sharpen their interpersonal, conflict resolution ability and other leadership skills. This combination of adaptability, interaction with peers and subordinates, and an ability to nurture and inspire can help an organization to succeed.

    Combatting the Glass Ceiling

    tejas@iimb: There has been a recent outburst of more and more women becoming entrepreneurs. Is this growing trend because they see this as the only chance to escape the glass ceiling?

    HK:It is certainly one of the ways to escape the glass ceiling. The other reason is that although entrepreneurship involves a 24-hour, 365-day workload, it affords greater flexibility relative to traditional organizations. Also, women appear to possess a greater depth in the attributes necessary to succeed as entrepreneurs. Their strong technical skills, collaboration and communication skills, fiscal conservativeness, persistence, humility, tolerance, nurturing skills, negotiation and conflict resolution, willingness to learn and ability to multitask are well suited for entrepreneurship.

    tejas@iimb: The present structure of companies is not particularly conducive to the career growth of women. Also, they are frequently demoralised by the lack of appreciation of their work. What structural and behavioural changes can be implemented by companies to help women combat the ceiling?

    HK:Companies should implement the following changes to combat the ceiling: (1) Develop career planning policies including mentoring and leadership development programmes for women as part of a company’s overall corporate strategy. (2) Identify high-potential women early on in their careers, involve them in decision making and provide them with opportunities to lead high profile projects so that they build their competencies and skill-sets to ascend to the upper levels of the company. (3) Create a climate in the company that is more inclusive and holistic, and more conducive to the management styles of women. (4) Make accommodations to women to enable them to strike the right work-family balance. (5) Have an open communication policy. (6) Consciousness among women managers to make mentorship of other women one of their primary responsibilities.

    In addition, I am not in favour of quotas or reservations for women in graduate programs or in companies. Even if only a small percentage of women come up the ladder through special breaks, it will be assumed that the rest of us who came up the hard way got those breaks as well.

    tejas@iimb: Do we have any method used in research to quantify the extent of glass ceiling in organizations? If not, then what can be a recommended approach of developing such an index?

    HK:I am not aware of any formal metric in research to quantify glass ceiling in organizations. I do have a few suggestions to offer:

    Primary Sources: A metric can be developed using primary sources such as surveys or questionnaires containing questions relevant to the topic. A Likert scale and open-ended questions could then be administered to a sample comprised of employees at all levels (including men and women) and the responses could then be analyzed. A few organizations have undertaken similar studies. One interesting finding was that while women believed that a glass ceiling does exist, men observed that it has been shattered in most industries!

    Secondary Sources: To measure glass ceiling, a second approach would involve the use of secondary sources. (1)Start with a list of Fortune 1000 companies or the Global 500, etc. at time T0. (2) Make a list of the top management team members in each of the companies (senior VP and above) and calculate the percentage of women on each of these teams at time T0. (3) Calculate the percentage of women on the Board of Directors of each of these firms. (4) Create subcategories by industry type and by function. (5) Examine the list of Fortune 1000 companies or the Global 500, etc. at time T1 and repeat the above process. (6) After weeding out the firms from time T0 that did not exist in time T1, calculate the difference in the percentage representation of women on the top management teams and on the boards during these two time periods. Similar analyses can also be carried out for industry and function subcategories.

    Global Prevalence

    tejas@iimb: The glass ceiling is not an isolated occurrence. It is present all over the world. Is there a difference between the glass ceiling in developed and developing countries? If yes, what is the nature of the difference?

    HK:The glass ceiling is present all over the world since the forces that keep women away are the same. The degree of intensity of these forces may differ by nation or by region. In emerging and developing countries, religious, legal, and economic factors are particularly discriminatory towards women. Since women do not get equal opportunities even at the grass roots level, the question of a glass ceiling does not even arise. For the women who do have these opportunities and who are able to have a career, in emerging countries such as China or India, the glass ceiling they confront is no different from that confronted by women in the western world.

    tejas@iimb: Some Indian financial companies are quite well off and we see a good number of women CEOs at the top 3. Are there specific reasons why these women in India were able to reach the top while this is not the case in the US?

    HK: As you point out, Indian women are doing really well in companies in India, and also in the U.S. The socio-cultural barriers indentified earlier can be turned into an advantage. Since Indian culture is more family oriented and less individualistic, the women here enjoy a safety net that is not available to their western counterparts. The extended family concept and the availability of labour make it easier for women to achieve a work-family balance. Secondly, relative to the average teenage Indian girl, a U.S. girl spends much lesser time on education. Middle-income Indian parents are very much focused on their daughters’ education and are willing to make great personal sacrifices to enable them to succeed. Third, today’s generation of Indian women grew up in an environment that provided them with the experience that is critical to run our present-day companies: greater adaptability, high levels of multi cultural quotient, "Jugaad" and functioning within severe resource-constraints. Finally, the August 20th issue of the Economist explores the changes in the attitudes of women in the major Asian countries. With an increasing number of women delaying marriage and motherhood, we are going to see a greater representation of women in the upper echelons in the years ahead.

    In a lighter vein, frequently even the women don’t know the existence of a glass ceiling. When they find out, they cannot break through it; metaphorically speaking it makes sense because glass is inherently often stronger than most metals. On the other hand, the same strong glass is also inherently fragile and can be shattered into pieces with the right tool such as a sharp diamond point. So the women trapped under the invisible glass ceiling can break through it if they have the right tools: a red-coloured spray can of paint, which symbolises the awareness today’s women should possess; and a sharp diamond studded ring, which is analogous to the credentials that women have carefully acquired. Use the spray can to locate the glass ceiling by spraying the red paint around you and then use your diamond studded ring to punch through it. If you perceive an obstruction, don’t hesitate to spray your senior colleagues with challenging questions such as “Why him and not me?” And then lose your humility for a while and show them your diamond ring. Then if necessary use the spray can again, and no more glass ceilings.


    Contrary to popular belief, the glass ceiling is a very prevalent phenomenon in the corporate world today. Women have to work harder than men in general to gain the same recognition. One of the main reasons for this in India is the societal pressure on women. On the other hand, the sense of familial duty and support helps women get back on track after a hiatus. Thus, the ceiling is breachable only with increased awareness and empowerment of the leaders of tomorrow.


    Hema Krishnan is currently the Associate Dean of Williams College of Business, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio. She chairs a position that no woman, let alone a foreign woman, has ever presided. Hema was also the first woman to hold a field job at the sales front in Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, an entirely male dominated space. She then did her PGP program at IIM Bangalore after which she moved to the US to pursue her doctorate at the University of Tennessee and then took to academics. Today she teaches International Management, Strategic Management, Strategic Leadership, and Global Strategic Thinking at the undergraduate, MBA, and executive levels. Hema is a researcher in the field of women and leadership, and believes strongly in the need and benefits of bringing gender diversity to institutions. At her position, she practices and spreads this message among the students of her college - which optimistically percolates into their minds and makes a difference when they become leaders tomorrow. Her noteworthy contribution to women's studies has been her recent research paper, 'What causes turnover among women on top management teams?'


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    2., The McKinsey Quarterly; September 2008; Georges Desvaux, Sandrine Devillard-Hoellinger, and Mary C. Meane, Last accessed on August 01, 2011
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    Mr. Sanjay Kalra, Former CEO, Tech Mahindra

    Sourav Mukherji, Associate Professor, on Knowledge Management in Indian Software Firms

    Dr. Catherine Nickerson, Associate Editor, Journal of Business Communication (Sage)

    Dr.Trilochan Sastry, Professor, IIM Bangalore

    Dr. Padmini Srinivasan, Assistant Professor, IIM Bangalore

    Dr.R. Srinivasan, Associate Professor, IIM Bangalore

    Dr. Vijaya Marisetty, Associate Professor, IIM Bangalore

    Dr. Rajeev Gowda, Professor, IIM Bangalore
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