If the women in the factories stopped work for twenty minutes, the Allies would lose the war.
French field marshal Joseph Joffre’s now-famous words were a nod to the thousands of women who flocked to factories as carpenters, welders, machinists and technicians during World War I, considered a watershed moment in the history of female empowerment.
The realisation of how much women could contribute to manufacturing may have struck in 1916 but in 2021, they still constitute merely 30% of the manufacturing workforce globally. Estimates show only 12% of India’s manufacturing sector, which employs 27.3 million people, is female.
Over the past year, some organisations are making an effort to bring more women as skilled labour into traditionally male-dominated sectors—automobiles, mining and heavy engineering. Tata Steel, for instance, recently hired 38 female heavy earthmoving machinery operators at its mines in Jharkhand’s West Bokaro and Noamundi as part of its Women@Mines programme. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages is in the process of setting up a factory in West Bengal’s Siliguri, which will be 60% female. Daimler India Commercial Vehicles hired 46 women at its Oragadam truck and bus manufacturing complex in Chennai earlier this year as part of a diversity and inclusion plan. In September, Ola Electric said it would hire 10,000 women to run its all-women electric two-wheeler manufacturing unit in Hosur, Tamil Nadu.
Companies have noticed that having more women on the shop floor positively influences the overall company culture, points out Varda Pendse, director of Mumbai-based human resource (HR) consulting and advisory firm Cerebrus Consultants. “There is less screaming, swearing in factories with more women,” says Pendse, adding that in general, women are more collaborative. While it’s encouraging to see a shift in the way women are perceived, a lot remains to be achieved. Pendse adds, “People often don’t hire women saying they will marry, have children and leave the organisation.”
Often women themselves feel intimidated by the work. Manufacturing is typically seen as a highly labour-intensive profession. Even infrastructure—something as simple as having enough bathrooms for women—can be a deterrent.
When Ramya R, a mechanical engineer now doing her master’s in Germany, started working in a Pune-based road construction company in 2017, she was the only woman in operations. “The first thing I asked them after my interview was whether they had women’s washrooms in the office,” recalls Ramya. While she enjoyed her three-year stint at the organisation, she says it was physically challenging. “Even the shoes we wore on the shop floor as trainees weighed over a kilo,” says Ramya. She believes the sheer physicality of the job could play a part in dissuading women. “Many would find it tough.”
But then those like Nidhi Kumari, a worker at Tata Steel’s Jamshedpur plant, remain unfazed by the challenge. When she joined the company in 2014, there was just one other female employee on the floor. The usual conversation—women can’t do this job because they can’t lift heavy objects—came up, she recalls. “You don’t need to look like a bodybuilder to do this,” she says, pointing out that the machines do most of the heavy lifting. Sanjana Prakash, 19, who works at Ola Electric’s Hosur factory agrees: “People told me that welding was tough. But the robots take care of everything.”
Labour laws in India are also a block when it comes to hiring more women. According to Section 66 of the Factories Act of 1948, “no woman shall be allowed to work in any factory except between the hours of 6 am and 7 pm.” The Act was amended in 2005, enabling states to permit women in night shifts, provided safety protocols were maintained, but only some states allow it.
Atrayee Sanyal, vice-president (HR management), Tata Steel, says the company has been pushing for women to work all three shifts at the company plants, something many states haven’t allowed yet. Tata Steel is trying to work around this: it has got permission from the authorities for women to work in extended shifts till 10 pm. It offers facilities like crèche, and menstrual leaves to encourage them more. “We are working towards having a 25% diverse workforce by 2025,” says Sanyal. Currently, Tata Steel has a 7.4% women workforce.
Technology has a say
Technology is playing a big part in manufacturing companies’ decisions to address diversity. “The drive towards automation means the only real constraint is in the mind,” says Sanyal.
For instance, Ola’s electric scooter factory has around 5,000 robots working alongside women. “Increase in automation and robotics will not just increase overall efficiency but also the potential to have a more significant proportion of women,” says Harpreet Kaur, senior vice-president and head (corporate personnel and administration), Godrej & Boyce.
There is no doubt technology is a big enabler, agrees Indrajeet Sengupta, executive director and chief HR officer at Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages (HCCB). The company’s factory in Sanand, Gujarat, is a digitally enabled bottling plant, with 44% of the workforce being female. When HCCB entered Sanand in 2017, its first task was engaging with the residents to make them aware of the factory and its safety practices. It helped increase female participation, claims Sengupta.
Pendse believes there are three-four things common in manufacturing organisations that succeed at creating diverse workspaces. She lists them: offering clear communication about diversity initiatives, creating a positive work culture, ensuring gender-neutral growth, and training and competence building. “Having more women in leadership roles could play a part in driving these changes,” says Pendse, adding the number of senior women leaders in manufacturing is still low.
There, however, appears to be an active attempt to change this. Companies are closely considering diversity in leadership, says Nirmit Parekh, the chief executive officer and managing director of 3P Consultants Private Ltd, a Mumbai-based company that focuses on finding C-level executive talent. “There is a high preference for women candidates,” he says. “Every second assignment, I get a request from the client saying they want at least a few women candidates on the shortlist.”
The problem, as Shivakami Ravichandran, a Chennai-based lawyer and diversity, equality and inclusion expert, explains, isn’t just in the manufacturing sector; it is a deeper cultural one: “In terms of numbers, the participation of women in the workforce in India is far from admirable, and we need to do more to educate and financially empower them.”