Dr. Brock’s Team-Building Workshop in Mumbai Reveals Obstacles to Gender Equality

Date: April 21, 2015
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Deborah Anders
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While driving around Mumbai, Dr. Sabra Brock spied a gas station owned by the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (HPCL) –at whose offices she had been conducting a workshop in team building skills. The station appeared relatively modern, she thought, until a neighborhood goat casually wandered onto the scene!

In India, like so many other emerging markets, there is a struggle between the old and the new− business practices and philosophies that have one foot in the future and the other in the past. Dr. Brock, Interim Dean at the Graduate School of Business, witnessed this disparity first hand –specifically with regard to gender diversity in the workforce− during her workshop in collaborative performance that she conducted recently at Hindustan Petroleum.

Many at the seminar were mid-career professionals, 28 to 45 years old, and wanted to learn from the various skills workshops such as effective team performance, roles in the workplace, situational leadership, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, trust, dysfunction, and even a case study of the Mars candy bar company. “The point was to initiate a joint research project in order to develop a new instrument for measuring team skills,” said Dr. Brock. But what the group revealed during workshops on gender perceptions, learning, and leadership was perhaps the most glaring example of a business culture stymied by tradition.

“We spent an hour on gender diversity,” Dr. Brock said, “and much of the sentiment among the men was, ‘women have no problem in Indian society,’ an attitude that was typical in the U.S. during the 1960’s,” she said.  But Hindustan’s female workers told a different story. “The women said things were pretty tough there,” Dr. Brock continued. For instance, although female employees are entitled to pregnancy leave, “the women said if they took the time off, it was counted against them, and that they would be rated poorly in employee reviews for doing so,” said Dr. Brock.

According to a 2014 report of the International Monetary Fund, India is the 10th largest economy in the world. Yet during the seminar held at the training campus of HPCL −a government run enterprise with more than 11,000 employees − women were underrepresented at the company, comprising only 10 percent of the attendees. They are also underrepresented in the country. Only 30 percent of Indian women are in the work force.

Dr. Shamira Malekar, an Adjunct Professor at GSB, a native of Mumbai, and an academician, who also conducted workshops and training in emotional intelligence (EI) in India, said that in business as well as academia, “there is a hierarchical system and large numbers of women have entered the workforce much later than their male counterparts. There are very few females working as the general manager and above in the corporate world.” Likewise in academia, she said, “there are still significant gender differences.”

Prior to moving to the U.S., Dr. Malekar had been one of the founding and management committee members of HPCL’s initiative, Forum for Emotional Intelligence Learning (FEIL), where she learned something important about the culture. “In 1985, it was observed by research that Indians ranked low in the knowledge, expertise and tools for managing emotions at workplaces.” EI is a somewhat intangible tool, later identified in the 1990’s, that is used to manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results. To its credit, HPCL was among several leading institutions that adopted EI in their curriculum. Business leaders acknowledged the importance of EI in the corporate environment as well.

Dr. Brock and Dr. Malekar both recognize that fully integrating India’s women into its job market will be slow. “It is changing for sure,” Dr. Malekar said, “and there are a handful of exceptions.” One notable exception and role model is Indra Nooyi, a native of India, who is the CEO of PepsiCo, the second largest food and beverage business in the world.

Dr. Brock knows there is much to be done in this exotic country toward encouraging more women to enter the workforce. While the increase in free business workshops and the efforts of organizations like FEIL have helped, “they really are at the first stage,” she said. She hopes to publish her findings of the business skills seminar in India sometime next year.