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ImageFrom meal makers to deal makers,bread bakers to bread earners,women in India are taking giant strides at the work place.

At about 7 pm every evening,Putli Devi latches the wooden door of her ramshackle one-bedroom shanty in the poorer parts of Delhi's Vasant Kunj and walks some 500 metres to the bus stop."I can't wait for my daughter to come home from work,'' she says,her eyes brimming with pride."This is where she gets down.She works at a big shopping mall in South Extension.'' For Putli Devi,who has barely seen the world outside her home,her daughter Gayatri has done what no other female in generations has managed to do in her tightly-controlled,male-dominated family."Gayatri always wanted to work and bring money home.She would say the education she received is useless if she just married and stayed home.Her father understood that the world had changed.''

India's daughters are increasingly stepping out of home to join their brothers,fathers and husbands to bring home the moolah,help the family in and outside of the kitchen,a fact encouragingly pointed to by all research.Nasscom and Mercer India conducted a gender inclusivity study last year to develop a better understanding of the women workforce.The joint research (involving more than 45 leading technology companies) on the status of women,their roles and the challenges they face,revealed that the large number of women working in urban India can be attributed to the growth of the IT-BPO industry,which is one of the largest recruiters of qualified workforce in recent times.While this industry itself has been a beacon in championing diversity and gender inclusivity initiatives,few companies have taken stock of how successful these programmes have been and what the road ahead should look like.

According to Raju Bhatnagar,VP,Nasscom,women constitute an important economic force for the country and suitable enabling provisions must be made to harness their abilities to benefit the economy.Women in the IT workforce grew from 4.21 lakh in 2006 to 6.7 lakh in 2008.In technical functions,traditionally considered all-male bastions,the percentage of female employees has seen a steady rise and stands at 36 per cent at present.

It's the same story in retail.Take the case of the $350 billion retail sector employing 25 million people.Globally,60 per cent of those employed in this sector are women.In India,however,the percentage is 35.But the industry believes this can go up to 50 per cent if labour laws are modified."We would like more women employed in modern retail.They will be the best assets considering they are naturally endowed with abilities to assist the service sector," says Kumar Rajagopalan,CEO,Retailers Association of India.Bhatnagar concurs: "The laws should be aimed at providing a level playing field for men and women." Archaic labour laws need to be modified even for part-time working women,especially in a country where women's education is still lagging.

Interestingly,when modern retail was not even in existence,25 per cent of people buying goods were women.Today,it's 45 per cent,thanks to modern trade and a rise in dual incomes.In the next four years,the Indian retail industry is expected to grow to $600 billion and a significant portion - of about 60 per cent of total sales,close to $360 billion - is expected to come from women buyers.

In recent years,hospitality has made inroads into mainstream education and has become a viable career path for women."At The Leela,statistics show a 33 per cent upward trend in the number of women on our workforce," says Mithu Basu,who after eight years as general manager with The Leela Palaces,Hotels and Resorts,recently turned entrepreneur.

There is an exception,though: the hard-core brick-and-mortar sectors in manufacturing.The reasons are obvious - women are not able to endure high physical stress and do chores like lifting cement bags.There are also specific regulations which do not allow women to operate certain tasks in factories.This is probably why in the manufacturing sector women constitute less than 20-25 per cent of the workforce.

Yet,there are a few sunshine sectors like bidirolling,hosiery,fisheries and cosmetics,which are largely run by women because they are more versatile with such tasks.There have been many psychoanalytical studies that reveal women are happier doing repetitive kind of jobs (wrapping products,bidi-rolling ) as compared to men.This insight,in turn,has been used by many corporates at factories.

The number of women involved in the manufacturing sector is on the rise.At the Aditya Birla Group,a large conglomerate,the percentage of women managers has gone up from nearly zero to 11 per cent in 13 years (out of 130,000 employees,26,000 are women).At Tata Motors,there are over 7,450 women in the management cadre.Though the exact percentage of rise over the previous years is not known,the company said the numbers for women workers/managers have gone up.

While numbers are rising in manufacturing (especially in FMCG),the growth is yet to match with that of fields like IT,which offer women a wider variety of roles and allow them to achieve a work-life balance by creating work environments that provide flexibility suiting women employees at various stages in their life and career."Today,we can see far more women in all sectors (even those which traditionally had few women managers) and at all levels of the organisation," says Sonali Roychowdhury,head of human resources,P&G India,which has women making up about 15 per cent of senior-level management posts.At liquor-maker Pernod Ricard India,the proportion of women has doubled to 30 per cent in the last five years.

Meanwhile,in rural India,agriculture and allied industrial sectors employ about 90 per cent of the total available female labour.

Image Source: Getty Images