Less than 6.7% of the Indian Railways’ employees are female. These missing women pose a major challenge to the company’s message of progress.

The Indian Railways is bounding forward with modern advancements. It plans to use Twitter to issue customer complaints, an app for booking paperless tickets, handheld terminals for ticket examiners, a Google partnership to provide free WiFi at the 100 busiest stations, an online Track Management System, an e-procurement system, and more. Every day, the Indian Railways transports an average of 23 million originating passengers and over 2.9 million tons of freight cargo. With consumer demand for public transportation already surpassing supply, Minister of Railways Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu is smart to work toward efficiency and transparency in the Indian Railways.

Unfortunately, the need for advancement is not confined to technology. With more than 1.3 million employees, the Indian Railways is the largest employer in India. However, less than 6.7% of its employees are women (as of March 31, 2014). This means there is only 1 female employee for every 14 male employees.

270,836 women are “missing” from the Indian Railways’ employee roster. If the company adhered to India’s average female workforce participation rate (27%), we’d expect to see 360,171 female employees at the Indian Railways. However, there are only 89,335 female employees. These missing women are a major flaw in the Indian Railways’ message of progress.

Moreover, low female participation is a problem for the Indian economy. Among other benefits, economies grow faster as female labor force participation increases. Low female participation in the country’s largest employer poses a huge problem for an economy eager to become globally competitive.

It’s clear that the Indian Railways’ missing women are a problem. However, the cause for this disparity is less clear. Why are women functionally excluded from the largest workforce in India?

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Where do women work within the Indian Railways?

Let’s first examine how the 6.7% of employees who are female are distributed in the Indian Railways. The Indian Railways Annual Statistical Statements 2013-14 reveals that the low representation of women is widespread. Only 3 of 34 departments (specifically, the Northeast Front, Southern, and Integral Coach) have a staff that is more than 10% female. The worst divisions for female representation are East Central and the Railway Board and Other Offices; their workforces are less than 4% female. Although no division is particularly successful, more research is needed to explain if the variance is due to internal or external factors, or if it is random. In case a division is doing something particularly well to attract and retain female employees, others can learn from it.

Employees are also divided into Groups A, B, C, and D based on salary and responsibility; Group A is the most prestigious. Less than 1.5% of all employees are in Group A and B, close to 90% are in Group C, and about 10% are in Group D. The distribution of women across employee groups is closely proportionate to men. 88% of female employees are Group C employees, which includes nurses, teachers, stenographers, and clerks. More than half of women within Group C (40% of all women in the Indian Railway) are categorized as Other, so we do not know which roles they fill.

The type of work that women perform matters, since women with low job satisfaction, low pay, or a low opportunity cost to staying home are less likely to return to the workplace after childbirth. And, if women consistently drop out of the workforce after childbirth, achieving gender equality will be nearly impossible.

Data for females in Group A and B is aggregated, which hides female participation rate at the highest level of the Indian Railways.

Females represent 8.8% of Group A and B employees. This is slightly higher representation compared to Groups C and D. However, this data point is also aggregated in the report, so it could be hiding low female participation at the very top (Group A). In fact, the High Level Committee responsible for making recommendations on the mobilization of resources (including human resources) in the Indian Railways is exclusively male. Of the 18 individuals thanked for their inputs in a recent report, only 1 was female. Low representation of women in the highest offices is particularly concerning because that means there are fewer role models, mentors, and advocates for female employees in decision-making positions.

The lackluster performance in recruitment and retention of female employees across divisions and groups means that no leader or hiring committee in the Indian Railways is exempt from re-examining their priorities and processes.

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Supply and demand: 2 explanations for the Indian Railways’ missing women

According to World Bank data, only 27% of women over 15 years old participate in the labor force in India, which is low even for South Asian countries. This is less than in 1990 and 2005, when women’s participation was 35% and 37% respectively.

Some people say low female participation is a result of low demand. In patriarchal societies, unless financial restraints require otherwise, the cultural preference is for women to be in the home. Rising incomes in India would then account for the decrease in women’s participation. Smaller family sizes and increased urbanization (living without extended family) also means less childcare support for mothers who might otherwise want to work.

A more recent study points to a supply-side explanation of low female participation — job creation is concentrated in roles that are traditionally filled by men. While this may be true for the Indian economy as a whole, it does not seem to be the case for the Indian Railways. In the Indian Railways, roles in construction (which is traditionally a male role) account for less than 2% of total positions. Unless many roles are miscategorized, the supply argument cannot account for all the missing women in the Indian Railways.

However, one can build on the supply side argument to examine the types of work offered, not just the roles. Research by the World Bank explains that, in India, “three-quarters of women who were willing to accept work, if made available, favoured regular part-time jobs.” Providing more flexible and part-time roles can make it more feasible for women to balance a career with domestic responsibilities. Perhaps a lack of these types of roles can explain low female participation in the Indian Railways.

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The importance of HR reform

The Indian Railways lacks comprehensive data on the hiring and promotion of its employees. This makes it impossible to determine why so few women work in India’s largest employer.

The Indian Railways recruited 7,440 and promoted 9,622 employees in Groups A and B in 2013-14. However, no demographic data is available to show whether women are being recruited and promoted. We also do not know what percent of applicants are female, or whether females who apply for positions in the Indian Railways are more or less likely to be hired than male applicants. Both the Report of the Expert Group for Modernization of the Indian Railways and the Report of the Committee for Mobilization of Resources for Major Railway Projects and Restructuring of Railway Ministry and Railway Board have called for modern HR management systems to track this type of data.

Calls for HR reform go beyond data management. The Committee for Mobilization of Resources seeks an overhaul of the organization’s structure and culture. They say the “organization has become overly centralized and hierarchical and one of the crucial issues has been the ‘departmentalism’ that adversely affects the working culture.” Given a general fight for resources, unequal benefits for equals, and general departmentalism, the lack of focus on attracting more women to the Indian Railways and advocating for women within the organization is not surprising.

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Is the Indian Railways doing anything about this problem?

The Indian Railways’ language reflects deeply rooted gender stereotypes.

The Annual Report outlines several initiatives that the Indian Railways is taking to empower women:

  • Provisions for maternity leave, child care leave, and special leave for family welfare
  • Nurseries to care for employees’ young children
  • Committees to address complaints of sexual harassment
  • Provision of female restrooms
  • Handicraft and vocational training centers for women

Safety, sanitation, access to affordable childcare, and paid family leave are essential for creating a hospitable working environment and preventing women from dropping out of the workforce. However, is difficult to tell how effective the Indian Railways’ initiatives will be. This is because the Annual Report lacks quantitative data on these initiatives. There is no mention of the number of nurseries opened or how many families they serve. Similarly, there is no data from Human Resources to evaluate whether women are able to take advantage of these schemes.

Notably, the Indian Railways’ Women Welfare Organization is comprised of the “wives of railway officers.” Does this mean there are no female railway officers? No, but this language and the frequent use of “railwaymen” to refer to all employees in the Annual Report reflect deeply rooted gender stereotypes at the Indian Railways.

The way forward

Focusing on new technology is a far easier task than increasing female participation, but both are required for the Indian Railways’ advancement.

Guaranteeing health, safety, and family leave is a start. However, there is space for a more concerted effort to actively hire, train, promote, and retain female employees. The Indian Railways may have to provide greater flexibility or more part-time positions to increase female labor force participation at all levels of the organization. At the same time, more HR data is necessary for identifying where to focus efforts and how to increase female representation.

The Indian Railways has an opportunity to show leadership in advancements of technology and gender equality. Taking up this opportunity is crucial for the Indian Railways’ advancement.