Manufacturing companies in India are breaking stereotypes and opening up a new career opportunity for working women: jobs on the factory floor.
In January, for example, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles onboarded 46 women employees - a first for the factory - as part of its 'DiveIN' (Diversity and Inclusive) initiative. The manufacturer plans to hire more, until women make up 20% of the factory workforce by 2022, said Yeshwanth Kini, head of HR.
"Diversity brings in a completely different perspective on the shop floor," said Kini. "Their new perspective can spark creativity and innovation," he said, adding that having more women employees improves discipline, quality and output.
In recent decades, a growing number of women in India have broken away from their traditional role as homemakers to join the workforce. Those with education and training gravitate to corporate jobs in accounting, banking and information-technology, with few seeking opportunities in the manufacturing industry.
Of course, factory floors have traditionally required workers to operate heavy machinery, which requires physical strength. But factories are becoming more mechanized, using robots, hoists and lifts to do the heavy lifting. Shop floor workers operate these machines using joysticks, which requires precision rather than strength, allowing companies to hire a more diverse workforce.
"It's much easier today to bring in this equality compared to 20 years back," said V.G. Sakthikumar, managing director, Schwing Stetter India, which makes construction equipment.
The pandemic has sped the mechanization process in many factories, said Sakthikumar. For instance, rules for social distancing meant they needed to find a new approach to systems that require three people to operate one machine.
In February, Schwing Stetter hired women for the first time on the shop floor for its new factory in Cheyyar in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Women comprise around 15% of the 120 factory employees hired so far this year, and are involved in making huge machines used for construction, such as concrete mixers, said Sakthikumar. He hopes to raise their percentage within the workforce in the coming years.
The presence of women workers creates a different culture and attitude in the factory, he added. "Women are more serious about what is expected from them, which in turn makes the men more sincere," said Sakthikumar. "We expect the overall productivity will go up."
To be sure, working women in India are a minority, making up just 20% of the country's total workforce, according to the World Bank. Within that, women's participation in manufacturing is tiny. Garment and textile factories have long employed women, and the automobile industry has long hired women for the shop floor, though that number also is growing.
For example, the automotive and farm equipment unit of Mahindra & Mahindra employs more than 150 women in its manufacturing facility, including as supervisors in production, plant engineering, quality control and maintenance. Motorcycle manufacturer Eicher Motors has an entire engine assembly line staffed by 140 female workers, the company reports. And tire-maker Ceat and steel company Tata Steel are among other companies that have hired women in their factories and have taken steps to make the workplace more suitable for them.
Schwing Stetter, for instance, has arranged a hostel to accommodate women employees who are mainly new graduates in their early 20s. The company also offers an after-work training program, which in five years can lead to a bachelor's degree in engineering.
"We are offering an opportunity to learn and earn," said Sakthikumar. "That is a motivation"
At Daimler India, ahead of onboarding the first female employees this year, the company built missing infrastructure, such as women's restrooms and change rooms, and also gave gender sensitivity training to existing male staff. "We worked on both the hard and soft part," said Kini.
Women hired so far at the Daimler factory work in such key roles as engine and transmission building, quality management and the paint shop. Another benefit of being able to hire women is that it expands the overall hiring talent pool, said Kini.
Finding women willing to work in factories remains a challenge due to long-held societal and cultural mindsets, especially in small towns and rural India where women traditionally stay at home.
"The toughest job in the country is to source talent," said Guruprasad Srinivasan, chief operating officer for India at staffing firm Quess Corp. In the past decade, Srinivasan said there is more demand for women to work on assembly lines at electronics companies, especially those that make handsets and semi-conductors. Women are considered to have superior motor skills and dexterity, and some companies want as much as 70% of their assembly line staff to be women, he said.
To find talent, Quess uses multiple approaches, including visiting the interior of the country to townships, or 'taluks,' comprising several villages. Quess teams organize roadshows for the benefit of the residents and village heads, explaining the work they are looking to hire for.
"We'll play videos to show them what the work environment will be," said Srinivasan. Such shows may be attended by as many as 500 people, and are conducted for 15 days in different locations. "It's a very community-driven program," he said.
If they're sourcing for a company that specifically seeks women employees, the Quess team also tries to convince the parents of young women to let them apply for the job, said Srinivasan. "Whenever we are hiring, it's the family that's involved," he said.
Once enough eligible candidates are found, the Quess team brings them to the city and organizes their stay for the first few weeks until the job begins.
"It's a cultural shift - many don't know how to manage on their own," said Srinivasan. "That first hand-holding period is extremely important."
Once new women employees settle into their jobs and see that working and having an income can increase their status, it changes attitudes.
"Families become more willing, and if they have a younger daughter at home, they know where to send her," Srinivasan said.
And as more manufacturing companies have a good experience with women staff, experts say more companies will revise their hiring plans.
"These kind of things go a long way in bringing more balance in the society," said Kini.