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All-Women Factory Lines Emerge in India

India's government has been pushing for a program called "Make in India" to support local manufacturing. Now some companies are going further to "make in India" solely with women.

A handful of manufacturing companies have announced that some of their assembly lines are being run entirely by women, in an effort to increase gender diversity in the workforce.

Industries such as textiles and tobacco have hired women historically to work in manufacturing across the country. In recent years, they have been joined by companies in a range of different sectors.

For example, Elgi Equipments, a maker of air compressors, said three of its assembly lines in the south Indian city of Coimbatore are now being run by women. Elgi's Managing Director, Jairam Varadaraj, said they made a concerted effort to bring more women to the shop floor to benefit "from their different thinking," which in turn makes business decisions and outcomes more robust. "What's good for the business has to be done first," said Varadaraj. 

Gender diversity has increasingly become a focus for Indian companies. Tata Group, one of the country's largest conglomerates, has a Diversity Council which is tasked with increasing gender diversity in the organization through various initiatives. Earlier this year, the group's automotive arm, Tata Motors, said one of its assembly lines, which produces the sports utility vehicles Harrier and Safari, is being run entirely by women. In its other assembly lines, there is a mix of men and women workers, according to a spokesperson.

Another company that has introduced an all-women production line is truck-maker Ashok Leyland, while Ola Electric, a maker of electric scooters, has said it is building a factory to be run with only women workers.

Overcoming Resistance

Though women make up half of India's population of 1.4 billion, they comprise less than one quarter of the workforce. Unlike other countries where more women join the workforce as the country becomes richer, women's participation in India's workforce has fallen lately, partly due to a lack of jobs. Also playing a role are societal attitudes, since the role of women in India until recently has been mainly as homemakers and caregivers. Even among working women, core manufacturing has long been seen as a man's job.

Only 1.6 million women in India are working in manufacturing, according to an analysis of government data by the Center for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) at Ashoka University. Women make up around 20 percent of India's factory workers, a share that has remained the same over the past two decades, according to CEDA.

To bring women into its factories, Elgi started by trying to recruit young girls from nearby villages and towns to join a vocational course run by the company. In the three-year course, both boys and girls who have recently completed the twelfth grade are trained in such skills as welding, machining and electrical work. The goal is for these students is to ultimately earn jobs in Elgi's factories.

At first, there was huge resistance from parents who were concerned about girls working with machines and in the same premises as men, said Varadaraj. But their attitudes changed when they saw boys from their villages earning good salaries, almost as much as a freshly recruited software engineer. Girls started signing up six years ago, and some parents have moved their homes closer to Elgi's factories to allow their children to work there.

"It took a while for the wheel to turn," said Varadaraj.

Preparing Physical and Social Infrastructure

To make the factory floor more conducive for women, companies have made changes to their physical infrastructure. At Tata Motors, for instance, they have introduced robotics, changed the height of some workstations and redesigned certain lifts, tackles and torquing tools to be more suited to women employees.

"Ergonomically inclusive workspaces need to be created in consultation with engineers," said Sitaram Kandi, vice president of HR for passenger and electric vehicles.

The company has more than 4,500 women on the shop floor across its six plants, working on vehicles ranging from small passenger cars to heavy commercial trucks, he said. Tata Motors also assists its women employees outside the workspace by helping them find accommodation near the factory and by providing transportation to work and back.

To be sure, the company's role in helping women employees shouldn't end with providing updates to the physical infrastructure, say HR experts. Organizations also need to create the right kind of attitudes to accept and foster women workers. For example, company leaders should be open to embracing a more diverse workforce, and hiring managers should be sensitized to overcome any unconscious biases, said Kandi. He suggested an all-inclusive interview panel and programs designed to upskill workers. 

As women live through life events, particularly pregnancy, it could impact their physical and emotional health. Organizations should help them prepare for that or risk losing them in the long term, added Varadaraj.

"That's really the program we're trying to curate now," he said. "How to make yourself impactful in the lives of these women as they go through these transformations." 

Most of Elgi's women factory workers are old enough to get married. "We are in a tearing urgency to curate this program," he added.

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. 


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