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Bringing More Women to the Factory Floor in India

A woman in a hard hat working in a warehouse.

Manufacturing companies in India are breaking stereotypes and opening up new career opportunities for working women: jobs on the factory floor.

In January, for example, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles onboarded 46 female employees—a first for the factory—as part of its DiveIN (which stands for "diversity and inclusive") initiative. The manufacturer plans to hire more women until they make up 20 percent of the factory workforce by 2022, said Yeshwanth Kini, head of HR and based in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

"Diversity brings in a completely different perspective on the shop floor. [Women's] new perspective can spark creativity and innovation," Kini said, adding that having more female 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.

Increased Mechanization

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 at Schwing Stetter India, which makes construction equipment.

The pandemic has sped up the mechanization process in many factories, Sakthikumar said. For instance, rules for social distancing meant the company needed to rethink processes that required three people to operate one machine.

In February, Schwing Stetter hired women to work on the shop floor for the first time in its new factory in Cheyyar in Tamil Nadu. Women make up around 15 percent of the 120 factory employees hired so far this year and are involved in making huge machines used for construction, such as concrete mixers, Sakthikumar said. He hopes to raise the percentage of female employees within the company's workforce in the coming years.

The presence of women 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," Sakthikumar said. "We expect the overall productivity will go up."

To be sure, working women in India are a minority, making up just 20 percent of the country's total workforce, according to the World Bank. Within that percentage, 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 to work 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 female 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," Sakthikumar said. "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 male staff. "We worked on both the hard and soft part," Kini said.

Hiring Pool Expanded

Women hired so far at the Daimler factory work in such key roles as engine and transmission building and quality management and in the paint shop. Another benefit of being able to hire women is that the overall hiring talent pool is expanded, Kini said.

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 Bengaluru. In the past decade, Srinivasan said, there has been more demand for women to work on assembly lines at electronics companies, especially those that make handsets and semiconductors. Women are considered to have superior motor skills and dexterity, and some companies want as much as 70 percent of their assembly line staff to be women, he said.

Multiple Approaches

To find talent, Quess uses multiple approaches, including traveling to the interior of the country to visit townships, or "taluks," comprising several villages. Quess teams organize roadshows for 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," Srinivasan said. 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 it's sourcing for a company that specifically seeks female employees, the Quess team also tries to convince the parents of young women to let the women apply for the job, Srinivasan said. "Whenever we are hiring, it's the family that's involved," he said.

Once enough eligible candidates are found, the Quess team brings the new employees 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," Srinivasan said. "That first hand-holding period is extremely important."

Once new female employees settle into their jobs and see that working and having an income can increase their status, it changes attitudes.

"Families become more willing [to allow their family member to work], and if they have a younger daughter at home, they know where to send her," Srinivasan said.

And as more manufacturing companies have good experiences with female 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," Kini said.

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.


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