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Stainless women, made of steel

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By Sidharth Mishra

About 100 kilometers from Bhubaneswar in the midst of Odia hinterland, a quiet social revolution is taking place. The place is Jajpur, an industrial hub, developed by the Odisha government in an attempt to cultivate a prototype of the legendary steel city of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. It’s a dusty and bumpy road which takes one to Jajpur

Despite the roads, Jajpur has been a success story with big brands like Tata Steel and Jindal Stainless finding firm footing in the forested area, not just making steel but initiating a social revolution. The social revolution one is talking about is not the one which is ordinarily associated with corporate social responsibility but in the core areas of production and marketing.

Not undermining the role played by the self-help groups promoted by these consortia under the CSR activities, but what should actually be bringing laurels to these companies is the role women are playing on the shop floors of the hot and cold steel rolling mills. A quick employee survey of the Jindal Stainless at Jajpur reveals that of the 136 women employees, 74 are engineers and of them 50 work on the shop floor.

Unlike the rush we see these days in the engineering colleges for courses in emerging areas like the AI, Data Science, IIoT and Machine Learning, here are women helming operations in white helmets not in air-conditioned labs but on the hot shop floor rubbing shoulders with their male counterparts. For years, the manufacturing and metallurgy sectors have been perceived as challenging and labour-intensive, often discouraging women. 

However, the stainless steel industry is gradually shattering these pigeonholes as more and more women take on diverse roles within the sector. They are today working as engineers, metallurgists, or quality control experts, proving their mettle in each of these fields. Their keen attention to every facet, problem-solving abilities, and devotion to quality have helped enhance the overall production and innovation in the industry. Women have made significant advances not just on the shop floors but in various domains within the stainless steel industry, such as research and development, marketing, finance, human resources, and operations.

Their contributions have proven precious, enhancing the industry's overall efficiency and growth. The astonishing figures from the employee survey from Jindal’s Jajpur plant showed that there are 24 other women engineers who are deployed in departments other than shop floor operations. In addition there are nine women managers in the non-engineering departments.

That the women are increasingly taking up leadership and managerial roles in the stainless-steel industry today is matter of record. Of the 136 women employees at Jindal’s Jajpur plant, 22 are in leadership role. Their ability to manage teams, harmonize operations, and make tactical decisions has been instrumental in the growth of various companies in this sector. 

However, the contribution of women in manufacturing is not limited to only women engineers. Beyond the technical and managerial roles, women have also been actively participating in the workforce, contributing both to the manufacturing and the production processes. Whether it's operating heavy machinery, performing quality checks, or overseeing logistics, women are playing a vital role in ensuring the smooth functioning of the stainless steel industry. At Jindal stainless Jajpur plant, of the 136 women employees 54 are part of the skilled workforce.

According to Deepak Agrawal, Jindal Stainless’ unit head at Jajpur, from day one it was ensured that there was no discrimination against women when it came to recruitment or allocation of responsibilities including the leadership role. “Hats off to their courage and perseverance as they overcame challenges of a very inhospitable terrain to help set-up a most modern stainless steel plant but also a lively township around it. Moreover, women in the industry have shown exceptional multitasking abilities and attention to detail, contributing to heightened operational efficiency. Their analytical and strategic thinking skills have been instrumental in streamlining processes and improving productivity,” adds Agrawal.

“The notable influx of women joining various roles in recent years in the stainless steel industry can be attributed to several factors, including increased education opportunities for women, changing societal attitudes towards gender roles, and government initiatives promoting women's involvement in the workforce. This shift is promoting diversity and inclusivity in leadership positions, which is crucial for fostering innovation and adaptability,” says Dr DD Gautam, who teaches in the Sociology department at the prestigious Delhi School of Economics.

According to Prof JP Sharma, former Dean Business Studies at Delhi School of Economics, “While the government initiatives and policies have their role but the contribution of the business houses in private sector cannot be ignored.” Elucidating further, Prof Sharma said, “Jindal’s Jajpur plant is an example of a private initiative giving shape to government vision. The corporate house took the initiative overcoming the fear of falling production and adding losses. Such fears are not there in government thus the contribution of private sector in establishing gender equipoise in this sector is greater than that of the government sector.” 

According to Agrawal, “The participation and influence of women in the Indian stainless steel industry can only grow in the coming years. The industry is continuously espousing diversity, where the prized standpoints and aptitudes of women will undoubtedly play a vital role.”

Business economist and Principal of Shyamlal College of Delhi University Dr Rabi Narayan Kar says, “Companies are increasingly recognizing the importance of gender diversity and are implementing policies and initiatives to encourage more women to join and thrive in the industry. Measures like training programs, mentorship opportunities and flexible work arrangements support women in their careers.”

As one drives back from Jajpur to Bhubaneswar, one carries the images of women working and contributing with such alacrity in a domain which till a few years back was exclusive for men. They handle the heavy-duty machinery with a tenderness which is exclusive to the female gender, a tenderness which mellows hard steel to a shiny stainless metal.

(First Published in The Pioneer)


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