The subject of gender equality in the workplace can be a controversial topic, and author and leadership coach Aparna Jain does not hesitate in confronting its most contentious issues, such as bullying, sexual harassment and the impact of motherhood on women’s career, in her book Own It: Leadership Lessons From Women Who Do.
Jain has tackled these issues head-on by constructing a framework around the subject, employing a variety of techniques. First, she approaches the subject through the lens of all the relevant stakeholders -- bosses, co-workers, husbands, mothers-in-law, babies and children -- to understand the factors that inhibit women from progressing in the workplace. Next, she claims to have spoken to nearly 200 (mostly mid-senior level) corporate women, most of whose names have been changed, as well as interviewed human resource heads and subject matter experts to understand the issues from varied perspectives.
Most interestingly, she has devised a new vocabulary to describe ways in which women are held back in the workplace. For example, ‘micro-aggression’, (or inappropriate and sexist remarks that demeans you as a professional), made by a ‘pinstripe predator’ who ‘manterrupts’ women from being heard.
This terminology is accompanied by charts that visually capture the issues; for example, those that describe the different forms of harassment, namely physical, verbal and non-verbal. She has also crafted archetypes of women who impede their own growth, including the ‘simmering victim’, the ‘heroic martyr’ and the ‘withering wallflower’.
Finally, the book is replete with eye-opening anecdotes – from a promiscuous advertising agency where sex after office hours was the norm, to senior men who use power play tactics to either bully or sexually harass younger women, there are dozens of stories that illustrate the everyday constraints women face in the workplace.
Some of her key conclusions are startling. “86% of the women I spoke to had experienced harassment in some form or another,” she states. “Corporate India is as parochial and patriarchal as general Indian society,” concludes Siya Sahni, a manager at a consumer good company, who stood up against a bully at work, only to experience negative consequences from the rest of the organization.
These attitudes are a result of deeply-held biases, writes Jain. “Speak to any HR person worth their salt and they will tell that the most difficult nut to crack, with respect to creating a gender-neutral workplace, is bias. It takes unending work and time to get people to recognize their own biases. Bias is ingrained in our cultures, our values and our minds,” she professes, adding, however, that some companies are “dead serious” about their commitments to a gender-neutral workplace.
She is skeptical of corporate attempts at tackling issues such as sexual harassment through sexual harassment committees, and has precise suggestions on how to make them more effective. “What we need are independent bodies that cannot in any way be influenced by the concerned companies. A sexual harassment committee then has to be well-trained and needs to include members who can manage powerful people and tough situations,” she advocates.
Finally, echoing the spirit of Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Jain is unequivocal that women themselves need to ‘own’ the problem and find solutions, rather than relying on their companies to do so. Each chapter thus ends with specific suggestions on how to tackle problems related to different aspects of gender inequity.
Practical and unflinching, Own It will serve as inspiration for women struggling with these issues. In addition, it is a definitive go-to book for those chief executives and HR heads who are serious about fostering a gender-neutral workplace.
Yet it is incomplete in parts – given that she has interviewed so many women, a quantitative overview of their experiences would have been interesting. The chapter on mothers-in-law was also less original territory. Some readers might be tempted to dismiss the book as a tirade against men, but Jain has taken care to highlight plenty of cases of women who hold themselves back, or who try and game the system by filing fake sexual harassment cases or leading men on. As Vasudevan Srinivasan, one of her subject matter experts believes, “It will take another two decades for women to reach a place of real gender equity. Even then, the ratio of women in high positions may be low.” For these reasons, Own It comes across as a provocative, and timely, read.
Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do
Rs 399, PP328
— Aparna Piramal Raje is the author of Working Out of the Box: 40 Stories of Leading CEOs