The Forbes’ List of Most Powerful Woman 2013 placed two Indian women amongst the top 10 — Sonia Gandhi, the UPA chairperson at number 9 and Indra Nooyi, chief executive officer of PepsiCo at number 10. That they rub shoulders with global heavyweights of the likes of Angela Merkel, Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton is inarguably an honour worthy of the country taking deep pride in.
However, a deeper evaluation motivates a troubling question — are they the norm or statistical outliers? After all, for a country with a population of 614.4 million women (constituting nearly 50% of the national population), the low representation of female leadership is disconcerting and worth probing at the bare minimum.
Hallway and water cooler conversations in the leading organisations of the United States reveal a deep-seated concern about the statistics capturing the proportion of women at the pinnacles of power — 15.7% women sit on the corporate boards of the Fortune 500. This number has sparked much debate, inviting the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, to speak on where the system is cracked and how to plug the gaps.
A glance at comparable statistics for India, then, ought to rouse nothing short of alarm. As of 2011, a meagre 4.7% women held board directorships on the 100 largest domestic companies by market capitalisation. This suggests a society plagued by sexism of a 1930s nature better left confined to television viewing of ‘Mad Men’ and Ekta Kapoor sitcoms.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, most recently known for her controversial piece ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, forced a discussion among the corporate, political and educational circles about how much and when women can balance their personal lives with their career to shatter the glass ceiling and ascend to the peaks of their careers.
Speaking to a packed audience at Harvard Business School last fall, she inspired an evaluation of how a balance between the personal and professional realms of a woman’s life can be struck by prioritising different goals through different life stages. Sandberg, in unleashing her much-talked about movement ‘Lean In’, offers tactical strategies that will enable women to command a seat at the table and liberate themselves from the shackles of stereotypical ways in which women short sell and downplay their capabilities.
Transposing these to the context of India reveals a grim realisation: Not only have we not infused a debate around success strategies for women to carve out their place in male-dominated leadership realms, we are two steps behind. A scant number of women even actually make concerted efforts to ride the wave to the top, and even fewer have entertained thoughts about finding creative ways that will help them balance their professional and personal responsibilities in order to fulfil the latter.
But what is it that even makes successful female leadership in India a need of the hour? For one, we live in an ever-commingling global microcosm. The progressiveness of a society is evaluated and assessed by the composition of the leaders representing that country. Increased female leadership in other parts of the world needs to be mimicked in India to match spade for spade.
In an interview, a senior female director of a leading Indian hotel chain revealed, “For certain industries that inherently value the ‘soft sell’ and the ‘hard sell’ such as hospitality, the need for both male and female employees very early in the era of these industries allowed for a fairly equal gender split. Our workforce mirrored our clientele.
And in turn over time, women in these industries managed to pave their way to build and demonstrate more hard skills that demonstrated diversity in competence and set the tone for their ascent to the top.” Such is the change that ought to be introduced across industries to inculcate gender-agnostic cultures.
This begs the question of what structural tweaks need to be infused in order to organically plant and grow female leadership that scales organisational heights.
First and foremost, women need to seize control of and inject the envisioned changes themselves at the workplace and at home. Women need to find their seat at the table and assert themselves instead of self-constructing glass ceilings that cause their professional ascent to fade into yesteryear oblivion. Second, female leaders also need to unabashedly rely upon their family as an asset.
The Indian familial structure lends a unique advantage in that it creates an infrastructure that can be leveraged to share responsibilities with and manage the home in conjunction with professional aspirations. Finally, organisations need to share the onus and foster cultures such that women are trained and encouraged to advance in high performance cultures. The mindset across organisations ought to see progression so that female leaders with male subordinates are not considered extraordinary situations.
It is imperative that India unleash a change in the leadership structure that simultaneously causes a dissipation of gender biases to cascade down organisational layers. I am not suggesting widely practised mere figurehead acts of nepotism. Not only is that is a temporary bandage fix to a more deeply-rooted problem, it creates a mockery of the credibility and respect that ought to be accorded to legitimately qualified female leadership.
Rather, the call of the hour is a crop of true female leaders — those with formidable competence and charisma, those who represent the cornerstone of powerful change and innovation — to inspire young girls and sprout the next generation of global female leaders shaped in India.
Samia Shamim is a graduate of Harvard Business School
The views expressed by the author are personal