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Battle in the boardrooms

As more studies point to a glass ceiling, here's some advice - Men, learn to listen. Women, don't give up the fight. Vineet Nayar writes.

india Updated: May 20, 2012 02:22 IST
Vineet Nayar

When I was four, my cricket ball accidently broke a neighbour's window. He tied me to a chair and left me there so that I don't do it again. Next day, I broke his window again and waited. Mrs. Anand watching this drama unfold from the top floor, ran down, took me to her house, placed me right on top of her dining table and started laughing. That moment she became my first real friend. Every evening she taught me how to sing and dance, avatars of which you see today in my employee meetings. I never broke a window again.

Three years later, my dad got transferred and I found myself on a train. I got down to brush my teeth, the train left the station and I froze. A lady selling fruits on the platform grabbed me by my waist and threw me back on the train's last compartment so that I could be united with my family when the train stopped at the next station.

I have a very clear memory of her smile and my tears. I then met my first great teacher sister Shalini who taught me how to stand tall and be counted and how to deconstruct complex problems into simple solutions, a skill I find handy even today. I moved in with my aunt in Delhi to complete my schooling. She instilled in me a sense of our family pride and I felt like a king even when hanging by one foot on the steps of a DTC bus on my way to school every day.

The bus is gone but the feeling stayed. In college, I met another wonderful woman, my wife, who introduced me to an important facet of life - to be human and to do more for others who need it more than you. However in all these years my mom taught me the most important lesson of my life - how would you know the value of each breath unless you have experienced the feeling of it being knocked out of your lungs. Nothing is easy, it all depends on how badly you want it.

So here I am shaped and moulded by these amazing women from a dining table to a board room. Will you salute these women or will you make the mistake of being enamoured by the achievement of the end product? Isn't that the question we should be asking today? I am part of the Gender Diversty Council at WEF and let me confess that my only contribution in those 'conversations' is to underline a simple truth - professional eminence cannot be the only yardstick to measure a woman's success.

Women have a much larger impact on humanity and we need to celebrate and appreciate that. If all of us do that more often we will increase our understanding of their real dilemmas. Women face many challenges in their professional lives. I was not surprised to read a survey by Kelly Services which revealed that only one in every 10 senior management positions is occupied by a woman in the Indian IT sector.

It is a dismal situation, but there is no point in looking back. Most often the world has been changed by small catalysts and ardent believers. So looking ahead, I have four simple suggestions which I feel deserve your thought:

First for my wonderful women colleagues: Are you trying hard enough to rise above the challenges or have you given up? Constraints and challenges are part of life. Perhaps yours are bigger but it is only you who can break through. So keeping trying till the wind is knocked out of your lungs.

For the aspiring young girls: Are you trying hard enough to get into the best professional colleges? Statistics show that both IITs and IIMA have only 11% women enrollments and yet every year we read about girls outperforming boys in school board exams.

I beseech these outperformers to continue dreaming big. This is the best time for you to create a launch pad that will help catapult you into a senior position on a fast track.

For my fellow male colleagues: It's time to rethink the real impact of diversity in the workplace and the power of alternate thinking and leading by the heart. In my experience, women provide new dimensions to our work lives which increase a team's effectiveness. Thus we need to change our expectation that employees be available anywhere, anytime, or find out ways to navigate around the reticence of many women to advocate for themselves and create a mindset that is ready to admit and explore with an open mind.

For young managers embarking on married life: Your spouse may be aspiring to be more than what you think she should be doing. She has as much right to exercise her choices as you have and she can only support you as much as you support her. In her happiness is the happiness of your family and it may be a good day today to ask her how can you help her pursue her dreams.

We have been experimenting with many initiatives to encourage diversity. Some have worked while others have failed. It's not easy but the important thing is to keep trying . It is never about big initiatives and bigger talk. Sometimes just empathy and appreciation can go a long way. So how about calling all the women who shaped your life and saying thank you. Believe me the world would already be a better place by sunset with that gesture.

The writer is vice-chairman & CEO, HCL Technologies Ltd

The fight for equal pay & equal SAY is far from over
Even as a new study by Kelly Services reveals that only 1 in 10 women are in senior management positions in the Indian IT sector — despite them comprising 81 per cent of the workforce at the junior level — some in the IT industry tell us what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world

Anusha Singh, 29
Associate manager in custom development, Bangalore

"I have been in the IT industry for eight years now and there is no denying that very few women make it to the top. Many take breaks after marriage, and a majority of them don't even join work after becoming mothers. Today, after eight years of been in the industry I have been promoted to the post of an associate manager. My ultimate goal is to head a line of business, and that may take a while as it will depend on the level of competence in my organisation and my individual performance. But I am an optimist and would soon love to reach a stage where I am heading a business unit."

Jayashree Survi, 25
Test Engineer, Mumbai

"From a trainee test engineer in 2007, after four years, I have just managed to move up to the post of a test engineer at an IT firm where my job comprises testing the quality of a client's backend software. This month, I am hoping to be promoted as a team leader. My goal is to become a quality assurance manager. That will take at least a decade. But I am positive about my growth. Women don't make it to the top rung in our industry, because it's a job that demands - besides immense focus - long work hours. Naturally, as women grow up the ladder, they find it difficult to multitask between the roles of a wife, mother and a senior and successful IT professional."

Urmila Phadke, 30
Senior Web Developer, Mumbai

"I believe that every woman can work in any industry. I definitely see myself sticking around in the IT industry.Today there are more women in senior level positions than there were five years ago. This figure will only go up with time. Women have entered the workforce late. And as far as the IT industry is concerned, hikes in designations don't come easy. As for me after working as a web developer for four years, I got promoted to the post of a senior web developer in 2010. For the past three years, I have been developing in-house intranet applications. At the end of next year, I hope to become a project manager."

Surabhi Mathur, 30
SAP consultant, Bangalore

"There are lots of high performing women at lower levels in IT industry, but due to many societal responsibilities there are phases in life when women have to slow down. Because of this they may take 2-4 years more than men to reach senior management levels."

Farah Shamoon, 26
Analyst, Delhi
"Not that it's unique to women working in IT sector only, but home-related responsibilities generally become priorities for women after marriage. But that's not the only reason women are discriminated against. A friend of mine working for another IT firm was denied due promotion since she had taken maternity leave. It's not only performance but your PR with higher management that matters a lot."

Yashodra Kaul
Software Engineer, Delhi
"Gender disparity has always been a part of the IT sector. It's been four years for me in the industry and I have noticed that women get fewer opportunities than men to move ahead in this sector.

Men still dominate the top managerial positions. Women have to settle down with what they get most of the time. It also differs from company to company. Women have been accepting with the situations and slow growth has been there for long now. It's high time companies bring in equal opportunities for women too."

Geetika Saigal, 36
CEO, E-cloud burst Pvt. Ltd., Delhi

"I worked in the IT industry for 15 years before setting up my own portal www.simplysizzl.com. My experiences in a host of IT companies such as Satyam, Tata and my last stint as director, Cable &Wireless has shown me that today the bias is blurring. While surveys show there are few women in the higher rung, but part of it is also because many women in their thirties start dropping off to start a family. There is a need that both women and organisations should look at a policy where the sector is more accommodating to make new moms resume their career. Also, women should break free from this notion of a bias."