Sangeeta Singh is the executive director, human resources at consultancy firm KPMG’s Mumbai branch. When she started working some 26 years ago, Singh recalls, she unearthed an unwritten rule: when her male colleagues went out for a drink after work, their female counterparts (then just a handful) were not invited.
Two decades ago, not too many women would drink in public places. That scenario has certainly changed for women, but attitudes remain pretty much the same in the corporate world, says Singh: “More often than not, when male executives go to the neighbourhood pub to unwind after work, they leave out their women colleagues. To be fair, it is not done out of malice but of a healthy respect for women who may feel uncomfortable in those surroundings.”
Says Rupa Devi Singh, chief executive officer of Power Exchange India Limited, “In the initial days of one's career, being a woman is a tremendous handicap in social networking.” She recalls the early days of her stint in a public sector bank when even having lunch with male colleagues raised eyebrows. Things have changed now, she agrees. And remarks, “And as you grow in your profession, people relate to as a professional and not as a woman — even if you are a good-looking one.”
That women get cheated out of a drink or an evening out is not what both the Singhs’ are complaining about. Their concern is that women may miss out on the networking that happens at such sessions.
It can even come in the way of the career growth of women executives, a recent study by Forum for Women in Leadership (WILL Forum) concluded.
In these days of Facebook, LinkedIn, and other cyber network sites, those who believe that their work should speak for itself and not their ability to feign amusement at the boss’ jokes, could get left out. Networking is important in the competitive world we inhabit.
Poonam Barua, founder-convener, WILL Forum elaborates, “Much of the real business of a company is done in the hallway. And networking helps employees understand the real business of the company.” Sageeta Singh, who has trained in behavioural psychology, explains, “Competency is not just what you see on paper. It is also what you perceive about a person in an informal gathering, where bonds are forged. When the time comes to pick a mate for a project, you tend to pick the one you trust and you trust the one you know.”
Networking with peers helps understand the common challenges that employees face and networking with seniors helps understand the larger goal of the organisation, remarks Srimathi Shivashankar, principal diversity officer, Infosys Technologies Limited. In 2003, the Infosys Women Inclusivity Initiative (IWIN) was set up to create a gender-inclusive work environment and to groom more women leaders in the organisation. Infosys was the first Indian information technology major to set up a dedicated office for gender diversity.
The IWIN programme applies Infosys’ organisational philosophy of Attract, Increase and Retain (AIR) specifically to women to employ, retain and encourage them as they move up in their career lifecycles by enabling them to take on managerial roles. When IWIN was initiated, there were no women heading business units. In 2007, there were 20.
Many big corporates are now seeing the virtue in setting up such programmes. Wipro has its WoW (Women of Wipro) while KPMG has set up KNOW, the KPMG Network of Women.
KPMG, which sets up focus group meetings for women, consciously creates mixed groups. “In such meetings it is an eye-opener for women to see that men have their share of problems too,” says Singh.
Says Shivshankar of Infosys, an organisation that has grown from seven employees to close to 100,000, “As organisations grow, the demography within changes. Your colleagues at work, who form the major support system in the changing social system we live in, get transferred out. Office-initiated networks work like affinity groups for employees, especially women.”
But for Mansi Parekh, a young HDFC bank manager and senior investment advisor, building relationships is not such a big deal. She does not believe that women miss out on career opportunities for want of networking. “We do network over lunches and coffee and as women we are pretty good, sometimes better, at building and maintaining relationships. We connect with people easily and get the work done,” she says.
Preet Dhupar, director finance and operations at BBC World (India) Private Limited, agrees: “Women in the media and service sectors are networking as much as the men. To network or not is a choice women make. The barrier is only in our minds.” As a trained chartered accountant, who has always worked in a male-dominated field, she adds, “If women executives choose personal or family commitments over informal networking, it is their choice. We are in a growth phase. If women want to be in the game, they have to work long hours at work and sometimes off work as well.”