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Women @Work: The top question

Can 'leaning in' at the workplace help women break patriarchal norms? Indian women are weighing in on her arguments as to why, despite women's advancements at the workplace, not enough women have made it to the top. Anupama Airy and Mahua Venkatesh write. Hindustan Times - C fore Survey

india Updated: Mar 24, 2013 03:35 IST
Facebook,Sheryl Sandberg,Women at workplace

Even as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book becomes a talking point in the global corporate world, Indian women are weighing in on her arguments as to why, despite women's advancements at the workplace, not enough women have made it to the top.

India, already in introspective mode - the fatal 16/12 sexual assault on a young woman shocked the nation, forcing it to evaluate its attitudes to women and attempting corrective initiatives, including the new Anti-Rape Bill - needs to examine its trackrecord of gender gap.

Women comprise 24% of India's 478 million workforce, but only 5% are in leadership positions compared to the global average of 20%. In an HT-Cfore survey, polling urban women professionals, nearly 70% felt unfairly treated, 68% saw a glass ceiling and over 65% cited patriarchal attitudes as the reason for it. Barriers show up stronger in legacy companies - 74% of those citing patriarchy for the ceiling work for legacy companies. versus 50% for new age companies.

Where do you stand on the Sandberg test (women leaning in)?
Naina Lal Kidwai: Women comprise half the talent pool, and half the workforce. It would be criminal to waste the contribution that women can make to the economy. There is absolutely no doubt that women need to participate more, and equally important to ensure that society considers the value of their contribution fairly.

Sushma Kapoor: There is no better example of "leaning in" and assuming leadership roles than the silent revolution taking place in our villages. Even in hugely patriarchal, rural India, 1.4 million women are occupying leadership positions at the panchayat level. The've had minimal education or formal work exposure - yet when positive affirmation propelled them into positions of power, it took them approximately a decade to appropriate that position and power and emerge as leaders.

When I compare myself with these women, I can only feel humbled. It took a first-rate schooling, higher education in the best US and UK universities, job opportunities in several countries, and privileges that come with a comfortable middle-class upbringing for me to reach the position I am in today.

Anjali Bansal: There are lean in opportunities for women (as there are for men) and continued progress requires such opportunities be captured and leveraged.

Zia Mody: There are times in a working woman's life when she must know her workplace will support her. Early after her marriage, after she gives birth. To ask her to constantly maintain the same rigorous pace would lead in most instances to having her leave. The support is basic: decrease her workload in that time, communicate and understand her issues, let colleagues know this is a stressful time for her and to have their understanding.

Bala Deshpande: I have not read the book and probably will not :). It is difficult to generalise and be prescriptive about this topic. There is a myriad of variables at play, professional and personal, that determine the path to leadership. The type of industry, nature of job, the availability of family support and emotional stamina and personal goals together play an influencing role. In any case I would recommend flexibility even for men now, given the way technology is enabling our lives.

What worked for you/against you as a woman and how did you overcome it?
NLK: I am from a conventional North Indian family and grew up in Mumbai. Women were not expected to work outside the home. Fortunately, my parents had aspirations for my sister and myself, possibly because we didn't have a brother. My parents instilled in us a belief in ourselves, a sense of commitment, and the principle of hard work.

Still, I had to fight to go to Harvard Business School. I was 23, and my parents wanted me to wait. There were no role models for women then, so I looked at every guy around me and asked myself, "How am I any less?" Perhaps the more one is discriminated against, the stronger one becomes. That I was the first Indian woman to graduate from Harvard Business School in 1982 was a gratifying personal achievement but a sad social comment. Indian men had been going there for 30 years already!

When I entered the workforce, I started at a company that did not offer flexible working hours and had placed washrooms for women in dingy corners, often not on the same floor we worked. We didn't need privileges - just an enabling environment to rise to our potential. But I had no doubt I needed to be better than my male counterpart to be counted!

When I became a mother, I came under immense pressure to quit my job. I had people telling me that managing a home and a career was not expected of women. I felt that if I stepped away, it would reflect on all women. I felt it was up to me to show that it could be done.

SK: Determination, a desire to excel, cross the boundaries traditionally prescribed for women, immerse myself in seeking knowledge and information as the only pathway to freedom and an outside, free, emancipated world - these were the simple formulae I adopted even as a fumbling teenager, growing up in a small town (Allahabad) within the confines of a conservative family and an even more oppressively conservative extended family.

I resisted marrying at the "appropriate age" and felt vindicated with a scholarship to Brown University. But such strategies don't necessarily work for every woman. Many have unsupportive, or worse, abusive partners , presenting enormous obstacles even for educated women. As I've worked in organisations that believe in women's rights, I realise I've been in a fortunate minority.

AB: There are common requirements for success: high performance, commitment, persistence, and a degree of confidence and drive. Women can sometimes come across as softer or if assertive be viewed differently. However this is changing. Merit is being seen in its own right.

ZM: A woman is equal. But has an unequal share of roles and responsibilities. I was blessed with a mother in law who was there for us 24/7.

BD: This is a difficult question as I have not really thought in these terms at work.

Do Indian women face stiffer challenges than their western counterparts?
NLK: While cultures differ, obstacles are terribly similar. Family pressure, social customs, gender bias, and shortage of role models are just some. Some feel Western societies are more emancipated, but Indian women, at least in the middle class, have the benefit of a support system in household help and family that western women can lack. I believe conditions/mindsets are changing.

SK: Yes and the hugest challenge continues to be the patriarchal mindset in large parts of the country. Not only must we instill a culture of respect for women, we must no longer drag our feet on initiatives that will stimulate the paradigm shift we need, such as the still pending Women's Reservation Bill.
Scandinavian countries have brought women into the boardroom by passing a law requiring 40% reservation of seats in both public and private sectors. Such measures are needed to correct the historical disadvantage women have faced.

AB: The challenges are not stiffer, just that some are different given the social context and role expectations. But there is also the advantage of more family, help, and social infrastructure support in India.

ZM: The traditional Indian extended family structure is now often not available to young couples who have moved cities for better opportunities. Indian women are now often as stressed as their western counterparts. The day is never long enough for what they need to pack in.

BD: The challenges are different. We have less of the "glass ceiling syndrome" but greater social expectations and demands.

Advice to Women
NLK: It is difficult for individual women to stand alone. One of the points that Sheryl makes is the need for women to come together as a community to help one another. If we can train and educate women to be part of the workforce, then they will be empowered to create new social norms and bring their entrepreneurship to the fore.

SK: Know your rights, stand up and demand what is rightfully yours. Demand that businesses and government prioritise the equal representation of women, through the layers of management right up to the boardroom. Make this your mantra: you are smarter than most men around you. You can raise a family, look after the sick and elderly, hold down a job, and be successful in that job. You have high emotional intelligence. Use it.

AB:Have a sense of purpose, be focused and willing to work hard, and make sensible choices for your own situation on the work-life-family front. These are not easy choices and one does have to make trade-offs. There are no right or wrong answers, whatever works best for you.

ZM: Don't be insecure of your worth, demonstrate commitment to your organisation, communicate your needs clearly, multitask with ruthless efficienvy.

BD: Delete the gender variable when at work, believe in yourself and your goals.

- Interviews by Anupama Airy and Mahua Venkatesh

Survey analysed by: Radha Kumar, director-general, Delhi Policy Group; Mary John, professor, Centre for Women's Development Studies; Ripa Rashid, co-author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution. (As told to Shalini Singh)

The Complete Hindustan Times - C fore Survey

First Published: Mar 23, 2013 23:18 IST