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Up, up and away
Corporates are slow in making boardrooms gender diverse but women leaders are pushing ahead

Binjal Shah

In the era of metoo, there is overwhelming proof that workplaces – urban and rural alike – are riddled with sexism. As is evidenced by the report released by CII – Indian Women Network (CII-IWN), bespoke strategies need to be constructed to deal with the challenges women professionals in India face. This extensive research project, titled “Success Strategies of Women Leaders” chronicled first-hand accounts of 50 C-suite women leaders – of whom, 84.62% were above the age of 50, and 92.59% held more than 15 years of work experience. All respondents acknowledged the existence of subtle to conspicuous forms of gender bias and misogyny, which slow women down in their career trajectory – sometimes in the most imperceptible manner. They also shared that the glass ceiling remains a reality. 

Even as most did not share any specific incident of sexual harassment and sexism, the report states that it is an issue that mostly plagues the lowest rung of professionals in the corporate hierarchy. 

However, as one advances up the echelons, even to middle management, the nature of challenges change. In keeping with global trends, 42.86% of women leaders have taken a career break – 33.33% for maternity and 25% for childcare, followed by 16.67% for spouse relocation and the same number for sabbaticals. Eldercare (8.33%) was also listed, albeit as the least common reason.

“We have the guilt gene that we need to lose. There is no work-life balance, stop dreaming about it. Every week, you are giving away something to get something else. Just see that your decisions can withstand your guilt,” said Zia Mody, founding partner of law firm AZB & Partners, at the all-star curtain-raiser held to announce the findings.

“We need our networks – including neighbours, paediatricians, teachers – to chip in. And remember, when you sign on for something at work, make sure you always deliver,” said Ipsita Dasgupta, president, strategy and new ventures at Hotstar.

Don’t look for concessions or crutches, stressed Pallavi Jha, CEO at Dale Carnegie Training India. “First, imbibe the cardinal principle that you are responsible for whatever happens in your corporate life,” she said.

Contrary to popular belief, more respondents – 69.23% – wanted to re-enter the workforce with full-time jobs. Only 23.08% sought flexi-hours, or more “women-friendly jobs.” A much smaller group – 7.69% – started their own business to have more control over their working hours. Vibha Padalkar, managing director and CEO, HDFC Life, advised choosing the right life partner – someone who doesn’t believe in asking the woman to throw in the towel at the first instance of a domestic challenge. 

It helps to have a cheerleader at home, but what is also essential is to be part of the bigger club – through networking. Women know this too and gave “importance of networking” a rating of 7.79 on a scale of 10. Additionally, the report records their strong preference for direct and clear communication, over the heavy use of softeners and frequent smiles and nods.

 For many on the research team, a significant finding was that an impressive majority of women leaders – 56.67% – said that they plan their finances and financial future independent of other members in the family. Less than half – 38.71% – took all financial decisions jointly with spouse/father/partners, and only 6.45% contributed towards family earnings and allowed their money to be managed by another.

The most heartening insight was that, to 90%, leadership meant dedicating time for mentoring, coaching, and counseling other women who need help navigate the corporate maze.  

Kashmira Mewawala, chairperson, Cll IWN (western region) and head of business development and chief ethics counsellor at Tata Capital said women must aspire to lead and make themselves visible on the top. “Whistle, clap, stomp your feet, celebrate. One major hurdle is the lack of role models women can relate to,” she said.

Padalkar added, “Men have created certain rules because they got there first, but we don’t have to conform, we don’t have to wear black. A lot of things come to women naturally, we empathise, we smile when we walk into a room and appreciate the pink chairs, and make light banter. Our high EQ, besides our IQ, gives us an advantage.” 

There were stirring speeches but Mody sounded a note of caution. “Stay passionate,” she said, in the pursuit of professional happiness, “(but) pay attention to yourself.”

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