Lead Story

Women at the workplace

They run businesses and have a seat on corporate boards but the going’s still tough for working women

It’s a bit of a shame that even though the calendar says it’s 2012, we are still talking wistfully about women in the workplace. It should have been sorted out by now. After all, women regularly appear on the front pages of business newspapers and the cover of magazines and names like Chanda Kochhar and Indira Nooyi are de-rigueur in business articles. However, scratch the surface a little, and it is clear that not much has really changed. “Women are not making it to the top in any profession anywhere in the world.” These are words spoken by one of the most successful women of our times, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Of the 190 heads of state, only nine are women. Of all the people in parliaments, 13% are women. In the corporate sector, women constitute 15% and in non-profit organisations, one area that is perceived to be the domain of the distaff, only 20% are women.  “Numbers have not moved since 2002 and are, in fact, going in the wrong direction,” Sandberg says in her TED talk on why we still have too few women leaders. 

What is also disappointing is that the reason most women fall out of the workplace is still the same — the responsibility of a family. When Pooja Gandhi completed her MBA and started working, it was with the intention of building a career. A couple of years later, she made the obvious choice between a difficult pregnancy and her job. “I had my first child and a year later a second one and the possibility of going back to work became a distant dream,” she says. When her children became older, Gandhi decided it was time to go back. “I joined a company and realised that there was no flexibility at all. Even if you leave office at 6 am, people look at you strangely and you feel really guilty about leaving work so early. Many of my batchmates who now live abroad continue to work in high-powered careers because their office allows them the flexibility of working a couple of days of the week from home etc. Here, if they don’t see you, the assumption is that you aren’t working,” she says.

Faced with the dilemma of seeing an education go waste, she made one of two choices that mothers are often left with — switching careers into a more flexible industry or joining an NGO. Gandhi completed a course in creative writing and decided to become a freelance writer and editor. Today, 10 years after she first quit, Gandhi works for Educomp as a consultant. She works half a day — which means until 4 pm — and is ready to go on a full day’s work schedule.  

“It is important to have a level of challenge in our lives. Work provides us with that,” she says. Although Gandhi is happy with what she has, she feels that she wouldn’t have had to change her line of work if she hadn’t taken that break. 

There are two points of inflection in a woman’s career. Regressive as it sounds, these are when she gets married and when she has a child. Rashmi Bansal, author of best sellers such as Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish and Connect the Dots, says, “There are two reasons why women can’t keep up — one is organisational and the other is personal and they both play a part. Organisations are not geared to give women a different career path and women themselves are not geared up to create a different path for themselves. What do you do if your husband gets transferred? Do you give his career a higher priority — 99% women do.” Bansal is also a graduate from IIM-A. 

A large part of the reason why most organisations tend to be rigid is because they don’t really have an incentive to provide flexibility. As Bansal says, there are enough men willing to work the way men do, so why should companies go out of their way to be women-friendly. And if they do, the woman has to be exceptionally good to be afforded these privileges. Often women themselves do not believe they are worth it. “Think about it,” Bansal says, “how many Indian families will tell their daughter give your career all you have? Very few, if at all. But most mothers will tell their daughters or daughters-in-law, you have to put your children first. So as a society, we lack good role models for career women.” 

Analysis of the alumni database of top-rung business schools indicates that a majority of women graduates fall out of the workforce between the 4th and 10th year of working. Some of them come back and restart their careers from where they left. Others switch work functions and begin their careers afresh, usually in an industry that allows them a little flexibility with regard to work timing and office hours. 

Family pressure was not an issue when Ritu Soni Srivastava, a DGM at Bharti Airtel, had a child. On the contrary, her mother-in-law not only insisted that she go back to work after six months of maternity leave but also moved in with her for a year and a half to help look after her daughter. They left when her daughter turned two because they had ageing parents to go back and care for. Srivastava now manages a 10-hour work day and a toddler. “I manage because I have not only built a support system but also put redundancies in place. And I pray a lot,” she laughs. 

Despite the fact she is secure that her child is well taken care of, she does feel an immense amount of guilt. “I think it’s probably a selfish need, but women do need to work, have flashy designations and hefty pay packages. I want all of it. Yet, I want to enjoy my child as well.” She takes each day as it comes, she says. And while her schedule is typically crazy, Srivastava is fortunate that her employer is empathetic about her situation. If her daughter is unwell, she gets time off without too much of a fuss, or she works from home. She makes it a point to leave work no later than 7 pm. The only days she stays back later are when her husband is home. The two pillars that help keep women at the workplace — a supportive family and a flexible organisation — are both in her favour. Yet, Srivastava says, she feels guilty all the time.  

Stepping Up

Vinita Singhania is an unlikely businesswoman. In fact, she started her career as a business-wife. But in 1988, her husband Sripati Singhania, passed away. She decided then to step into his shoes and joined the company, JK Lakshmi Cement. Initially, she found it difficult.  “I had a tough time understanding the technical part of the business, as well as the financial. But the team was very good and they took me through few months of intense orientation,” she says. Singhania has since doubled the capacity and taken the company in the direction her late husband intended. Intuition is an important aspect of her decision making. As is being able to work in a team. “A few years ago I was made the president of the Cement Manufacturers’ Association. I was quite reluctant initially, especially since the cement industry is male dominated. But I worked hard and am happy to say that I continued for yet another term,” Singhania says.

This sounds really nice until you hear Sandberg’s address. “Men attribute their success to themselves,” she says, “but women attribute it to other factors. If you ask a man why he was successful, he’d say because I’m awesome. If you ask women, they will say someone helped them, they got lucky or they worked hard.”

Sandberg’s point, essentially, is that until women begin to believe that they are awesome, they are not going to be able to go out there and successfully navigate the workspace. In the US last year, 57% men negotiated their first salary, as compared to only 7% women. 

The lack of confidence and faith in themselves is not just an employee trait. Women who give corporate careers a wide berth and instead start something on their own also face the same problems, much of which is rooted in societal attitudes toward women. In 2002, in an experiment on gender perception run by Columbia University, professors Francis Flynn and Cameron Anderson ran a case study on the very successful career of venture capitalist Heidi Roizen. Her story was one of using her contacts and networking very hard to get to the top. They gave this to half the MBA class. The other half received the same study, except the name Heidi was changed to Howard. Men and women in both groups found their protagonist very competent. But, while everyone loved Howard and wanted to work with him, they were not that sure about Heidi. They found her overtly aggressive, selfish and political. Success and likeability according to data on the research has a very positive correlation for men and a negative correlation for women.  

Digging Deeper

The Indian School of Business in Hyderabad is the academic partner of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative in India. This programme aims to provide world-class business and management education to under-served women entrepreneurs throughout the country. Professor K Ramachandran who teaches these women at ISB says that more often than not, these women are not the primary bread winners of their families. Because of this it is difficult for them to get financial support from the families to help grow their business. “Overall there are no differences between men and women entrepreneurs, but the cultural nuances are significant. Their own confidence about their place in life is critical,” he says. IT provides a platform where these women can network and transact businesses with each other. 

Largely, Ramachandran says, financial management is a challenge among these women. These are people running medium-sized businesses that are at the threshold of taking off. So while they have started and grown the business to its current level on intuition, they are struggling to grow this further. 

Since they manage their home lives and children, the intuitive sense in women is strong and they adapt quickly. “However intuition can only take you so far; after that you need knowledge and skills,” he says. Knowledge, skills and maybe a little flexibility. Perhaps in another decade, this story would begin with a woman declaring: “I’m awesome.”