Power Women: The ones who turned against the tide
The buck does not stop at creating robust policies; we need concerted effort through systemic changes to demonstrate commitment
Research shows that women wait to be recognised rather than being proactive in seeking out recognition for their accomplishments
The path to a successful career for a woman is often strewn with obstacles that transcend aptitude and competence; it is a path rife with prejudices, perceptions, competing priorities and traditions. Women who have defied the tide to chart out successful careers reveal that it is about time we, as individuals, as organizations, and as a nation, took charge of the demographic potential
Abbie Conant, who used to play trombone for the Royal Opera of Turin in Italy got one response out of her eleven applications for orchestra jobs across Europe—The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. There were thirty-three applicants and each played behind the screen. Conant was number sixteen. She played Ferdinand David’s Konzertino for Trombone, which is the warhorse audition piece in Germany, and missed one note (she cracked at G). She gave up and went backstage to pack up and go home. But the committee was floored. Conant was the one they wanted. She came back and stepped out from behind the screen, only to hear the Bavarian equivalent of whoa. Trombone is a masculine instrument and they didn’t expect a woman to be playing it. There were two more rounds of auditions which Conant passed and got a place in the orchestra. However the prejudice against women played up and she was demoted in a year based on her abilities. Conant took the case to the courts, fought for eight yearsand prevailed on every charge. Because the man questioning her ability had listened to her in perfect objectivity, and in that unbiased moment, he had said, “That’s who we want!” Abbie Conant was saved by the screen. (An adaptation from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell)
How often do we hear stories of a woman getting overlooked for a job position where gender perceptions dictated decisions more than merit? While sociologists continue to debate over the reasons for the demographic inequity and lower representation of women in the workforce, it is no secret that our country fares among the lowest in gender ratio numbers on the planet.
No country for good women
Workforce studies reveal that less than 35 per cent of the economically active workforce in India is comprised of women. The statistics become even more harrowing for executive boardrooms. Catalyst Inc.’s 2012 study ‘Women in Labour Force in India’ places India at 31 out of 44 countries on board diversity.
The slim representation of women in the workforce forces us to ponder over some key inefficiencies that we, as a nation, have come to accept as a way of life.
The un-fair sex
Perhaps the largest professional obstacle that a woman faces in India is the problem of prejudice.
These prejudices are either systemic (pertaining to the society at large) or endemic (within certain
demographic sections). Research by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) on women professionals
in emerging markets finds that women encounter bias in the workplace, severe enough that large numbers (55 per cent in India, 48 per cent in China and 40 per cent in Brazil) disengage or consider dropping out altogether.
The endemic prejudice of the typical male psyche is severe on the careers of their female peers. Often, women are left fighting heroic (and often lone) battles against attitudinal prejudices of men, including assumptions of weakness, subordination, and vulnerability.
The qualifying traits of high performance management in most organisations are described by adjectives such as assertive, dominant, decisive, ambitious, and self-oriented. Behavioural scientists argue that corporate performance assessments are inherently biased to suit masculine traits and lead to disadvantages for women. The problem, therefore, is more deep rooted than meets the eye. Perhaps the true organisational response involves not just provisioning careers for women, but also grooming the men and weaving a cultural fabric conducive to create a level playing field for talent. The buck does not stop at creating robust policies; it needs concerted effort through systemic changes in assessment methodologies, cultural campaigns and opportunity creation for the organisation to demonstrate commitment.
The biological divide
Career experts remark that the period of a professional’s highest potential growth also coincides with the most transitional phase of a woman’s life. The stage of the professional career, when a woman transitions from junior to middle management level, conflicts with other life altering priorities such as marriage, family and childbirth.
By the time a woman puts behind her biological options and refocuses on her career, the gap
becomes unsettlingly wide for many. It is in this phase of life when a woman feels disillusioned,
viewing the gap as a career setback while falling behind peers.
Despite positive growth that the economy has witnessed in the last few years, the latest World Bank data on labour force participation (LPR) reveals that representation of women in the workforce is among the lowest in the world.
In the same vein, research from analyst firms such as Catalyst and McKinsey reveals that organisations in developed economies with higher representation of women demonstrate more than 30 per cent higher return on equity and total return to shareholders. This raises a key question— ‘Are we, as an economy, failing to reap the demographic dividend for sustainable growth?’
Many wonder if there is a secret recipe for becoming a successful power woman. How do successful power women propel their professional karma from the ordinary to the exceptional? People Matters’ conversations with women from our Power List reveal some consistent trends.
Dream big, own your career
One of the most defining traits of successful women would undeniably be their ability to chart their career graph. They have travelled different paths – a few have climbed the traditional corporate ladder, a few zigzagged upwards by switching, and a few started their own enterprise; yet each one cultivated their own success story by being the champions of their respective ideas and landscapers of their careers. They have built their success through sheer will and determination. While it is true that they had the skill, they put time in it and more important they had the desire to do something different.
Says Leena Nair, Global Senior Vice President, Leadership and Organisational Development, Unilever, “Personally, I have always dreamt big. When I started my career, I wanted to be the HR Director for the company I joined.” She says that though her colleagues initially mocked her, it was this dream and the will to realise it that made her successful.
Believe in yourself
Research shows that women wait to be recognised rather than being proactive in seeking out recognition for their accomplishments. Successful women in business find appropriate ways to summarize their achievements and take credit for their performance. Leena Nair concurs, “I find that women, more than
men, lack self- belief. Women should put their hand up and request for what they think they deserve. I think women are not putting their hands up enough.” Anuranjita Kumar, Country HR Officer at Citi, makes a similar point, “In this competitive age, it is increasingly important to be able to articulate your accomplishments to an evolving opportunity as you grow within your organisation.”
Treat career breaks as opportunities
Most women take career breaks to attend to their family responsibilities, and there is nothing
inherently wrong in doing so. However, it is observed that post the career break there is a feeling that they are not paid as much as their peers who have stayed on the career ladder. However, successful women argue that there is no need to be apologetic about the break one has taken but look at those breaks as great learning opportunities. They advise that women must see the larger picture and not
underestimate the life moments they have lived in the break. Shalini Pillay, Head HR, KPMG,
says, “Our life is like a race, and for me the breaks you take are those pit stops along the
way to refuel and make a few adjustments and move on. The fear of losing out on one lap has
never bothered me – in a long career, like in a long race, those 5 or 6 months, do not really
matter, at some point it all balances out.”
Plan strategically and remain focused
“Caught amidst different roles, women are sometimes unsure and feel guilty of what they
want professionally,” says Kumar. It is thus important that women have clarity of purpose
and plan their career chart strategically. She adds, “Be it a new role or a transfer, to be effective,
one needs to be disciplined and be prepared for it in advance, like everything else in life.” Dr.
Reena Ramachandran, Former CMD, Hindustan Organic Chemicals Ltd and Founder President of
Women in Public Sector (WIPS), elaborates on this, “It is equally important to make changes and
take charge. If the organisation is not able to make changes on their own, either because they do not
have the positions available to give you exposure or because they are unable to rotate people to provide
the opportunity that you need, then you will need to look for it.” Being focused is yet another key
ingredient that determines success. Says, Kerrie Peraino, Senior Vice President, International HR
& Global Employee Relations, American Express, “In order for me to be good at what I am doing
right now I have to be able to focus.”
The battle between ambition and duty, between aspiration and prejudice, between the mind and the body is a battle of continuance. While we wait for the system to change, for organisations to implement the policies they espouse and for men to throw off the shackles of
bias, it is about time the women take charge. As Martin Luther King aptly puts it, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”