Article: 'If you have the aptitude to learn, the canvas is wide'


'If you have the aptitude to learn, the canvas is wide'

Usha Ananthasubramanian on why women need to push themselves, accept bigger challenges & not be afraid to take them on
'If you have the aptitude to learn, the canvas is wide'

I push women to take up promotions, I transfer them. When you travel and see the world, it changes your life. Women must take up a lot of initiatives and be innovative in their approach as it will give them visibility


In this male-dominated world, women always had to keep proving themselves at everything they do. They have to make a conscious effort to work on their roles, make no mistakes and be on their toes all the time as there is a perception that because you are a woman it is easy for you.

Thankfully, in my career, I have never felt that people were looking down on me because of my gender. I’ve always had the good fortune of getting the right kind of respect, the right kind of work and treatment from my colleagues and customers. I would like to share a few experiences that helped me to get to where I am today.

For me, every assignment was a learning opportunity, be it risk management, credit cards or working with top bosses (I was secretary to the board) and I learned by observation. It has been the key to my success because it helped me to understand how the top management and the board dynamics worked. If you have to reach the top spot, then the board is going to be a part and parcel of you.

My core area as a General Manager in Bank of Baroda’s south zone was cultural marketing; something that no one had tested. It was a great experience for me as it was a heterogeneous zone geographically comprising four major states and a union territory – Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry. They were socially, politically and culturally different. Even the customer psyche was different. Tying up these diverse things was a challenge, but I really enjoyed taking it up as my role allowed me to innovate.

When I moved to Punjab National Bank, it was a totally different environment for me. Though the principles of banking in PNB and BOB were the same, the approach was very different. It’s a kind of cultural learning that you have to undergo. Now, I’m working on setting up the Bharatiya Mahila Bank, which has a whole set of challenges where I need to take decisions on everything from the logo to the branch details. In this case, there is no manual and no mentors to guide you. You have to think very carefully about all the decisions you are going to make be that on people, products, technology and policies and get going. The moral of the story is that if you have the aptitude to learn, the canvas is wide. There is no dearth to opportunities if you are a learner.

Talent Pipeline - a problem

As a leader, I’m worried about the talent pipeline. Though women comprise 17 per cent of the total workforce in banks, many of them don’t have women at general manager levels. Some banks don’t even have a pipeline for the top management. Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s column in the Mint, “Banker’s Trust”, talked about how the talent pipeline is drying up. This phase of women leaders at financial institutions had not been there earlier and I’m afraid in the future also it’s going to be the problem. I don’t know if this trend will last after five years and there could be a lull after this phase.

What gives me hope is that the current breed of women entering the workforce is career-minded. It is important that one has the aspiration and there also needs to be healthy competition among the women themselves, which is not there at present.

Many roles, different expectations

Women in India have to battle it out on many fronts – role, mobility, perception and family pressures. Mostly, women have to manage a dual role, that of home and office. But, there is a third dimension that many people ignore – her personal interests. Women have a tough time handling all the three.

A man’s success is measured by his career progression; however a woman’s success has many different facets like how well does she manager her home, how her children fared at school, what kind of promotions she got etc.

Another major factor that hampers their rise to the top vis-à-vis men is mobility. It is a major problem for women because of the way the Indian social structure has been designed. For example, if you post a man to London, he would take it up immediately. In the case of a woman, she would start thinking like what will happen to my husband, my kids, my family etc. Since, you cannot undo the structure, which has evolved over many years, the family has to step up and help women on the career front.

The third area of concern is networking. Women are not great networkers and hence their social capital suffers. As you go higher and higher, the responsibilities increase. According to some studies, women fear taking up more responsibilities and there is also a fear of being a loner at the top.

Sometimes, it is a case of perception. Women need to work very hard, probably more than men, in order to succeed in their jobs. They have to prove themselves all the time and at every occasion. If you are a good worker, then people will acknowledge that.

Family support is crucial?

Women are not less ambitious. They are just happy managing and supporting their families through a job. They don’t have career aspirations, so then how can there be growth? Their focus shifts from their job to the family after a while and in the process they scuttle their aspirations. That is where the role of family comes into place. There has to be encouragement from the family front – from the parents, in-laws, husband or children. They also need to have the support of seniors and mentors.

My advice to youngsters would be: Learn to negotiate with your family. Develop your negotiating skills right now so that you can make your family understand that qualifications were not given to you on a platter. Also, take up a lot of initiatives and be innovative in your approach as it will give you visibility. I push women to take up promotions, I transfer them. When you travel and see the world, it changes your life. The people and the culture are very unique to each city and hence you learn a lot from such trips.

Why organizations need women leaders

Banking is building relationships with trust and women have that adaptability. Women easily adapt to their surroundings compared to men. By nature, they take initiatives, drive goals, like to develop and nurture people. They also give space for people to grow, which is very key for developing an organization. Banking is a business of taking risks. Women are seen as people who are more practical and moderate risk takers. They are always good learners.

On the other hand, companies can also develop some women-friendly policies like having flexibility while transferring them, allowing them to work from home at crucial times where this is no customer interface, mentoring at all levels, spotting the talent and nurturing them, clearly lay a career path and give them the opportunities.

Usha Ananthasubramanian is the Executive Director of Punjab National Bank and has been appointed as the MD & CEO of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank, the country’s first all-women bank

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Topics: Diversity, Leadership, #ExpertViews

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