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July 23, 2011

The need to be heard

Given the long history of corporate indifference towards women’s advancement dictated by tradition-bound mores, there is a pressing urgency for forward-thinkers to start a movement for change. Avantika Akerkar, who participated in a selective round table discussion – ‘Women as Leaders in Business’ – emphasises the importance of mentoring like-minded women

According to Michael Silverstein and Kate Sayre, of the Boston Consulting Group, women now drive the world economy. In fact, globally they control about $20 trillion of annual consumer spending; and this figure could increase to as much as $28 trillion in the next five years. In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined.

With thought-provoking statistics such as these you would think the corporate world would sit up and take notice; would engage in strategic initiatives to alter management decisions catering to this phenomenon; and would trumpet loudly from the rooftops that they had changed their tradition-bound approach to conducting business and were sensitised to a new way of working. If only wishes were horses….

In reality, it’s quite the opposite – harsh and bleak. According to the World Economic Forum’s recent study on Gender Equality, India ranked very low in the global ratings, 114 out of 134 countries surveyed.  Not only should this finding raise every possible red flag under the sun, but also more problematic is the reason for this discrepancy.  According to the survey, the rest of the world blocked a woman’s professional advancement by virtue of a ‘male-dominated’ culture within the organisation itself; but in India, which stood firmly apart, this inequality was pegged not just to an organisational decision, but more alarmingly, to the larger Indian context – to tradition-bound mores that have always favoured the male child, and where a woman is constantly challenged and reminded that she is a woman, as she tries to negotiate the burdens, both personally and professionally.

This finding certainly did not sit well with the extraordinary group of professional women who came to participate in a selective round table discussion entitled, ‘Women as Leaders in Business’, convened by the Ideas Exchange and Harvard Business Publishing, and moderated by Kate Sweetman, leadership expert and co-author of the book, Leadership Code – Five Rules to Lead By. On the contrary, this very vocal group of women voiced their dissatisfaction loudly and clearly. And they came from a large bandwidth of industries – from finance – State Bank of India, Cholamandalam Investment and Finance Company, Harvard Business School, Everstone Investment Advisors, and from the consumer goods industry – Procter & Gamble; there were women from the media and communications – Edelman India, Tata Communications and Hanmer MS&L Communications, from the hospitality industry – JW  Marriott, and a good representation of women from the social service sector – Dasra, Impact India Foundation and the Acumen Fund.

They all had stories to share, and in the recounting it became evident that this was a mammoth subject that would require more than just a few hours of discussion. But how were we going to tackle this vitally important subject of women as leaders for tomorrow?  And what were going to be the takeaways from such a discussion?  In fact, given the long history of indifference and a lack of acknowledgment within the corporate world towards women’s advancement, could we really be so bold as to think we could be the change leaders and start a movement?

I was pleasantly surprised at the direction the discussion did take – there were the common laments about the lack of sensitivity and of the various potholes and obstructions one has to steer around to professional advancement; there was also the recognition that often we had ourselves to blame for this predicament; that women have a much harder work-life balance to handle and we often do so through guilt and sacrifice.  But when someone shared that encouraging women to advance in the workplace should actually be a very conscious business decision, just like deciding upon a price or choosing to target a specific market segment and not merely an HR decision was where I thought the group could make a huge mark.  We agreed that perhaps this was the best way to scratch the surface of this rather emotional issue.

That evening one thing had become evidently clear – whether they like it or not, men will have to recognise that women will drive the world economy, that they will do it with grace and charm, and that they will probably do it wearing a sari or a dress; and significantly, they most certainly will not be apologetic for being acknowledged as a woman in charge!

VIKAS VIJ, Managing Director, The Ideas Exchange (part of IX Events Pvt Ltd). responsible for organising the round table discussion on “Women as Leaders in Business”.

What was your thinking and reason behind hosting an event such as this?
At The Ideas Exchange we are inspired by the renowned Victor Hugo quote, “no one can resist an idea whose time has come,” and consciously create events where we can bring together communities that challenge convention and generate ideas. The chance to work with Kate Sweetman was a very exciting project, but it would not have had the appropriate impact if she simply presented or lectured to an audience.

Did you learn anything new from the discussion that was generated around the topic of Women in Leadership Roles in the corporate world?
The entire ‘Big Conversation,’ as I like to call it, was full of learning for me. I’ve grown up in an environment (UK) where I was taught to believe the only barriers to success were self-imposed.  Although I’m not naive about the difficulties faced when trying to reach the top of the corporate ladder, I took for granted the notion if I have the desire, talent and willingness to succeed then I could achieve whatever I wanted in life. What was moving about the conversation around Women in Leadership, is just how much more difficult it is for women in India to achieve their full potential.

You recently had a daughter.  What advice will you give her when she grows up and asks you how to deal with discrimination in the corporate world vis-a-vis promotional aspirations?
It was most fortunate that my daughter was born two days before this conversation happened.  One thing I know for sure, my daughter will not be any different to my son and will be brought up to be the best she can be regardless of what society or institutions think. At The Ideas Exchange 60 per cent of our staff are women, some of whom hold senior positions that are very highly paid. Yet gender is irrelevant in my decision making process – what is more relevant is attitude and a willingness to develop. So the advice I will share with my daughter if she ever came across discrimination in the workplace will be to rise above the mind-set, to be bigger than her workplace – to be the change maker that stands for breaking down these mental hurdles because ‘once an idea’s time has come, no one can resist it’.

KATE SWEETMAN,  authority on leadership and co-author of the book, Leadership Code – Five Rules to Lead By, has synthesised the lessons she has learned in various fields, and across companies, sectors, cultures and geographies to identify the essence of successful leadership for complex organisations in the 21st century.

If you were the HR Director of a blue-chip Indian corporate and were asked to write a guide on mentoring young women in your organisation, what key issues would you touch upon?
The first thing I would say is obvious: Get to know the young lady you are helping. What is her background? What is her education?  What are her hopes and dreams, both around work and around life?  This is important because women tend to think holistically around what they are trying to achieve.  It is also important because life does interact with work, especially for women, so to ignore that ignores reality.

What advice would you give women in this country to make their presence felt in the corporate world, by helping them to navigate the murky corridors of power?
Stick with it, deliver what you say you will deliver and do not be dissuaded. I have interviewed many women around the world who have been successful starting from modest beginnings with no family pull – even in places like Qatar and Kuwait, which are not women friendly, and even in large organisations (many women become successful by forming their own companies – the topic of another discussion). The central story line is always the same: know where you want to go; be steadfast in your resolve; view barriers as speed bumps, not insurmountable walls; be creative; don’t be offended – keep your sense of humour.  Here’s an example.  Throughout the Gulf region, a lot of the real business decisions are made after hours in men’s clubs. In Qatar, they are called majlis; in Kuwait, they are called diwaniya.   They are both the same: men gathering night after night to drink tea, smoke the nargila, and make decisions.  A woman I met who rose to director level in a bank knew this was going on. So late in the evening or early in the morning she would call the men on the telephone to insert herself into the decision-making process.  This seems extreme and unfair – and of course it is – but she prevailed. And her hope is that through her efforts she is part of a larger process that slowly changes things.

Can a group of women, as those that got together that evening, make a difference in the corporate world?
We need to marry our intention to our actions.  Ask: what can we do to concretely support each other, and to make a necessary change happen? Then put together a plan to do exactly that. On the personal front, figure out a mechanism for sharing real issues that everyone faces, and come up with options for solutions.  For example, in the session we heard women need to help their high school-aged children prepare for exams.  Ok, that’s a reality. Are there other options to do that besides quitting your job?

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