How many women do you know who are qualified, and had career goals, but put them on the back burner due to family commitments? The answer is likely to be ‘many’. Women may be an intrinsic part of the workforce today, but the ‘female boss’ still elicits reactions, both positive and negative. Be it the ones who are in awe of a successful woman leader or the ones intimidated by her, fact remains the prefix ‘female’ to words like CEO or MD continue to be rare. While the number of women at the entry level is 25 percent, it comes down to 16 percent in mid-management, petering off on the way to the top. In fact, India’s corporate sector has only four percent women at senior levels, according to a 2015 McKinsey report.
The first female IPS officer of India, Kiran Bedi, is one of the most well-known career women who made it to the top of her field, while also managing a family. Recently, Kiran had spoken at a summit about how, according to her, there are four factors holding a woman’s career back. Kiran abbreviated the factors into 4Ms:
The women who make it to the top are often women of mettle, with the spirit to fight the odds and challenge social conditioning. The very glass that shatters and breaks easily is malleable and transformed in the intense heat of a kiln. Similarly, women need to toughen up and face the challenges in their path head on, believes Kiran. This is especially noticeable in the stories of women like Mary Kom or Karnam Malleshwari who made the nation proud by overcoming social barriers in male-dominated sports and won medals in international sporting events like the Olympics. But there are several ordinary women in homes all over the country who have to fight resistance to their career goals from within their families and the larger community.
Sheryl Sandberg had spoken in her book Lean In how choosing her life partner is the single most important decision a woman makes when it comes to her career! This is, of course, not to say that women with an unsupportive partner or no partner cannot have successful careers. But with a partner who is in sync with his wife’s career goals, a woman’s professional journey can be much smoother and hassle-free, allowing her to lean forward on the figurative accelerator. Kiran’s marriage with the late Brij Bedi was subject to much speculation and judgement since the couple often stayed in different cities due to Kiran’s postings. But the system worked for them because they had a good mutual understanding.
Travel is an inherent part of work for many, especially in senior management roles. Events; meetings with teams and clients in different locations; sales and marketing requirements; all demand some amount of travel. Women are seen as primary care givers to children and elderly family members and often shy away from work that requires a fair amount of outstation travel. Sacrificing mobility for the sake of family is a call taken by most women. Relocation is another bull that many women hesitate to grab by its horns. Facebook India CEO Kirthiga Reddy had recently announced that she would be stepping down and moving back to the headquarters in the US and it is implicitly understood that her husband would be taking the call to relocate due to her decision. This is a rare enough phenomenon to deserve mention since it’s usually women who relocate to support the spouse’s career needs. If women work out a minimum amount of mobility and the organisations understand the travel constraints of female employees, women can continue to perform well at work.
Kiran spoke about motherhood being the biggest emotional constraint when it comes to women and career. Once a woman takes a break to care for a newborn, it requires a huge amount of effort to resurrect her career, almost like a phoenix rising out of its ashes. If familial and parenting responsibilities are shared by all adult family members, and employers make the post-motherhood transition to work smoother with supportive policies and an understanding work culture, we will not see women held back mid-way through their careers.
I feel an additional factor that acts a road block to women’s career is mentality, both theirs and society’s. Women and society at large need to stop seeing a woman’s career as an option. Women tend to go through a lot of guilt if they feel like they are neglecting their family due to their career choices. They end up taking a break because they feel pressurised from within and outside. A change in the general mindset can lead to a paradigm shift in women’s continued career growth.
The advantages of women having a successful career trajectory are three-pronged.
What needs to happen is to take these 4M obstacles and transform them into mere speed bumps on the road to the pinnacle.