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A woman in a man’s world

A lot has been said about gender parity in the corporate world, I want to focus on what helps an organization retain women talent as women climb the corporate ladder. I have always been lucky to have managers and colleagues who have believed in women empowerment and putting women at the forefront. They encouraged me to venture and compete with men, safe in the knowledge that if I fall they will be there to help me get back on my feet.  So let's see how we can help women thrive in the corporate India. 

Gender parity in the corporate world was never more evident to me than until very recently. It also becomes more evident as women move up the corporate ladder and find fewer women colleagues than we did when we started out. In fact when I began my career most of my teams were women dominated, with very few men. Slowly, more and more of my women colleagues started fading away from their corporate career due to reasons ranging from moving countries to be with their spouses to later wanting to cater to their young children, to simply taking lesser stressful jobs that didn’t involve being connected to work 24/7. Not being ever married or have kids, I didn’t always empathise with their situation but I always tried to put my finger on what made some organisations retain female talent as they balanced their life goals while others continue to be male dominated at the top. I was recently looking at the leadership organization of a large multinational company and my first reaction was “where are the women”! They had no woman in their leadership team. Imagine a board room filled with men, it will almost resemble a rugby field with testosterone flying in every direction. In no way do I want to demean the value that men bring to the table, I am surrounded by some very sharp and intelligent men in my organization and I learn from them every single day. I also don’t want to belittle the challenges faced by men and the pressures that they live with every day to ensure the best for their family.

So how do men thrive in the corporate world where as women struggle to survive. The truth is that men are like a pack of wolves, the camaraderie they share among their fellow men is far more than what women share with each other. As Rudyard Kipling said in Jungle Book – “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” We women should learn from men and try and build a similar bond with our female colleagues and watch out for our women counterparts. We just don’t help each other enough even though as women we need a lot more emotional support through our careers than men do. When we are starting out, we are almost competing with other men trying to be on the higher side of the bell curve that organizations try to bucket all employees – but are organizations really doing any justice by comparing men and women (almost like comparing apples to oranges). It is always interesting to listen to young women’s aspirations versus a young man’s aspirations. Men almost always want to reach the top position in the shortest possible time, own a big car and a house and I don’t blame them, men in India are still the bread winner and are expected to cater to their family needs. Women on the other hand want to travel the world before they are married and have kids, contribute to the society by doing CSR projects, and reach the top while balancing other life goals. How does it then help women succeed if the success criteria defined by organizations are dependent on hours clocked and higher productivity.

As organizations, we talk about the bridging the gender gap, but have we ever celebrated women who return after child birth. Yes, we talk about flexi policies for working mothers and career paths for returning moms, but do we ever celebrate these women. I am not talking about the one day in the year that the entire world celebrates women – March 8, I am talking about recognizing these women on a daily basis as they go about balancing their organization’s growing demands along with their contribution to the next generation. Even when women do go all out to fight it out in a man’s world, we still don’t applaud her, we are raged – case in point, return of the French minister within five days post-delivery. Guess who was most enraged – women! Bringing me back to my earlier point of how we women don’t support other women.

Most leaders tend to favor employees who are always available – whether it’s late nights, weekends, or skipping family occasions by putting organization’s goals before their own– and these employees can almost never be a woman who caters to not only her boss, but her husband, kids, in-laws, parents, siblings and when the time permits to her own needs. Why are we not celebrating women who don’t only contribute to a company’s bottom line but are working on developing future CEO’s, equity partners at law firms, start-up whiz kids, research scientists among others.

However, there are leaders who are sensitive to women’s needs and realize that there are times that their personal life will take over their professional priorities and it is okay to let women go through that phase without having to make it a point of discussion during appraisals. I remember there was a point in my life when I was going through personal life turmoil just a couple of months before my big year-end review discussion. I had taken unprecedented time off work during that period simply because my personal life needed more attention than anything else and I was not in a frame of mind to give any attention to my professional career. No one in my office disturbed me during that period and my manager was more than supporting. I came back right before my review and not once was the fact of my unavailability during that phase a point of discussion. We acknowledged that it was not a normal event and my manager had faith a two month low period was not representative of many of years of my career ahead and the many years I had already given to the organization. I got the promotion I had worked so hard for the entire year. So it really pains me to hear my friends when they tell me that they can’t even take a week off without having to think about work or completely switching off.

I have always been lucky to have managers and colleagues who have believed in women empowerment and putting women at the forefront. They encouraged me to venture and compete with men, safe in the knowledge that if I fall they will be there to help me get back on my feet. A few years ago, I was moving countries on a new assignment and I won’t forget what my boss told me – “they are bullies out there, they will want to bring you down and you won’t have anyone but yourself to support you, so always be on a watch out”. I honestly thought he was over-reacting, until I landed in the Big Apple and faced the worse of corporate men I had seen in my life. Indian corporate men looked like angels in front of their New York counterparts. Not that my experience working in Sri Lanka was any easier, while the men are not as aggressive in the Island country, their passive aggression towards a foreign woman trying to work her way in their land was unbearable.

I know a lot of women are not as lucky as I am. I see a number of women colleagues’ struggle, especially the ones who are back at work right after child birth. An ex colleague and now a dear friend was back at work six months post her first born. We talked extensively about how she should bring changes in her work life to cater to her new born and ensure that she was spending more time with him. It has been about 18 months since she is back at work and she still comes home at 10 pm on most days. Her organization doesn’t provide laptops and work from home options so she can’t even bring work home as most of my other colleagues do. I on the other hand had someone on my team who worked with me for years, when she did decide to get back to work post her maternity leave, we chalked out a complete work from home model for her so that she only had to come in to the office for some critical meetings. Though we work in different organizations now, I feel immense pleasure to see her succeed in her career – still working from home for most parts, but traveling the world as work demands.

In my opinion, almost every organization is going out of their way to reduce the gender gap – flex-leave policy, avenues for returning mothers, work from home options are all part of every organization’s HR plans. However, policies are as good as company’s culture and people. What makes women thrive in an organization is to be surrounded by men who are not threatened by her, who support her, who look to her as an equal while acknowledging the diversity she brings to the table. What makes women thrive in an organization is to have other women watch out for her, support her, and pat her on her back as she goes through working world challenges. So while HR managers, business leaders, board members think of ways to attract and retain women talent, they don’t need to write different policies, they just need to bend their mind set a little different and they will find that the organization will have a large number of loyal women who will never leave their organization and will climb the corporate ladder and contribute at leadership levels. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a board room filled with equal number of women as men each bringing complementing skill sets to the table?

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