Positive Chronicles - A fine balance
by Nishtha Shukla
Tips for successMany women have achieved new heights despite all the barriers organisations and unfair bosses put to them. They did this with their hard work, perseverance,
The woman of today is an achiever who is secure in knowing that she has rightfully earned her place in the sun. She has walked the uphill road to success doggedly, yet gracefully. Today, there are more women CEOs in India than ever before, leading in fields one could only dream of until a few years ago.
But there is a flip side too. Factors that made professional women a rarity exist still. A high percentage of women who graduate from business schools fail to pursue careers. Women working as hard (or maybe more) than their male counterparts are likely to be paid less. Often, they are not given a raise simply because they “do not need it”. They are often not considered competent enough, and get promotions at a slower rate.
It was in the 1980s that the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon became a focus of worldwide debate. It centred on what was, and still might be, a reality in workplaces around the world. It was noticed that women and non-white workers were not given their due when it came to job opportunities, promotions and salary levels because of biases of sex and colour that had nothing to do with their professional competence, and that led to their being perceived as ‘not good enough’. Feminist groups that took up the issue demanded a 50 per cent representation of women in every area of public and professional life, since women did make up half the population.
Twenty years later, there are more professionally successful women than ever before in the West. Jyotsna Chatterjee of the Joint Women Programme believes that in India, culture and religion have been barriers for women in the workplace. These form unwritten laws, as against the laws of universal equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution. “Unless the equal laws of the Constitution are realised by women themselves, the problem will continue,” she says.
In urban India, the situation might seem slightly better, as more women join the workforce and take the lead in traditionally ‘male professions’. Yet barriers exist. They are invisible because often, one doesn’t know that these biases exist in the first place, and also where these ‘disadvantages’ begin and end. Of course, indications are always present, as in male colleagues being paid better salaries, getting promoted over their women counterparts, and so on. It is truly remarkable then, when women do rise despite the odds, through the dint of their intelligence, hard work and perseverance.
Male Vs Female
Whether it is a conscious attempt to keep women out of positions of power or a sub-conscious prejudice introduced by patriarchal mindsets, women often find themselves struggling to make themselves heard and be counted. Amazingly then, most male CEOs dismiss the very existence of a glass ceiling, while women are unanimous in their experience of it. A 1990 survey of male and female vice presidents conducted by the Financial Women International found that 73 per cent of the men did not think there was a glass ceiling, while 71 per cent of the women did.
Angana Parekh, who heads the Women’s Feature Service in New Delhi, says about the Indian version of the glass ceiling: “It (the glass ceiling) is certainly there, but women are now succeeding as never before. It’s easier to crack these barriers today. The rural scene is more complex because of the social barriers against working women, especially when they want to venture into areas outside socially accepted ones. In smaller cities, for instance, it is not easy for women to work as journalists because people complain about late hours, and so on.”
In the result-oriented workplace of today, women get more flak than their male counterparts. Few in number, they are said to be more closely scrutinised. They are called on to take tougher tasks and are constantly evaluated and compared with male colleagues. Analysts believe that as long as the work involved is tedious, a woman’s work is appreciated. But once she gets a head start in her career, appreciation levels drop.
In a survey of more than 100 top Indian corporations across public and private sectors, it was found that one-third of all Indian women executives leave organisations because they perceive a lack of intellectual stimulation, and more than three-fourths maintain that they have to work much harder to prove themselves.
Primed for success
Even so, women with high levels of professionalism and degrees from prestigious institutions can be seen gracing the boardrooms of corporate India in ever increasing numbers. How do they deal with the glass ceiling? Many fight, others simply ignore it. As Jyotsna Chatterjee says: “The major positive change has been that women are now more conscious of their rights and feel they are as good as anyone else.” So it has a lot to do with one’s self-confidence and awareness levels.
Take the case of Naina Lal Kidwai, India’s leading investment banker, who has earned a name for herself across the globe. In the male-dominated sector she works in, her gender never seems to have been an issue. Her qualifications and experience have underlined a success that nobody can detract from. As the first Indian woman to graduate from Harvard Business School, she made her mark with Morgan Stanley, before moving on to HSBC as head of their investment-banking foray in India.
Swati Piramal married at age 22 into a family that was not ready to let her training as a doctor go waste. She was made in-charge of the newest diversification of the Piramal Group into pharmaceuticals. She went on to earn a degree from Harvard Business School and is today a businessperson in her own right.
These women believe in what they do. Take for instance Amrita Patel, who has taken the National Dairy Development Board to newer heights with her commitment to the co-operative movement. Not in it for the money, she is totally devoted to her work.
Anu Agha is another one for courage. Her husband, founder of Thermax, died suddenly in 1996, and she tragically lost her son the following year. Taking her personal grief in her stride, she went on to restructure the board of directors at Thermax and has made a success of the company since.
Most women believe that initiative must come from among the women themselves. Instead of expecting or demanding rights from men, women need to just take what they deserve. President of the San Francisco-based not-for-profit organisation Indian Business and Professional Women (IBPW), Monica Kumar has reached the conclusion that women need to be more assertive. Many others believe that if hard work and intellect is present, nothing can stop them. Some have even rubbished the glass ceiling as just a concept and have gotten on with their work and lives without letting it bother them.
Talking about collective effort, Angana says that women in key positions should make sure that other women get equal opportunities. “It is not easy to find women in top positions even now. Real change cannot come about by one person’s success. We need a critical mass of women in decision-making positions,” she explains.
She feels that the change is slow and is confined to cities. Jyotsna agrees: “In rural areas you will still find women in purdah. Women have to be educated about their rights and the law.” Women also need to deal with their own confusion regarding following tradition blindly vis-à-vis following their own aspirations. Confidence in their own abilities and choices will go a long way in enabling them to shatter the glass ceiling.
Information technology probably represents what’s best about our century. But when we explore what it has done towards equal opportunities, the findings are surprising. According to Rachel K. Adelson, member of the Association for Women in Computing, fewer women use computers, work in the industry in smaller numbers, are far less educated technically and are less visible online.
Tracy Camp, computer science professor at the University of Alabama, USA, has talked about “the incredible shrinking pipeline”—the declining ratio of women involved in computer science from high school to college, that has been dwindling over the past decade.
Pioneers like Soraya Bittencourt do exist, and it is in success stories like hers that we find clues for the direction women need to take. In her book My Road to Microsoft, Soraya chronicles her rise as an engineer in the technology industry that saw her conceptualise Microsoft Expedia, the first successful internet travel site. Born in Brazil, she had to struggle with her society’s limited and limiting ideas of what girls could do. That did not deter her from achieving the highest position in the Brazilian telecommunications industry before moving on to Microsoft.
What is needed now in terms of attitude towards women, their demands, ways of working and success, is a paradigm shift in which all members of the human family participate. Many women, single-handedly or as small groups, have been working towards breaking the glass ceiling and have achieved their goals, as we have seen.
As a society, what each of us needs to work towards is a change in our collective attitude. “The change has to be particularly in the mindset of men,” feels Jyotsna. Men today realise that women have a role to play outside the home as well and that they have equal rights. As Jyotsna says: “With the right messages and the constructive role of the process of education, empowerment will continue.” We can only hope that the change will come sooner so more women can begin to realise their dreams and men and women can rise together.
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