Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, And the Will to Lead is in many ways a 21st century feminist manifesto. Facebook chief operating officer Sandberg envisages a future in which women will run half the world’s companies and countries, and men will run half the homes. But is this possible in a country like India, where gender roles continue to be sharply divided? We spoke to three entrepreneurs, one of whom is an author too, on their takeaways from this seminal work.
Who’s holding women back?
There is a sizeable number of women who are qualified for top jobs in industry, Sandberg writes, but you wouldn’t know this from the number who occupy corner offices around the world. So, what’s stopping them?
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who started the biopharmaceutical company Biocon Ltd in Bangalore in 1978, agrees. “I have always maintained that women need to change their mindset to progress in their careers. They should never adopt the self-defeating belief in a glass ceiling beyond which they cannot soar,” she says. But it is also important to examine the context in which Indian women operate, she suggests.
“In India, gender barriers start operating from birth. These prevailing societal perceptions are often the biggest hurdle that shape women’s perception of themselves and society’s expectations of their role.... I myself have gone through very challenging times in the early years of setting up my company only because I was a woman. I am fortunate that I had the backing of my family but how many women have that advantage or that support?”
The Mumbai-based author and founder of JAM magazine, Rashmi Bansal, offers a solution—it is much easier said than done, but it can be a start. “The world we live in today is created by social conditioning. But what if the woman is more talented or ambitious? What if the man would rather stay at home and paint? If we let both men and women choose their roles on the basis of drive and desire, the world would be a more efficient place.”
Is it fair to expect women to manage household duties in addition to full-time work? Or should women ask husbands to pitch in more? Sandberg thinks it may be a good idea to rope in the men to do more around the house.
Says Bangalore-based Meena Ganesh, entrepreneur and partner at GrowthStory, a strategic investment company, and ex-CEO of Pearson Education Services, “Men participating more in the running of the home and happily holding fort for a talented spouse is something that needs to become more common than an unusual phenomenon.” Ganesh, who met her husband at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, adds: “...there may not be enough examples of supportive Indian men. (But) over the years, there does appear to be some evolution. My generation of men would have automatically assumed the role of the provider, with the women being the homemaker. However, the generation of young men and women who are entering the workforce in the last five years seem far more open.”
Ganesh says her husband has always been supportive of her career aspirations. To the extent that when one of them had to shift to another city for work, there was no expectation that the other would quit work and move. “It helped of course to have a very supportive extended family of mother and mother-in-law,” she says.
Bansal adds that one reason men are not active on the household front may be owing to a lack of role models. “Fathers have been traditional heads of the household. It’s a whole new world today and men, like women, are struggling to cope. Women also feel guilty if they can’t be like their mothers—they want to do it all. It will take a couple of generations to break out of this programming and write a new code,” she says.
To be sure, there are women who’ve built brilliant careers despite these hurdles. Says Bansal: “It is always good to have a supportive spouse. But many women go ahead and make a success of themselves even when they don’t have the ideal amount of support at home.” In her book Follow Every Rainbow, she narrates the story of Patricia Narayan. Says Bansal: “Patricia was abandoned by her alcoholic husband and left to fend for herself and her children. Her journey from food-stall vendor to restaurateur is a heartening one of someone who ultimately survived against all odds.”
Having more women in top jobs and in government is crucial, since women themselves can better understand the actual challenges faced day-to-day by women, and the changes that need to be made. In a telling example, Sandberg narrates how Facebook began reserved parking for pregnant women only after a pregnant Sandberg herself suffered when she had to attend an urgent client meeting—her car was parked far away.
But Sandberg’s book falls short on this one count—it doesn’t reference the kind of institutional support needed for women to forge ahead in the corporate world and in government.
Though there is a much larger base of women at the entry level in organizations, the drop-off at the managerial level continues to be very high in India. Ganesh says this is mainly due to the lack of adequate support mechanisms, in organizations and in society. Measures like flexitime and the work-from-home option for both men and women may help retain more women in the workforce. “At least overtly, some companies, especially in the IT industry, are making attempts by providing some degree of flexibility and support systems such as crèches in the campus. But most of the older-generation companies don’t provide much support. Also, few companies have any kind of defined process for bringing back women who take breaks,” adds Ganesh. This is beginning to change, however.
In India, passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill would bring in more women at the policymaking level. But the Bill to reserve a third of seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies for women has been stuck for years. Says Mazumdar-Shaw, “This is a very important Bill because its broad objective is to see a better representation for women in various spheres of our socio-economic structure.”
Ganesh advises proceeding with caution. “On the face of it, the Bill is the right thing to do, so that over 15 years of reservation, there will be a larger number of women in leadership positions in the country’s governance. However, society and social support need to evolve to make this a reality. Otherwise, it will be easy for patriarchal communities in portions of the country to use elected women as fronts to perpetuate their own dominance.”