You have seen the workplace evolve over the last 40 years. How have things changed for women employees?
The number of women in industry has definitely gone up and this has led to changes in the ground-level matters. I remember when I joined the bank there were three restrooms in the branch, one for executives, one for men and one for women. As a woman executive, you were unsure of which one to use. These things, while simple, did matter a lot and they have changed with time.
Another change I have noticed over time is that women are better represented on committees and in board rooms. Earlier, we saw more women in back-office roles. I believe that the women themselves were responsible for this to a certain extent, but there were a lot of issues when women tried to do line assignments that take you out of the branches to difficult areas. There are issues related to travel and accommodation that women face in such areas.
Some things have changed. There is definitely quite a bit of movement in the younger lot. You see fewer couples who believe that the woman’s place is at home. These changes need to become universal for women to establish their space in the workplace.
How important is the role of organizations in focusing on diversity and bringing women to the forefront?
Earlier if there were two equally competent people of different genders, the male would be an automatic choice. Today, many organizations would prefer the woman instead. But what happens if the two candidates are not equally competent—will they cut the woman some slack? I think in some places where there is emphasis on diversity this can happen. I would like to think that women are getting ahead on account of being capable rather than merely because of their gender.
However, if women are 50% of the population and there is only 4% representation of them in the top management of companies, then there is a need for affirmative action. The fact remains, that we have not been able to retain the same number of women who join the workforce as we go up the ladder. This indicates that there is leakage along the line, and there is a need for some positive action to remove the barriers that prevent the rise of women through the ranks.
When assessing a woman employee, very often biases creep in. For example, some people may believe that a woman will prioritize her family over her professional commitments and therefore will not be able to perform at par with a male employee. This may or may not be true, or may be equally true for both genders. Similarly, there is a view that women are poor risk-takers. Affirmative action allows you to overcome these prejudices. Having said that, affirmative action cannot be forever. It should end when things become stable and that support is not necessary for women anymore.
What are the strengths that women bring to an organization?
The ability to multitask is the first and foremost strength that women bring to the table. Another attribute that is very important for leadership is the ability to be a good listener. Women are attuned to listening, and as a result, they have learnt to decipher not only what is being said in words, but also the tone, body language and what someone really means when they say something. Picking up on such non-verbal cues can be an important skill for a leader.
The third thing is, women are more focused. They know they have responsibilities that extend beyond the office and they are focused on finishing their work as efficiently as possible so that they have the time to attend to their other duties. Women are not very territorial, and that can be a very big strength as well. When you are territorial, you tend to become isolated. Otherwise, there can be far greater collaboration in the workplace, and that yields better outcomes than doing everything on your own.
What are the constraints that hold women back from achieving their potential at the workplace?
Women do not network much, and this I attribute to their lack of time because they have other responsibilities. There are several channels of communication in an organization and the informal channels are just as important and effective as the formal ones. But if you are not clued in to that, it can be an issue.
The other issue that women deal with is that they have trouble prioritizing. That is something they have to train themselves to do very early on in their career.
Many women nurture a lot of self-doubt and the reason for that is the feeling of guilt about not giving enough time to their family. They need to tone down what they expect from themselves in each of the roles. If they do that, much of the self-doubt can be addressed and they won’t feel that they are short-changing either role.
You are the role model for a lot of women who are building their careers. What advice would you like to give them?
One piece of advice I give young women is, don’t give up. Giving up is very easy and it can be done in five minutes. Instead, hang in there and believe that it can be done, and you will find solutions.
The second thing is that you should understand that you do need support, and be ready to ask for help, whether it is at work or at home.
Be ready to help others as well. A kind word or genuine concern for other people will translate into them being there for you when you need support.
As you go through life, you will need this support. It is not going to be possible to manage everything on your own. There is so much that women can do and we should not limit ourselves. Life is a challenge, lets face it!