To write about successful women is always a pleasant experience, and when it is about successful Indian women, the pleasure is doubled. Women all over the world are successful in their own way, as with or without support, they happily juggle their roles of daughter, spouse, mother and caregiver, working both at home and outside. They bring up children, the future generation as it were, and are the essential bulwarks of family life, a role for which they are physiologically and sociologically equipped. My definition of successful women, in the current context and for the purposes of this book, refers to a narrow spectrum of women who have made a name for themselves in the world of business and social enterprise, making their indelible mark in a milieu largely dominated by men.
Having been brought up in an environment and in a household where there was no differential treatment meted out on the basis of gender, my experience of any kind of bias against women, as such, is limited. I have also been extremely fortunate to have worked in organisations and with people in authority (read, men)
who have given me more opportunities and recognition than I probably deserved. If there was any discrimination, it was mostly in my favour.
However, I realise that outside the cocoon of the protected bubble that I inhabit, many women do have to struggle against a lot of prejudices and discriminatory — often downright criminal — behaviour, right from the time they are born.
When I was approached to write this book, I jumped at the idea. In a country where child marriages are, lamentably, still practiced, honour killings are still prevalent, female fetuses are still aborted, where women are persecuted and divorced for giving birth to girls… women need all the encouragement and inspiration they can get, to get out of the mould that they are forced to conform to, often under the specious garb of upholding ‘culture’ and traditional ‘values’.
The women who are chronicled in this book have been trailblazers and have risen to their current positions of eminence against all the odds stacked against them. And they have done it with dignity, without compromising on their integrity, keeping their hearts and minds fixed on their goals.
Being a woman, I understand very well the importance that role models play in our lives. During my adolescent years, I was inspired reading about the life of Marie Curie, the French-Polish Nobel Prize-winning scientist, who discovered radioactivity at the turn of the 20th century.
The story of Marie Curie is one of indomitable courage and the relentless pursuit of one’s passion. As a student with scant monetary resources, she stayed in a cold, dark room in Paris and kept warm by covering herself with newspapers and sleeping under a table to keep out the cold. She could not afford lighting in her room and studied by the light of street lamps. She went on to become Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne, the first woman to hold this position.
While there is no age limit to being motivated and drawing inspiration, if it happens at a younger age, when our minds are still impressionable and more receptive to such emotions, it has a greater impact. There is a peculiar dichotomy in the Indian social and cultural ethos. Ma Shakti is worshipped in the country as the universal emblem of female power, but girl children are unwanted. Goddess Lakshmi is revered as the fount of wealth, but girls are looked upon as a financial burden to the family. Saraswati is the goddess of learning, but when it comes to education, girls are given last priority. It looks like women work fine as divinities, but are not acceptable as humans.
Women make up roughly 50 percent of the population, but they have minimal voting rights in terms of representation in the socio-economic-political fabric, to use corporate terminology. Men write the rules; women follow the rules.
We know that today, women are joining the workforce more than they ever did, and economic independence has gone a long way towards emancipating women from the stranglehold of a patriarchal culture where women are often treated as the second sex. But evidence suggests that progress in this area is rather slow. A Hong Kong-based non-profit organisation, Community Business, carried out an interesting study in 2011, titled Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia. The survey covered China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. It interviewed women from a select sample of companies — all global corporations operating in these countries — and examined the representation of women at junior, middle and senior levels, in these companies. The Community Business study pointed out that India was the worst performer when it came to representation at junior, middle and senior levels in the workforce. Among all the
countries surveyed, India had the lowest percentage of women in the workforce.
The findings are not surprising. To begin with, in India, women make up just about 35 percent of the total workforce in the country, according to various surveys and studies conducted. That’s a fairly low number. Even Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines fare better. Additionally, a lot of leakage happens in the transition
from junior to middle levels. Compared to an average drop of 29 percent for Asia, in India, the drop was 48 percent. Between the junior and the middle levels is when women — usually in their late 20s and early 30s — get married, have children and drop out of the career race to devote more time to their families, which accounts for the leakage. All the women whom I interviewed had supportive families — either their parents or their husbands — who allowed them to work through, without having to take a break, when their children were born. So the scanty representation of women at senior level positions in the corporate sector is then explained by the leakage which takes place at the lower levels. The available pool of women at the middle level is already small and so the number of women who move to the senior positions is lower still.
Earlier this year The Times of India gave out interesting statistics from a survey done by global recruitment firm, Kelly Services. In India, when it comes to employment, the Information Technology (IT) sector is perceived as the most gender-agnostic and women-friendly sector. In keeping with this perception, there
were 81 percent of women employed at junior levels in the IT sector in 2011. At the middle management levels, this value had tapered off to 16 percent, while at the senior management level, women occupied a minuscule 3 percent of the positions. The survey explained that most women opted to quit their jobs to take care of their children and for other family reasons, and a large portion of those who quit were unable to find suitable job opportunities after the career break, despite being eminently qualified and having a good performance record.
During my interviews with the women entrepreneurs, one startling fact which stood out was that many of them were expected to get married as soon as they turned 18 years of age. Of course, the women in this book exercised their choice not to do that, choosing instead to pursue their dreams, and their parents were sensible enough to allow them. But for the vast majority of girls, do they have the luxury of that choice?
Normally, a girl child is brought up on the notion that her main aim in life is to get married and have a family — that is her defining destiny. A career for a woman is still seen as a secondary objective. Ishita Swarup, when growing up, was subliminally given the message that she could have a career, but it would always be
secondary to that of her husband’s. Jessie Paul was nearly married off at 18, and she had to persuade her family to send her to engineering college, and then further, to pursue a management degree. Suman Sahai, the strong-minded genetics scientist, was also similarly faced with the spectre of marriage when she reached adulthood.
In fact, marriage is traditionally seen as the obvious next step if the girl is not inclined towards further education. There are no other choices. Most often, marriage is the only alternative. At this point, let me make it clear that the debate here is not about an early or late marriage, not even about marriage versus career. The debate is about choice — is a girl allowed the same choices that her male counterparts have? Are they treated on par irrespective of what they choose? Is there a level playing field for girls and boys, when it comes to taking decisions about their future?
To return to an earlier theme, in my conversations with various women, I came across some interesting insights as to why we do not see more women at senior level positions. A lot of it has to do with the male-centric attitude in companies. Jessie Paul attributes it partly to the patriarchal culture of our society. Men feel protective towards women and do not like to send them out on project assignments. “The feeling is, we should not send this lady abroad because she has a small child. It’s meant to be for the good of the woman, but of course, next year when the promotion appraisal comes up, this lady will not be considered for promotion because she has no project experience.”
There are instances of over-protective fathers interfering in their daughters’ careers. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw recalls a father of one of her women employees asking her not to send his daughter on out-of-town assignments. On hearing about it, the daughter told Kiran not to pay any attention to her father as she was willing to travel for work.
Then there are other factors at play. At the top levels in an organisation — I’m talking of private sector companies here — promotions and decisions regarding who is to occupy a particular slot are made, not through the formal corporate appraisal system, but outside the office through individual rapport-building
and networking, which usually happens either over golf on the weekends or over drinks in the evenings.
Women working in the corporate sector in India are still new to the culture of dropping into a bar for a few quick drinks with male colleagues or just fraternizing with senior colleagues (most of whom will be male, of course) with a view to influencing the promotion outcomes. Since men obviously outnumber women at the workplace, there are more ‘male-bonding’ sessions going on all the time, from which women are excluded — partly because men feel restricted in the presence of women and also because women themselves are not too comfortable in such situations. Regardless of how emancipated an Indian woman may be, this kind of fraternizing is not something which comes naturally to her. In many cases, the woman will have to attend to other responsibilities at home such as spending time with children or cooking dinner, so naturally she would not have the time for the ‘networking’ or the discussions that go on at these evening soirees.
It is also not something which is socially and culturally approved of in India and many women do not want to risk having their ‘reputations’ tarnished or becoming the subject of salacious gossip, and they avoid these sessions.
So the woman employee loses out primarily because she is not among the top-of-mind recall of those who are in a position to take these decisions. Of course, one can always come up with the argument that there is nothing that stops women from imitating their male colleagues and there are plenty of women who willingly
and cheerfully do it but again, my point here is why must women have to follow the norms and practices set by men? Again, it boils down to the question of choice. Besides, in the current set-up, senior male executives, who are usually the key decision-makers in companies, often do not appreciate the kind of pressures that junior women executives are working under, because most of them have wives who are not
earning a living or are probably engaged in activities that allow them to manage their ‘work-life balance’.
Suman spent a good part of her life in Germany, working in a laboratory environment, and she recounts having a sense of being considered not on par with men. It was not exactly discrimination nor was it an openly stated bias nor was it outright hostility, but it was tacitly understood that men had more opportunities than women, that women always had to work harder and perform at a consistently high standard. “We could not afford to slip up. If we did, we would probably have got no second chances.”
A vast majority of women feel guilty over not paying enough attention to their children and families. Also, the responsibility of looking after the elderly in the family usually falls to the women. It is taken for granted that it is the women of the household who have to look after the entire family and that, of course, stems from established customs from olden times when men were traditionally the providers and women the care-givers.
Most women do not take on bigger job responsibilities that come with moving up the corporate ladder because of their commitment to their families. This happens even if they have a support structure in place, due to their innate belief that they alone can do justice to the role of family caretaker, so to speak.
A very senior executive in a state-owned insurance company recently told me that women colleagues often passed up promotions to senior management levels (which usually came with transfers), as they did not want to disrupt their family life, by a) relocating and b) devoting more time to work due to additional responsibilities that the promotion would entail. According to him, these women who were otherwise brilliant
at their work, held their own careers and jobs in lower estimation compared to those of their husbands. “They think it is their duty (to prioritise the family and home over their careers) and their husbands, families, children also feel that these women are not making any great sacrifice in forgoing their chances of moving up
in their careers.”
The question that begs to be answered here is — is the woman’s decision governed by what is expected of her from the society she lives in or does it stem from her own inclinations? But what about the fact that her inclinations themselves are the product of societal influences, in the first place?
Vandana Luthra is a classic example — she waited eight years, till her children were older, before she started on her venture.
Women have internalised the notion that womanhood is bound to the care of others, especially husband and children. They have colluded in their own oppression by insisting on their right to manage the home and their duty in working for their family. Suman Sahai hit the nail on the head when she said, “Women need to break out of their identities solely and exclusively as members of a family. They must understand they have an individual identity as well. And it’s their legitimate right to try and manage both — it’s entirely possible, with or without the support of their family.”
Years of conditioning are the reason why such few women make it to the top echelons of the corporate sector. “We are all victims of our years of conditioning,” said Renuka Ramnath. “That is why you feel that somebody has obliged you by giving you a career or that somebody has trusted you to let you come
In general, the feeling women have is a sense of obligation rather than a sense of right when it comes to a career and a job. As Anu Aga puts it, “We feel grateful.”
I would add that women are also apologetic about their ‘femininity’ which is seen as a sign of weakness or something to be deplored. Women, who are in positions of power, tend to emulate their male counterparts, because they think that is how it should be. Why should they? In this connection, I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal by Rupa Subramanya. The Journal had hosted an event in Mumbai, in June this year, to debate the question whether women were exercising a ‘free choice’ when they dropped out of the
workforce or whether they were doing it under pressure in a work environment that was not sympathetic to their unique needs.
ICICI Bank boss Chanda Kochhar — herself a poster girl of a successful career woman who’s reached the top — was one of the speakers at the meet. Subramanya wrote, “Ms. Kochhar seems to believe that a
woman’s attitude is key in determining how far she’ll rise up the ranks of the Indian corporate world. She’s suggested bluntly that women who want to succeed will need to park their womanhood at the door as they enter the workplace.” With all due respect to Kochhar and her achievements, I find this statement alarming. Why should we deprecate our womanhood as something to be hidden out of sight? Men and women are totally different in their approach to problems and that’s perfectly acceptable, there’s no dispute there.
There is no evidence to indicate that this difference adversely impacts the end results or work efficiency or profitability of a company. Women, by nature, tend to be more empathetic and I do not see any reason why this trait should be suppressed or toned down.
Just because men have been in positions of power for years doesn’t automatically give sanction to a particular method of control or management as the best. Nor does it mean that the established practice needs changing entirely. It is just one method of dealing with situations. I think women need to get rid of this belief that to succeed in the corporate world, they need to behave like men. There is no compulsion to be ‘one of the boys’. There is no shame or stigma attached to behaving like a woman — or as their instincts tell
them to. Let them simply exercise their choice to be individuals.
I would now like to change direction slightly since the whole debate about representation of women at the workplace, in organisations, politics, public life, their earning potential, their ambitions, their behaviour — everything is linked inextricably to their status in the community and society, and to the treatment that this community and society metes out to them.
Women are victims of their own insecurities and lack of confidence in their abilities. Girls and women also tend to follow the path of least resistance when it comes to making a choice regarding career, marriage or anything else for that matter. The choices are made for them, and probably in the mistaken belief that they are acting in the interests of community harmony if they conform to the norms around them, they succumb to the pressures that are imposed on them, often without even realizing what is happening to them.
The insecurities and lack of confidence have their roots in the early days of childhood when girls find that they are not treated in the same way as their brothers are. With few exceptions, they are not encouraged to excel as much as the boys, either in studies or in any other area. Even when girls are told that their destiny is to get married and have children, it is conveyed in a manner calculated to instill a sense of inferiority in their minds. A lot of importance is attached to working and earning money compared to marrying and raising kids. This attitude in the upbringing itself puts women at an emotional and mental disadvantage with respect to their
purpose in life. So pursuing a domestic life is seen as unproductive. From this stems the woman’s aspiration to go out to work, earn money and be ‘productive’. I find this rather perplexing. Why can’t a woman who looks after the household and brings up healthy, intelligent children be treated on par with a woman or man who goes out and earns money?
To illustrate this, I would like to quote a conversation between a doctor and a male farm worker, sourced from an International Labour Organisation document of 1977:
“Have you many children?” the doctor asked.
“God has not been good to me. Of fifteen born, only nine live,” he (the man) answered.
“Does your wife work?”
“No, she stays at home.”
“I see. How does she spend her day?”
“Well, she gets up at four in the morning, fetches water and wood, makes the fire and cooks breakfast. Then she goes to the river and washes clothes. After that, she goes to town to get corn ground and buys what we need in the market. Then she cooks the mid-day meal.”
“You come home at mid-day?”
“No, no, she brings the meal to me in the fields — about 3 kilometres from home.”
“And after that?”
“Well, she takes care of the hens and pigs and of course, she looks after the children all day… Then she prepares the supper so it is ready when I come home.”
“Does she go to bed after supper?”
“No, I do. She has things to do around the house, until about nine o’ clock.”
“But, of course, you say your wife doesn’t work?”
“Of course, she doesn’t work. I told you she stays at home.”
An earning woman is automatically accorded more respect than a non-earning woman. Housework, looking after the needs of the family, and domestic duties are not seen as ‘work’ in the real sense of the term. That is why we have the peculiar terminology of ‘working’ and ‘non-working’ women. Of course, this is an old argument and one can go on pontificating on the injustice and ill-logic of this all-pervading belief.
The question I’m trying to raise here is not whether women should or should not have a career; whether women should or should not marry; whether a woman should pay more attention to her home or career. The question is of choice. A woman should have the choice to decide what she wants to pursue. The choice
should not be made for her or forced upon her as an obligation or as a duty — or because it has been made acceptable by tradition and convention. And she should not have to be made to feel guilty over whatever she chooses.
Women, by their whole attitude and language, are subservient to the whims of their men folk. When a man says he has a supportive wife, he probably means that she takes care of the entire domestic front, of the complete family including the children and older relatives, totally absolving him of all family responsibilities and leaving him free to pay undivided attention to his work. On the flip-side, when a woman says she has a supportive husband, she probably means that he is ‘allowing’ her to work outside the home and earn money.
However, this woman will probably find herself attending to domestic chores as well. I have many friends who tell me, ‘I’m very lucky, my husband and in-laws do not have any problem with my working.’
This statement, in itself, is an admission that women are constantly seeking approval and permission to do things which are seen as outside the scope of their natural duties and obligations. Why should the husband have any objection to a woman earning money in the first place? Why should the woman feel that she has
to have that sanction before she takes up a job that earns money? Tradition has created a social hierarchy on the basis of sexual division of labour whereby men are at the top and women at the bottom. However, anthropology and history suggest that while this division of labour has been prevalent throughout human
history, it was not always a hierarchical one. This means that its origin is much more recent (relatively speaking) and can be reversed, with sufficient effort.
There are studies to show that the sexual division of labour has led to such hierarchical culture, with men taking upon themselves the mantle of the superior race. From being the provider to being the oppressor, is but a short step. So if we want to dismantle the hierarchical structure, we have to eradicate division of labour on the basis of sex — that is, we need to stop considering certain occupations or vocations as more suitable than others for women. I do not consider myself a rabid feminist consumed by a burning desire for equality with men — indeed I do not see that (equality with men) as any benchmark to which I or any woman
should want to aspire to. The minute we ask for equality, we arrogate an inferior status to ourselves and we have to change that mentality.
What I want to stress upon here is that parents should ensure that their girls are given every opportunity to realise their potential — especially in terms of learning and education in whatever field they choose, and they should have the choice to exercise their rights — their rights as a human being and as an individual.
Men should not appropriate the responsibility of deciding what a woman should do or how she should conduct herself. We cannot be used as symbols of oppression and depredation, when different communities of men want to assert their authority over each other. That is what we are fighting against — that men should
not assert their supremacy or their superiority by subjugating women or committing atrocities against them.
I would like to place on record a couple of points here about this book. The book is not just about chronicling the lives of the women who feature here. Many of them are well known and have been written about extensively and I’m sure, for many of those who closely follow corporate developments in India, much of it would be familiar ground.
I also do not want to create an impression that all men are responsible for the current suppressed representation of women in industry. There are plenty of men who are doing their best to support and encourage women in their endeavours to go forward. As I said earlier, I have received only support and encouragement from all the men I have been privileged to work with. While the achievements of the women in their chosen careers are at the core of the stories in this book, I have tried to provide some insights into their minds and their early lives to bring out the fact that most of them had to face gender prejudices
and challenges along the way. These women became successful because they challenged these attitudes and refused to accept the status quo — to the extent of defying parental diktats.
The stories are illustrations to try and tell you that anything is possible, provided you have a sense of purpose and believe in yourself. The women in these stories started out as ordinary girls, they had their own demons and insecurities to battle with and ultimately, they triumphed, to become extraordinary women.
I hope this book inspires millions of girls and women out there to shake off their lethargy, unshackle their minds from generations of ingrained subservience to antiquated oppressive attitudes, and to live their lives as individuals with a sense of purpose. All of us are extraordinary with lots of talents — we just need to
work towards bringing out this hidden potential. Circumstances may be against us but then we owe it to ourselves to fight to change our situations. As Suman Sahai said, “Remember, you hold up half the sky. It
wouldn’t happen without you.”