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GENDER - A Woman’s New Place
The glass ceiling and biases remain, but a survey indicates corporate India’s ready for a mindshift

29th November, 1999

Have five decades of independence changed the workplace for women?
Are more women invading male bastions?
Are top slots still exclusively male?

Is this then the age-old unresolved debate in a more sophisticated format? ‘Women-and the Changing Dynamics in Organisations’, that’s the topic coming up for discussion in February 2000 at the International Symposium on Empowerment of Women in Hyderabad hosted by the Association of Management Development Institutions in South Asia.

As a precursor to the symposium, the Hyderabad-based consultancy group, Cosmode, conducted a survey among 100 top corporates in both the private and public sectors. About 400 managers-men and women-responded and the findings seem to suggest we may be on the threshold of a radical transformation at the workplace.

Though women managers comprise just 2 per cent of the Indian corporate sector, a surprise finding indicates that senior women executives believe there’s too much brouhaha about women in the workplace. They feel that women, given the right competence and commitment, can reach the top without a problem. This throws up the fact then that issues focus more on women who’re still aspirants, not so much on the success stories. Some of the issues:
• 40 per cent of male CEOS believe that advancement opportunities for women have improved greatly in
   the last five years. Sixty per cent of women disagree.
• 61 per cent of senior women executives agree that their advancement in the corporate sector depends on
   putting career before personal/family life. Only 44 per cent of the men feel this way.
• Over three-fourths of the women say they have to work much harder to prove themselves.
• Male CEOS predict that in five years’ time women will hold 2 per cent of senior management posts;
   women peg that at 8 per cent.

Advertising consultant Tara Sinha, one of the first women to break into a once male-dominated territory, dismisses any debate: "If you want to go out there and succeed, you’ll have to stop thinking of yourself as a woman first. You’ve to be a person at work."

An observation borne out by the fact that 61 per cent of the women surveyed attribute their success to developing a style with which male managers are comfortable, to deftly balance ‘femininity’ with ‘tough-mindedness’, so that they are neither taken for granted nor become over-aggressive. Sinha points to the common perception of an assertive woman being ‘aggressive’ and such a man being ‘dynamic’!

Mumbai-based Srilekha Agarwal, director, Quantum Market Research, would rather concentrate on the positive changes in the workplace than on pet grouses. Says she: "When I began working about 20 years ago, one had to be like a man or even better to function. There was this deglamourising, defeminising of the self, otherwise people didn’t take you seriously. Today, you can choose to be a woman and succeed. Your personality, skills are a measure of your value to the company." As for the fact that most women feel they still don’t get the same deal as men, Agarwal, while agreeing that biases remain-and perhaps as much as earlier in more conservative companies-also feels that most women bring it on themselves. "Just like the women’s reservation bill, if you keep carping about being a woman, you immediately pull your status down to the minority level." According to her, differences will smoothen out considerably once the woman starts taking herself seriously. One has to cope with situations rather than attempt to change them. Once the coping starts, the change follows automatically. "And through all of it, one has to retain a sense of humour," she says with a laugh.

One reason cited by 49 per cent of the women surveyed as to what holds back women from top management positions is exclusion from informal networks of communication, the Locker Room Syndrome, as they call it. Saraswati Venkateswaran, director of Bangalore-based placement agency, Headhunters, begs to differ. Says she: "Women have an advantage over men in that their interpersonal skills are better developed. So it is up to them to find ways and means of acceptance. Where informal networking is concerned, if the parameters are set right at the beginning, where’s the problem?" Agrees Padma Chandrasekharan, VP of the Chennai-based Satyam Infoways: "I won’t hang out at a bar with the ‘boys’ after 9 o’clock because I have a family to look after. I think there are a number of men who’d do the same because they have the same commitments."

Both Sinha and Saraswati point out that the notion that women have to work much harder is undergoing a change. With more career-oriented women emerging at the workplace, for whom marriage is still a low priority, they work as hard and are able to play as hard as their male counterparts. "Yes," says Bipasha Bannerjee, creative head, Chaitra Leo-Burnett, Delhi, "if you have a family, then I’d say you’ve to work much harder, balancing home and work. But that doesn’t necessarily mean one has to work harder at the workplace. Everything depends on talent." Reacting to the fact that a large number of women felt they were left out of decision-making processes, Bannerjee states emphatically: "I’d simply refuse to be left out of any important decision-making process."

So what do the men have to say? Only 10 per cent of men disagreed that women get any special privileges at work as against 21 per cent of the women. Says Arun Budhiraja, head, business, Travel House: "Whatever perceived privileges women had are also changing. Say for instance, in our company where there are a large number of senior and mid-level women executives, one of the areas where we tend to soft-pedal women is working long hours. That’s not necessarily working any more." Agrees Ravi Gopalan, HR manager, Network Solution Sector, Motorola India. "In our company we had suggested women leave by seven. The women shot it down saying that they were able to look after themselves."

Gopalan’s company is one which believes in gender diversity and is working towards achieving a 50 per cent ratio in the workplace. "But," says Gopalan, "the issue of the woman and the workplace can’t be generalised. As long as the force of sheer numbers is lacking, inequalities will remain. In our field-related jobs, we get very few women applicants. So there is an immediate imbalance in quality and men win over the women in these areas."

What emerges then is that as long as women prefer to work only in certain areas, their growth will be limited and the differences will remain. But Budhiraja feels that like women are re-inventing their positions, men too need to be trained in how to deal with women colleagues. For example, says Budhiraja: "I still don’t know how to reprimand a woman. I’m scared of the reaction. We have to re-examine all our attitudes."

By and large, the survey underlines one basic truth. Those women who’ve made it to the top have done so with elan and a style carefully nurtured. The rest of those surveyed have aspirations, yet harbour notions-perceived or real-which, according to women like Sinha or Agarwal, have to be redefined and women themselves have to do it. Of course, with a little help from their male colleagues, talent and skill being the buzzwords. Senior women executives agree that the more women and issues related to them become a conscious debate, the more will be the degree of discrimination or separation.

The onus, therefore, according to them, lies more on the woman than the man to break the cliched pattern of ‘CEOS are from Mars, Women are from Venus’. Hopefully, the symposium will provide a glimpse into the workplace of the future. Whether the working woman in AD 2000 will flaunt ‘dynamism’ or ‘aggression’ as her usp.

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