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The second sex

This book makes a rational case for giving women who take family-related career breaks a second chance.

By Arnab Mitra | Print Edition: Sept 23, 2007

There's a major skills shortage plaguing the corporate world-not just in India, but all over the world. Yet, companies continue to neglect a class of workers who, potentially, can make up half the total-women.

But this is not your standard book about various gender issues that follow women to work. It goes much deeper. Sylvia Ann Hewlett records efforts by the "Hidden Brain Drain Taskforce", an initiative by 34 "gold standard companies" worldwide-including the likes of American Express, General Electric, Ernst & Young, Lehman Brothers and Time Warner-to provide a work environment that takes into account the special needs of women. Hewlett, who has led the effort for the last three years, says the current career model was "originally conceived by white males, with white males in mind. And so, it's not surprising that across industries, it has tended to work best for white men, a segment of the talent pool that is shrinking".

Though written with western examples and western problems in mind, this book is particularly relevant to India Inc., which largely, and unquestioningly, follows the linear career model. But the West is realising that it is losing out on significant talent as a result of this model, and, therefore, the initiative for corrective action.

But what is this model? The currently prevalent career model assumes that power, position and financial rewards, not necessarily in that order, are the prime motivators of the workforce. But this may not necessarily be true for women. Research data suggests that women fall behind in the corporate rat race because an overwhelming majority of them have to "off-ramp", i.e., take what they think is a "temporary" break of a few years to bear, and rear, children, and to look after parents. But getting back "on-ramp" proves difficult, if not impossible, as the prevailing corporate culture interprets this time "out of the system" as a lack of commitment. A majority of women face this problem in their 30s-40s when their male colleagues, typically, put in punishing 70-hour weeks and move up the corporate hierarchy. The book provides several examples of high-flying women executives who find it impossible to "on-ramp" after such biology- and society-dictated breaks.

Hewlett's extremely readable book is filled with examples of how the prevailing corporate culture discriminates against women and is a must read for every CEO and manager who complains of a skills shortage. The silver lining is that leading companies the world over are waking up to the opportunity cost of ignoring the issue. Maybe India Inc., too, will take a few cues from this book and "keep talented women on the road to success".

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Is it strategy or serendipity that separates the exceptional from the ordinary? It's both and probably more-that's what comes out in Pathbreakers, a coffee table book that provides insights into the lives of 26 Indian achievers. Co-authored by Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu, this book is a readable collection of personal and professional stories in the form of interviews-an achiever's gallery with diverse tales of formidable feats. It's strategy when Mukesh Ambani delves into why and how Reliance moved from polyester yarn- making to petrochemicals and then agri-based retailing. On arbitrage in agriculture, Ambani says: "If we get our produce right, and if the US market is opened up, you will be surprised how quickly we reach $20 billion." It's also strategy when K.V. Kamath asserts that in everything that has been done at ICICI Bank, there is a pattern. Or when Meeran Chadda Borwankar, Mumbai's first woman Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), says that dealing with organised criminal gangs is like playing a game of chess. The book moves to another genre with super-achievers like world billiards champion Geet Sethi, whose best investment is the effort he has put in to understand the purpose of life, and Hafeez Contractor, who almost did not study architecture. The achievers, though diverse in their triumphs, have something in common-super talent and the passion to excel.

-Saumya Bhattacharya

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