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Against The Odds

Women in leadership roles often have to spend a lot of time proving themselves. Equality at workplace is still a fair distance away

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki, is one of the earliest members of the Google team and it was in her garage in the US that the Google founders laid the foundation of the $136 billion-technology giant. She went on to become the first marketing manager of the company, way back in 1999. Therefore, it was surprising to hear from a senior business leader like her, who is also on the board of Google and plays a key role in decision-making, say that being a board level woman leader isn't easy. Wojcicki says that though it's most often unintentional and unconscious, her male counterparts have many a time tried to overpower her in boardroom discussions. Getting her voice heard has not always been easy and that over the years she has come up with techniques to make sure she is not taken lightly. "I always get my opinion across. I always say what's in my mind. I don't give up, I keep saying it," she says.

Pippa Scaife, Commercial Director, Emerging Brands, CNN, echoes the thought. "I have been in lots of companies and lots of situations when your male peers don't necessarily act as if you are a peer in the meeting. You have to shout and sometimes you have to make sure you are part of as many conversations as possible so that it is difficult to ignore you," she says, emphasising that CNN is one of the companies where she hasn't faced any discrimination whatsoever.

Susan Wojcicki, CEO, YouTube; Photograph by Rachit Goswami

It is well known that companies across the world are striving hard to bring in gender diversity. Retaining women in the workforce, especially in the middle management level, has been especially difficult. But life isn't easy for women leaders at the top either. Very few women make it to the top and after doing so they end up proving to the world that they are capable and worthy of the role. It's no different in India either.

Apurva Purohit, President, Jagran Prakashan Group, is a well known figure in the media industry. As CEO of Radio City, she had played a pivotal role in the growth of the FM radio; she was also the architect of Jagran's acquisition of Radio City a few years ago. Purohit is also an independent director on the boards of Mindtree and Meru. Yet she says that it's a daily battle for her to get her voice heard in many board meetings as she is often the only woman there. "I may be the most competent but my male counterparts often try to cut me or bypass me. I most often fight back, but there are times I let it go." Purohit is, however, willing to give the benefit of the doubt to her male counterparts as she believes those gestures are not malicious. "It's more to do with the societal conditioning. We are a patriarchal society and people are conditioned to believe that women are less competent, that they can't take hard calls," she explains.

A lot of the behaviour in the boardroom by men is a reflection of their upbringing, says Abanti Sankaranarayanan, Chief Strategy and Corporate Affairs Office, Diageo India. "I am bold enough to raise my voice, and I never let the moment slip," she adds.

Even in sectors where women form a large part of the workforce, things aren't that different. A senior woman board member of an IT company says, "I literally remove my bangles just to prove my worth."

Finding Worth

A woman leader often battles with myriad thoughts of whether she will be taken seriously by her male colleagues, whether she can balance home and work and even the fact that she may end up earning more than her spouse. These thoughts often lead women to stay away from leadership roles. And even if they do take up such roles, they tend to not negotiate as hard as men would. "Women leaders don't negotiate hard enough and hence their salaries are unimaginably lower than their male counterparts'," points out Shailaja Dutt, Founder of global leadership advisory and executive search firm, Stellar Search.

India does have top notch women leaders; Arundhati Bhattacharya, Kalpana Morparia and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw to name just a few. But the number is minuscule. No wonder, out of the 1,238 executive directors in Nifty 500 companies only 83 are women. While the total remuneration of male executive directors (779) of these companies was about Rs 4,444 crore, the remuneration of women members was just Rs 229 crore (as of September 12, 2019; according to Primedatabase).

It's the Attitude

Is corporate India averse to having women at the top? Not really. "Organisations today never say that they don't want a woman CEO," points out K. Sudarshan, Managing Partner of executive search company, EMA-Partners. In fact, more and more organisations want women in leadership roles, says S.V. Nathan, Partner and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte India. "People are realising that the bottom lines of organisations are seeing a substantial change when you have women in leadership roles," says Nathan. "Their ability to do more with less is something that gives them an edge. They are the quintessential maximisers and hence companies want more women in leadership roles."

If companies too want more women leaders, why are they so few?

Dipali Naidu, Head, Consulting, DDI India

While one can't wish away the fact that women will continue to be child bearers and may need breaks in their career, it is also a fact that most Indian companies do shy away from having adequate women representation in their workforce. Biases are many and varied: she won't be as competent; she can't travel; she can't take tough decisions.... Even if a woman makes it to a senior level, her salary is usually 17-27 per cent lesser than of men peers, as organisations take it for granted that a woman employee will exit the workforce sooner or later. "Many senior women employees in promoter-run businesses earn much lower than the men even if they are more competent," points out Dipali Naidu, Head, Consulting, DDI India, an HR consultancy.

A lot has to do with women's attitude too. Most tend to accept that their salaries are not as important as their spouse's and often don't want to take up leadership roles. "We offered a leadership role to one of our women managers and she turned it down because she said she then wouldn't be able to honour her family commitments," says Anjali Raghuvanshi, Chief People Officer at Randstad India.

Will my spouse support me, will my colleagues accept me if I become the CEO, these are just some of the thoughts that come to the mind of most women leaders, says Purohit of Jagran. This kind of a mindset is mostly due to patriarchal upbringing of Indian women where they are conditioned to be care-givers, she says.

While most star women CEOs are probably getting paid at par with their male counterparts, the bulk of women leaders earn lower salaries. "If women have to negotiate in a job, they negotiate more for the quality of work they want to do and the impact they are going to drive versus what kind of money they want. The other taboo is when you see women at the workplace who are bold, who ask for what they deserve, they are seen as extremely aggressive. If a man does that, he is not seen as aggressive. These are some of the social inflictions that women face," says Naidu of DDI.

Most women think it is impolite to negotiate for higher salary. "Men define their worth by the money they earn, while a woman is always conscious of the breaks that she has taken in her career and often agrees to accept 75 per cent of what her male counterpart earns," says Purohit of Jagran.

To The Fore

Nadia Chauhan, Joint Managing Director, Parle Agro, feels that too much is being talked about women and diversity, which is further isolating women. "We should talk more about success stories rather than challenges. A woman can't be daunted by responsibility. She has to embrace the challenge come what may." If a woman employee expects to be treated differently by her organisation it will be unfair to expect to get remunerated the way her male peers do. "We are in an era of equals. Why should women be treated differently?" she asks.

According to Myleeta Aga, Senior Vice President and General Manager (South East Asia and South Asia), BBC Studios, it is important for women leaders to focus more on their skill sets rather than their gender. In her opinion, men are more comfortable being ruthless and women who are outspoken are labelled aggressive. "Sometimes other people do take credit for something you have done (that has happened to me throughout my career). But it actually doesn't bother me. What matters is, did I get the result I wanted, did I achieve the deal, did I get what the team required. Did I get the credit? Maybe not. You have to be self-aware; understand what motivates you and make the trade-offs."

Familial conditioning has a lot to do with people's attitudes - men and women. Falguni Nayar, Founder, Nykaa, doesn't feel there is any sort of glass ceiling whatsoever. "I have never faced it," she says. The larger issue, according to her, is that for generations, families have been dumbing down women, which has restricted them from choosing certain careers. "For the longest time, women didn't opt for science-led careers as their families thought that it was not a career meant for women. I would have loved to have a woman CTO in my team, but there aren't enough women CTOs who I could hire. In fact, I myself would have made a good engineer, but my family thought I should study Commerce because I am a woman," she explains.

Nayar also doesn't agree that family compulsions in any way lead to women leaders being treated differently. "Why should only the women think that they have a family; men also have families. If profession is a priority for a woman, everything else will fall in place."

But isn't it easier said than done? "A woman's success largely depends on how supportive her spouse or family is. There have been instances of husbands taking a backseat in their career because their wives are doing exceedingly well. But they are still far and few," says Naidu of DDI.

Gender gap in the workforce is a challenge world over. A recent gender diversity report in the UK shows a marginal decline in the number of women in the workforce. In India, mindsets are beginning to change and companies are also eager to hire women, but acceptance of women in key roles is still a while away.


With additional inputs from Sonal Khetrapal

How we did it

There has been a steady rise of women up the corporate ladder. We at Business Today know that very well, since we were the first publication to highlight the achievements of women in Indian business starting 2003.

We started off the process for identifying the Most Powerful Women (MPW) in June 2019 with an initial list of about 150 names, many of who have featured in our list in earlier years. That's when BT editors and reporters suggested names of women who have made a difference over the last fiscal year.

The women that we initially identified were across 10 areas: BFSI, FMCG, Government, IT & ITeS, Legal, Manufacturing, Media & Entertainment, Pharma & Healthcare, Entrepreneurs, and Others. There is a sharp difference from the past when most of the women in the list were from the BFSI sector. In addition to that, we identified Indian women who have made a mark in the global arena. This time, we have introduced a new category, Rising Stars. These are women under 35 who have made a mark in business.

In the second phase of the selection process, a BT team, backed by a research team, evaluated each name based on her performance over the past year. In the final selection process, the main list of 40 women identified was pruned to 31, and the Rising Star category had eight names.

The list of winners this time is quite diversified. It includes first generation entrepreneurs, marketing wizards, banking leaders and deal makers. This year, besides fresh entrants in the business category, we have two women - Ashu Suyash and Pallavi Shroff- winning the award for the seventh time, and entering the 'BT Hall of Fame', and, of course, being consistent performers.

Over the years, we have included newer categories. In 2018, we included a new category, Impact Women, in which we identified those who have done commendable work at the grassroots level. This year, we have added the Rising Stars.

Considering that India is a young country, there are many young women who are bringing in their business acumen to different industries. After all, they are the future.

Published on: Sep 16, 2019, 2:01 PM IST
Posted by: Vivek Dubey, Sep 16, 2019, 2:01 PM IST