Business Today

Breaking the mould

Shalini S. Dagar | Print Edition: September 18, 2011

Not all men have it in them to become CEOs. Nor do all women. "I think this gender thing is a bit overplayed," says Vinita Bali, Managing Director, Britannia. "Ultimately, it is competence, skills, attitude and ability to lead that matter."

Individual capacity is vital to a person entering the corner office. But the fact remains that currently the overwhelming majority of people occupying these offices is male.

There is a dearth of women at the top even in companies known for encouraging gender diversity. Infosys, for instance, takes in a large number of women every year. Yet, only 25 per cent of its middle managers are women. Among senior managers, only seven per cent are women. Nandita Gurjar, who heads Human Resources at Infosys, says it takes time to change the gender pattern. "In 2000, around 12 per cent of those coming out of engineering colleges were women, now it is 15 per cent," she says. "I expect there will be huge growth in the number of women in India Inc. in five to 10 years."

Women CFOs still lag behind in numbers

Anjali Bansal, Md, Spencer Stuart India
The ones who stay on, stay for the long haul... And they are usually supported by family. Successful women have a killer work ethic: Anjali Bansal
If there are few women emerging from engineering colleges, the same is true of management schools. "Over the last 30 years, only 15 per cent of those coming out of top B-schools have been women," says K. Ramkumar, Executive Director, ICICI Bank. "That stems from the intake system which is skewed in favour of engineers. There is no research to show engineers make better managers."

If entering the corporate world is not easy for women, personal issues make it difficult for many to continue in it, especially for women in the age group of 27 to 32 years. "Either it is unhelpful spouses or fer tility-related problems," says Ramkumar. "At this stage, there are also serious conflicts about whose career is more important - the husband's or the wife's. For every two bright women I recruit, one drops out."

The women who manage to continue in their jobs are the ones who have family support. "The ones who stay on, stay for the long haul," says Anjali Bansal, Managing Director, Spencer Stuart India, a headhunting firm. "And they are usually supported by family." Such support is critical both when women have children as well as when they enter the careerbuilding age. "Bringing up my children, and balancing work and family was almost effortless for me because of my husband's support," says Vedika Bhandarkar, Managing Director and Vice Chairman, Credit Suisse.

Things to remember on your way to the corner office

Competence matters: Be a master of your domain

Perspiration is unavoidable: There is no alternative to hard work

Discipline needed: Slack makes for unhappy choices

Get buy-in from family and office: Support makes life much easier

Ask for help: Doing it alone does not help

Aim for the stars: Take on challenges

Being unpopular is fine: You cannot please everyone

Should organisations also make an extra effort to retain their female employees? Not many allow flexi-hours and similar enablers to help women employees through their overworked patches. What do companies, which have a large number of women at the top, do differently? ICICI Bank is one of them. "We do nothing. There is no chivalry, no kid gloves, there are no affirmative action committees," says Ramkumar. "Your system has to be a pure meritocracy. No woman can play the 'woman card'.

Equally, no one here will say women can only do certain jobs and not others." But the least companies can do is shed their prejudices. A prominent headhunter recounts an incident where a senior manager dithered on hiring a young woman, fearing marriage and motherhood in the coming years would distract her. "Such mindsets die hard," the headhunter says. "A pregnancy would not be some debilitating illness that would permanently impair her performance. A 50-year-old male manager could also fall ill."

There are also some means women themselves can use to prosper professionally, such as projecting themselves better. Global research has shown that a woman applies for a job only if she meets all the criteria laid down for applicants. That is not true of men.

Successful women, says Bansal, have a killer work ethic. "Letting anything slip is not an option," says Shailja Dutt, Managing Director, Stellar Search, a headhunting firm. Women need to have a near military-like personal discipline. An additional disadvantage for women at the workplace, she points out, is that while they are quite capable of matching their male counterparts at office intrigue, they do not have the time for it, being too busy multi-tasking.

Tapping into informal networks or finding themselves mentors also works to women's advantage. Some women achievers themselves freely acknowledge this. "I give complete credit to my transformation from a corporate lawyer to a corporate leader to K.V. Kamath," says Kalpana Morparia, former Joint Managing Director of ICICI Bank, and currently CEO of JPMorgan. (Kamath is ICICI Bank and Infosys Chairman.) "But for him, I would have retired as head of the legal department at ICICI."

Finally, employing more women is not only in the interests of women but also of companies. Considerable research has shown that employee diversity improves corporate performance. "The Fortune 500 companies which are in the top quartile in employing women outperform those in the lowest quartile by a large percentage," says Latha Ramanathan, Senior Director, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

Understanding women as consumers is also crucial for companies, and who better to do so than a company's female employees? Women are expected to control around $28 trillion of consumer spending by 2014, says a recent report. "Getting more women into the workplace who understand the buying preferences of women consumers is important," says Deloitte's Ramanathan. Thus companies that hire and retain more women are not only doing the politically correct thing but also giving themselves a competitive edge.

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