In corporate India, women leaders tread uncharted territory

By M Saraswathy

M Saraswathy Moneycontrol News

Ten years ago, a leading insurance company in the country had rejected RM Vishakha’s candidature for the post of head of sales saying a woman was not the right fit for the job. Now heading IndiaFirst Life Insurance as its Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, she confesses gender biases in the workplace still exist.

Despite the tough conditions, women like Vishakha have successfully scaled the corporate ladder efficiently handling roles that were considered more suited for men, particularly in male-dominated sectors like insurance.

“Gender discrimination is a reality at one level where there is role discrimination. There is a belief that women cannot do certain jobs. Especially in positions like sales, I do not see many women applying to those posts neither do I see recruiters being happy considering them for these posts,” said Vishakha.

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Unconventional positions which were once considered a no-no for women have slowly been filled by them in the last few years. Even sectors like oil and gas and manufacturing with clear gender skew have seen a change.

Take the instance of Soumya Srikanth who is General Manager-Joint Ventures, Vedanta Cairn Oil and Gas. Srikanth started her career in the 1990’s when liberalization had started picking up pace. She was a part of the oil and gas domain since the beginning of her career and dealt with critical areas of oil exploration, petrochemicals etc.

At the entry level, Srikanth said she had to work at the refineries in tough terrains. After ten years of experience at the consultancy, she decided to move to the hardcore upstream industry where she was a part of an oil and gas startup. This, she said, helped her to grow professionally since it opened an avenue to lead a business and manage the facility.

Talking about stepping into challenging roles, Srikanth explained she never had the advantage of working from a luxurious cabin, hence working out of the oil exploration and production site made her face a lot of challenges like extreme weather conditions, remote operation locations and the need to stay away from her family.

Compared to even 10-15 years ago, while senior leaders believe there has been an improvement, India still has a long bridge to cross when it comes to equality of the genders, both at home and at the workplace.

However, women from across fields have consistently try to break societal misconceptions about gender roles. In doing so, they have become idols for fellow women.

Bachendri Pal who was the first Indian woman to summit the Mount Everest in 1984 was also the first woman graduate from her village in Nakuri, Uttarkashi (Uttarakhand). She completed her B.Ed. and Master's degree in Sanskrit language.

Apart from being an inspiration for fellow climbers, Pal now leads senior corporate leaders into expeditions wherein they could use these lessons back at the workplace. As the director of the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation (TSAF), Pal is a mentor for several individuals.

The Outdoor Leadership Course (OLC) programme of TSAF draws on experience in ‘leadership’ from the risky and hazardous expeditions that Bachendri Pal (the first Indian Woman to climb Mt. Everest) has led.

Pal is the Chief of Adventure Programmes in Tata Steel. Having climbed Mt. Everest in 1984, she also led an Indo-Nepalese Women's Everest Expedition in 1993 in which 18 people reached the Summit including seven women.

‘Will she be able to do it?’ is a question that women have to constantly answer, as Neelu Khatri, President-Aerospace for Honeywell India has learnt on the job in her experience-rich career. Khatri who joined the company in 2014 and was also associated with KPMG in her earlier tenure, enjoyed a 15-year-long military career, where she was part of the pioneer batch of women commissioned officers inducted in the Indian Air Force.

“One challenge that I have constantly faced is that nobody took me at my face value. I always had to prove that I was capable of doing it and excel in it. It was both in the government jobs as well as in the corporate world. Somehow I had to learn to be more assertive,” she said.

Khatri said that they wouldn’t look at the past track record and would always come up with a thought saying will she be able to do it. However, she said that the extra aggression and confidence to prove herself helped her at the workplace.

To ensure that fellow women have a better experience at the workplace, some of these leaders have also taken steps to improve the office culture.

Vishakha said that they have the policy of replacement hiring for maternity leave vacancies to ensure that managers don’t have reluctance in hiring women. Further, she said that they also have crèche facilities and flexi timing to ensure work-life balance.

Having conducive work conditions are a definite plus, as Charu Jain, Software Engineer, Global Vehicle Sourcing, Uber India says.

Jain said that earlier in workplaces there were not many women friendly policies or encouragement for them to work. She recollected that even though her mother and most of her aunts had completed their post-graduation, they are home-makers.

“I do believe that there are more opportunities now for women and things have improved. Earlier, there were lesser opportunities and a working woman was a big deal. Today, as a woman I do not feel any biases at workplace due to gender,” she says.

Apart from her family that supported her, Jain said that she was also fortunate to have good mentors at the workplace who have been able to be a guide.

However, the general situation across India Inc does leave to room for improvement. Data from the Monster Salary Index by indicated that the current gender pay gap in India stands at 20 percent where men earned a median gross hourly salary of Rs. 231, in comparison, women earned only Rs. 184.8.

The Women of India Inc. survey by also showed that 32 percent women identified ‘not easily considered for top management roles’ as one of the top challenges, while only 13 percent men agreed.

Several other biases also seem to exit. A spot survey by ProEves, which is an aggregator of daycares and preschools talked about biases like stereotype biases (eg: sales job is for men as it more demanding), maternal bias (expectant/working mother less committed) apart from the self-limiting biases.

Apart from that, Khatri said that inherent biases remain including the regressive mindset of people and the gender-based role definition at Indian homes across all the economic strata of the society.

Sometimes even unconscious biases creep in, which could also be a case of miscommunication between men and women. Vishakha who has worked across several insurance companies in senior roles in her two decade plus career explained that women also have self-limiting beliefs that they need to tide against. “Sometimes we perceive a lot of discrimination when there is none,” she added.

But many like her and Srikanth have managed to strike a proper balance which according to many is a crucial criteria. Srikanth said while her home gives her boundaries but she does not allow those boundaries to create a barrier in her career.

She calls it a ‘fine art of jugglery’. Quoting Margaret Thatcher who is her role model, she says, “Rooster, maybe well crows, but the eggs still bears the chicken.”