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Women’s Day Again

Moving beyond the symbolism

Hope Floats - oil on canvas, by Ilina Singh (13 years)

Another year, another Women’s Day. Human Resource departments across the world are springing to action planning celebrations. In a career just shy of 18 years, I’ve seen the tokenism this day evokes take many forms.

It will all sound familiar if you’re a part of the corporate world. The solitary woman in leadership will deliver the same pep talk yet again. You might notice women colleagues being gifted red roses or heart shaped chocolates.  And lets not even go to the various ‘ode to women’ ad campaigns that will be rolled out, milking the occasion for every CSR soundbite possible.

The cynical amongst us argue that the best celebration would be to not need the day at all, for that’s when women would have attained true equality. Irrespective of what you think of the way it is celebrated at your office, I do hope that you’d agree that women who are formally employed do more than just help themselves – they help move their nation and economy ahead. A McKinsey study cites that $2.9 trillion of additional annual GDP in 2025 could be added in India by fully bridging the gender gap in the workplace.

However, economic equality remains elusive – as I write this, Indian women earn 67% lesser than their male counterparts. Also, it will take 150 years for the situation to change. I do hope this shocks you – our grandkids will probably find it as unbelievable as we find Sati . It’s not a statistic we discuss openly with colleagues of course. No company publishes this in their balance sheet. Most women don’t even suspect it. 

But there are some signs of hope. Remember the bright pink chair in the Boardroom? It was mandated by the Companies Act 2013 that all listed companies should have at least one woman on their board.Although, one fourth of these seats on boards in India are conveniently filled by female relatives of the promoters. The Kotak committee report submitted to SEBI has now recommended that the pink chair belongs to independent female directors.

While the environment changes at its own slow pace, here are my suggestions on what women in corporate India can do as they #pressforprogress and want to achieve leadership positions at work.

First, start with knowing and trusting yourself

What gives you joy and lets you play to your strengths at work? Raise your hand every time you are within sniffing distance of opportunities that will let you grow in your field. While it is well documented how women undersell themselves and don’t apply for jobs unless they have all the qualifications listed, it’s still painful to watch it play out in teams I lead. Remember, no mentor, sponsor or well wisher can do what you must – have a deep, steady confidence in yourself. 

Richard Branson says this best , 

“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”

Build support for yourself

If marriage and leadership are both dear to you, do make sure to marry someone who is a true partner in your career path. Then, build your support system keeping the big picture in mind. My Swiss colleague once told me that since child care was prohibitively expensive in her country, a lot of women decided to stay back at home instead of shelling out the fat fees. But the sharp ones planned for the long run- knowing that their incomes would rise over the years making this short term expense worthwhile. This is particularly important when dealing with care giving to children and the elderly.

Speak up

The likeability vs authority tradeoff women face is well documented. Yet, not asking for what you want is a sure shot recipe for stagnation. Communication and negotiation skills are critical and are linked to the first point of having confidence in yourself. I still remember the time we hired a management trainee from campus, impressed by his presentation of the case study his group had completed. We found out later that the three girls on the team had done the work and our male hire had volunteered to present it. Getting a seat at the table and staying silent is terrible. Communicating with impact is a skill worth developing and practicing often.

Develop your personal brand

You will attract mentors and sponsors once you are known for what you do well. Make sure you take the time to meet others in a similar field, write and speak on your areas of expertise and develop your tribe of like minded professionals. While this is important for everyone, its imperative for women. Digital savvy️ is instrumental in developing this – start small and build it over time. Your good reputation will help you find new opportunities both inside and outside your company.

Stronger together

While most of the mentors and sponsors I’ve had were men and that’s probably going to be the case for a long time for most women – remember the solitary pink chair – there is strength in numbers. Female peers and seniors can be great sources of help and advice because they would have navigated issues very similar to the ones you’ll face. #metoo and #timesup show how tough issues that seem insurmountable by an individual can be solved when people come together.

Build a “couldn’t care less” fund and know when to cut your losses

Bad bosses, layoffs, business upheavals – all these are a part of work life. Women are taught to endure and be patient to a fault, often going down with the ship. Being financially sound gives you the confidence to walk away from bad situations and relationships at work. Doing so frees you to take your next big leap to growth and reinvention. Travel light, travel fast and jettison what’s no longer serving your journey.

May women navigate their journeys balancing all they need to but with joy, panache and hope in their hearts. Lets all #pressforprogress.

This post first appeared in Fortune India

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