In 10 years of being a journalist, this is a question that has puzzled me. Having interviewed hundreds of intellectuals, powerful and ambitious corporate women at all levels, I have observed that ‘she’ has always meant business. In the past decade, when the growth rates marched up, many of India’s top women leaders touched the nadir of their careers. Even though I am not big on power lists, I think they were looked upon as a legitimate antidote to the billionaire boys on magazine covers. But having achieved all that success, one wonders what exactly do women have to give up to be on top of their game. Is the idea of leadership in India essentially a masculine notion?
This isn’t another gender debate, but a reflection on how workplaces promoting women are inherently expecting them to be Rambo.
Those are not my words. Anjali Singhal (name changed on request) quit her high-paying, suited-booted HR job with a $20 billion business house just six months ago. She hasn’t been happier and says that she “feels like a woman” again. Nudge her, and she admits growing in a male-dominated management makes you “a bit of a man”.
“If you bring any emotional intelligence to the corporate table, you will be looked at as weak. But if a man is using sentiment to get work done, speak to employees, he will be hailed and rewarded for putting his emotional quotient to use, ” says Singhal.
Are women CEOs pushed to project themselves as ‘kings’? Is paurush about potential while prakriti is the reflection of woman? The glass ceiling may be gone, but do successful women who have broken new ground face prejudices? Is she, by default, a testosterone wrapped in a sari?
Tata Sons veteran R Gopalakrishnan has some experience of such workplace dilemmas. The Indian mind is rooted to believe that men lead more often than women. Also, it tends to think that it’s not enough to intellectually accept the idea of women leaders, but culturally own it and ensure pragmatic execution of such notions in society. Having just finished his third book on management and leadership What the CEO Really Wants from You, Gopalakrishnan blames both men and women for allowing stereotypes. “Both men and women have the difficulties in culturally accepting the idea of women being on top. There are as though codes written in the minds of both.” As a society, we may <believe> in the idea of a woman trailblazer, but do we really culturally own it? Do we propagate it?
Even women seem to be in doubt. Radhika Bhangu (name changed) is an investment banker and admits that she feels the need to be among the boys, be like them, talk their language and even play their sport to stay “in the game”.
It makes me wonder if our behaviour and attitude is strongly influenced by our perceptions of what is expected of us. “There is a pressure to be like your male colleagues, clearly, and, of course, few succumb to it,” says Bhangu.
Anne Cummings made this the subject of her study. A former Wharton management professor, she notes that men and women can do the same thing, but if they both act assertive, women are rated less effective because we expect men to do that.
Gopalakrishnan doesn’t buy that theory. What’s at play here is a self-inflicted restraint, he explains. “There is a men’s Khap mentality, but let’s be clear there’s also a women’s Khap mentality even among the well-educated,” he says.
So do women leaders find it easier to leave behind the traits traditionally assigned to them back home before entering the boardroom? “Ranjana Kumar who worked with the Tata Group had no testosterone showing. She is a perfectly good example. What little I see of Chanda Kochhar (CEO of ICICI Bank) and she appears to be fine,” says Gopalakrishnan, warning that one must avoid generalisations.
Tirthankar Das, Chief Operations Officer, Quantum Research, whose department is led by a woman, concedes it’s a matter of traditional corporate-versus-progressive corporate and insists that the nature of the organisation is important. “If your leadership style is more feminine, you are in a masculine culture, you have role incongruity, and you may not be that effective because people will perceive you as not fitting,” notes Cummings.
“Women are fantastic leaders, but they are in the image of ‘king’,” insists Tirthankar Das. This isn’t a question mark on whether women can or cannot lead, but the Indian construct in which they rise is one where “the idea of ‘kingness’ of leadership is very much accentuated in the corporate system”.
Does that explain why young leaders like Nisa Godrej or even Roshni Nadar want to step into the <father’s shoes>? Do they value the position also because they will be taking up a man’s role?
As much as progressive organisations would like to believe that there are no gender biases, within the realms of everyday work, it does creep in. “The presence of women in leadership roles is also attributed to their sexuality,” says Singhal, who left her organisation because she was upset with the structures and lack of growth opportunities.
“If you did study the human resources functions in any organisation, at the junior levels, you will find that women outnumber men. However, in leadership roles in the same function, the reverse is true,” she says.
We need to be more convinced that having women on the team is no longer the “nice thing to do” and it isn’t even about being gender-sensitive. Women are just as sharp and intellectual assets to any organisation. What we need today are gender invariant workspaces. Women too need to explore and create a new idea of a woman leader who doesn’t have to be a ‘man in charge’. It should be alright to be compassionate and vulnerable. Leadership needs to get away from the tribal notion of patriarchy.