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women at the top

Gainful employment has traditionally been the domain of the menfolk across most civilisations. In the modern times, there has been a lot of debate and discussion if the beliefs of the olden times are still relevant. There has been a lot of outcry about gender equality. As families have become nuclear and small in the current times, the stereotypes of the past are no more anchored strongly in the old belief system. The division of labour across the lines of gender is getting increasingly blurred and the definition of work getting more unified. As the women have started joining the workforce in a large number over the last decade, very soon they will go up the ladder in due course of time.

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We hear a lot of clamour about a glass ceiling for women. But, in a few years, we should see a lot of the women who are in middle management now, will be ready to move to the top and soon, we will have many women leaders in the senior management levels of organizations. Hence, the outcry seems out of place. Of course, the number of positions at the top is limited and hence, the ratio of women at the top reflects the gender diversity of the talent pool which vies for the top slot.

I think, what matters is the ambition and capability of the person who is aspiring to go to the top; and it’s not about the gender of the person. There is no particular disadvantage a woman has vis-a-vis a man at that level. Often people talk about limitations such as lack of social support systems, physical characteristics such as bearing a child, raising the baby, taking care of certain aspects of home etc. If we think harder, these are possible limitations for a young executive rather than a woman who is looking to go to the top considering the life stage that she is most likely to be in. So, this is not a real issue to be addressed to see more women at the top. However, for sustainability of the program, organizations should do what it takes to facilitate return of young parents back to regular gainful employment and thus, ensure continuity of diverse talent in the workforce.

Recently, Satya Nadella, Global CEO of Microsoft was asked to advise women workers who apparently don’t place strong demands of pay rise from their bosses. His advice was to just focus on Karma and not worry about results. I thought, the answer was brilliant, but the social media was clamouring for his apology to have shown a negative bias towards
women. We know, dramatic hyperbole gets attention, misses the point and misleads one on the garden path. Of course, he could have said, the issue is not specific to a particular gender and the controversy wouldn’t have sparked. However, the point here is that the question assumes a stereotype view that women are soft and men are aggressive in their ambition and materialistic approach. I have seen no such perceptible difference across gender lines. We need to denounce such stereotyping rather than making a mountain of a mole hill!

Some people have argued in favour of reservation for women in various places. While this is a very short-term approach and a short-cut, this is not the solution. One must not compromise on effectiveness of a role just to achieve a diversity ratio. First, we have to be patient as the women from the mid-levels grow up the hierarchy. Already, a lot has happened and we see increasing number of women in the mid-levels of organizations. Government and employers can accelerate this process as they induct new talent, enable the work environment in terms of physical infrastructure as well as mental support system by the way of beliefs of supervisors about the productivity and engagement of young women at work.

Second, we have to facilitate women continuing in full-time work by addressing the obstacles to it. Some of the obstacles here are in the mindset of the the senior managers and social norms. We have to address these while we address the lack of support infrastructure such as a reliable creche near the workplace, availability of care-givers and so on.

There is no doubt that diversity in the board rooms is essential like we have in families. We need to move way from the high-decibel hyperbole of gender equality and focus on developing an enabling infrastructure : physical as well as social.

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