Why do women fall behind in the corporate world? Or do they?

“Originally published in… Forbes India”
Much has been written about biases against women in the corporate world and the starkly low proportions of women in leadership roles. There seems to be a general feeling that women find it very difficult to climb the ladder of success and sometimes, even struggle to stay in the workforce. I initiated multiple discussions with my batchmates who are in fairly senior positions across industries and prominent corporate houses in India. All these women seem to be well poised to become leaders of tomorrow. I wanted to know from them, how were they treated? Have they been victimised? How difficult has it been for them and women in their teams who have gone the family way? Was it easier for single women? What is really going on?

Rekha is a senior journalist at a prominent news agency. She thinks that she works with an equal opportunities player. Just as no favours are extended to her and her team members for being women, tasking levels are also equivalently high. Whether it is terrorist bombing, Mumbai floods, visits to top policymakers, she has been chosen for roles that were the so-called ‘man’s domain’. “I have been pushed and shelved and I too have done the same to my fellow journalists while at work. I have also been pulled up equally badly when something went wrong and no one cared about my being a woman to ensure that the communication was more nuanced. I have faced cut-throat competition intellectually and hence even led teams with men senior to me. In fact, the only time I regretted being a woman was when my male colleague chased a senior state official to the washroom!”

Megha is vice president at a well-known MNC back office. She heads a technology team supporting one of the world’s largest wealth management units. “In the midst of our monthly ‘lean-in’ meeting, I found my mind drifting. Were we not sounding too much like victims? Someone asked if I have been talked down at or stopped while I was trying to make a point. The truth is, I never was. Also, the firm did enough and more to make life simple for women who go the family way. “After becoming mothers, women feel the need to slow down for a while and it is natural. As a manager, I knew we were tracked more closely for the retention of high potential women in the team. We did much so that they do not leave the workforce due to any such event. Telecommuting, flexi work hours and multiple such arrangements were in place and there was not much desired in that domain at all. What then, was this about? Why do so many women regularly complain about being left behind?”

Paro, associate director at a well-known tax and audit firm is a mother, lives in a nuclear family and has little to call a ‘support system’ except for her unpredictable domestic help. I asked her if she thought single women have an advantage over married ones in the corporate world. To my surprise, she responded differently. She cited the case of a lady board member during whose appointment, her multitasking skills were taken into consideration; she was a mother of two young adults and had managed a travelling job with elan in the last 25 years at the firm. Her firm has a “diversity council”, chaired by another lady. The job of the council is to track women with high potential and ensure that their career graph is smooth. The team sensitises managers and works closely with them to make sure that their needs are taken care of and they do not fall out of the workforce due to any personal reasons.

Their responses turned out to be very different from what I was expecting.  “So all of you must be happy and growing at the desired pace?” I asked.

Not really. That seemed to hurt and out came some confessions.

Rekha says if at all, she has lost out on a promotion or fallen behind in a race, it is due to her own lack of risk-taking ability. “Sometimes, I am not sure if I can. We women need to introspect hard when we are not chosen for larger roles. It could be ‘us’ sometimes you know!”

Megha says the same. All her life, she confesses to have been ill confident to take up new assignments. “I never feel entirely prepared when a challenge is thrown at me.” She knows that one is never entirely prepared for anything. However, on multiple occasions, her male colleagues (sometimes far less prepared than her), have exhibited more courage. “They would leap to accept a new assignment that maybe, I was first offered. When the project went on to become hugely successful, I knew I had only myself to blame. I see the same trend in my current team. In technology, one needs to constantly upskill, but I find myself continuously pushing my women team members to do that while the men are totally in sync. If someone in the team knows a new software and that someone is a man, who do you think will get the project? Also, do you think I would care if I were accused of discriminating as the manager?”

Paro shared that if women in her team went a little slow after going the family way, sometimes  they lost sight of the fact the promotion then, would naturally be delayed. Active counselling was required in such cases and very few could rise above this feeling of being ‘wronged’. “You would imagine that single women are easier to manage? Well, the most promising and enterprising team member of mine is taking off for a year on a sabbatical – to travel the world and take it easy, because she can,” she fumes.

Sometimes, it may be discrimination. On other occasions, it is simply our lack of courage, not asking for that role, not exhibiting confidence, not upskilling. Sometimes we overlook these things and need to correct them.  What came across as an agreement of sorts was this – We need to get to the bottom of not ‘if women are discriminated against’ but ‘if women discriminate against their own selves’, by not appearing confident or prepared in comparison to their male counterparts. If the ones who do display confidence and preparedness are not left behind, then for the ones who think they are, we need to understand why. Do they often, not rise to the occasion, to task themselves – to take the big leap? If it were so, then what can the manager do to help; after all we are talking about competent, high potential women  here, leaders of tomorrow who are born multitaskers, articulate and precious to the workforce. “It’s just that they need to believe in that themselves”. Not such a serious problem – that one, I am relieved.

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