The SHEROES Contributor

Meeta Sengupta

Meeta Sengupta is a Senior Advisor, Center for Civil Society. She has been the founder of the Centre for Education Strategy, a Delhi based think tank that builds bridges between policy and practice for educators, educationists and Institutions. She is the member of the FICCI Skills Development Forum. Meeta also is the founder of #EduIn, an online discussion that brings hundreds of participants together every month, in an organized discussion on key education issues.


I have never seen women not at work. Paid or not, there is always a buzz around them. Creating value, building communities, investing in future resources and transforming the present. This is what I saw at home with my grandmothers who made their own way in their Karmabhoomi. What I learnt from my mother and her colleagues who were forging their identities as professionals and persons. Having it all? They made sure that they, their families and their workplaces were harnessed and nurtured. And so I believed this is how women work.

Premier branding has its advantages not the least of it is the confidence that you can chart your own path anytime and still be warmly welcomed back into the world of comfortably paid employment. What the education does not prepare you for is the brash world of work, where you are not what you do but who you are. This, we all learn. Some of us resist taking advantage of it, some fight it and others use it. We all get used to it, and nobody can overcome it. Realise that, one can change oneself much easier than one can change the world. So we put on the mask. Become one of the guys. Learn their language, play their game (of course beat them at it as often as not) and fight their fight. Till one day one learns that you were not meant to win. Not that way at least.

For many of us in corporate life the years before we found our own personal work - voice were very hard. The challenge was not just in adapting to the daily grind, the challenges of the new or navigating bosses. Even in denial we knew that the behaviours we were expected to demonstrate were different from the ones that were expected of us socially. Our roles and identities had been set on a collision course. We called it the price we paid for exercising choice.

People like me got lucky soon because we found strong female mentors early in our careers, those who exuded confidence without losing their comfort with their vulnerability. I knew it was hard won - I had seen them in their early years too. These women were affectionate while being professional, maternal without being patronising, tough task masters without being mean. They built teams that would stand by them forever without descending into the morass of personality cults. We, their protégés prospered wherever we went. Their gift to us was faith in ourselves and our ability to call on the sheer grit and resilience that we had pulled for the team time and again.

Years later, these women would go on to lead large organisations, and we would find ourselves doing what they had done for us - holding out for women in the workplace. Strangely, this did not come naturally. Some of us, and definitely I, had grown up in a world where we truly believed that all that mattered was the content of our work. And that we had the same choices that men had. Automatically. With no extra effort on our part. This, we learnt, was not always so.

The choice that many of us exercise has been hard won by the previous generations of women in the workplace. A battle sadly, and not won yet. We, the working women now have the choice not to work, and the choice to take time off work. This is hard won right- to be able to step away and not step into the traditional stereotype. A stay at home mother now is merely on a career break and retains the right to be more than a housewife. And the choice to be no more than a housewife is equally legitimate as a career option. Less paid, often valued either more or less than it should be, and often judged by those who have decided otherwise.

Is this what we meant by having it all? That we, women who work lean this way and that? Always, torn between the two and making tradeoffs as we go along. Maybe. But there is something more interesting happening here. We are seeing a cross pollination of skills and abilities. And this is the real dynamic in the workplace where the range of abilities that bring outcomes to fruition has been increased. The traditional range of managerial skills spoke of span of control, created assembly line processes and built hierarchies and structures. With more and more women not only in the work force but also in positions of leadership the conversations have changed. Is there a way of establishing causality? Maybe not to every one’s satisfaction, but I for one am glad that it is now normal to cut across hierarchies and speak of childcare, and that it is now a virtue to be emotionally able and available to one’s team.

Women have brought a wider range of skills to the workplace and have established that these skills add value to traditional bottom-line numbers. It is clearly established that more women in leadership positions and board roles is mapped to stronger sustained profits. Women bring value to the workplace by bringing in questions and approaches that had little value in previous decades. I call it the little questions vs. the big questions. We used to have managements focused on the big questions (and those were the grand issues in all management and strategy texts too), but we find that often it is the little questions that matter more especially in a world where it the last mile to the customer’s heart that matters more for business. From Henri Ford’s world of ‘as long as it is black ‘to the ‘ Mera waala blue..’, the journey has not just been in marketing of retailed goods but also in management space.

Portfolio of skills matched by a portfolio of careers in the world of work. It is not unusual to see women who stepped off the fast track in the corporate ladder forge new careers for themselves tapping into the same portfolio of skills to become something totally different to the outside world - a brand manager running a people function, a software professional turning baker, a hairdresser turning accountant and a strategist becoming a novelist. These are real people. When I started off there was no degree in education strategy and policy. Even today, there isn’t a massive market even though the need for it is self evident. The skills for this could not be taught in one place so it was collated in pieces. Is the jigsaw ever complete for those addicted to learning and growth? I pray not.

Within or outside the corporate world, women at work bring the ability to learn and grow with each other. While this is in no way just a feminine skill, it is clearly a skill that is valuable in the workplace. Women are said to be more accepting, have stronger listening skills, show more empathy and other such soft skills. Sure, we do, but there is more to us women at work than just soft skills. It is reported that women create more consensus in decision making at the workplace. In my experience, not always. There are enough women who ride rough shod over teams, as many as men. If anything, I have found women to be very ruthless in the quest for efficiency even as they remember to smile along the way.

There are other things that great women leaders do that bring teams together in ways that bring both efficiency and growth. Here are a few that I have observed and learnt from

Great women leaders are not afraid of the little things - it is not just the goal that is important but the little questions along the way that smoothen the path to the goals. People learn better when laughing? Bring in some humour to the gatherings. People perform better when their little niggles are eased out? Check on personal lives with each team member and do what you can to ease the pressure. Teams do better with bonding? Spend time on every team occasion to bond on food, kids, houses, markets, football - anything. Invest in the small stuff to make sure the path to the big stuff is smooth. Is this just about better small talk and parties? No - it is about creating safe comfortable zones to identify and smoothen inefficiencies in the workplace.

Great Women leaders don't focus only on the work but on the person too - Work is not only about the work, but is about the person too. Paying individual attention, nurturing abilities, giving second chances and more are traditional mothering skills - seen as natural when women do it. All great leaders learn to be mothers in this respect, regardless of gender. Great women leaders manage to retain their training as women while ensuring their teams are fostered with care and support.

Great women leaders are not afraid of stepping out of stereotypes - There was a time when women had to become the very image of men to succeed in the workplace, though they were not allowed to wear anything but skirts (true of investment banks). So, women at work had a stereotype too highlighted by the power dressing trends of the eighties and nineties. Language had to be crisp and staccato, decision making processes linear and of course women had to work harder than men for similar or lower pay. The evolution of stereotypes continued - take the example of women as negotiators of their own pay and bonuses. From weak negotiators to aggressive rights based positions, the pendulum is now swinging closer to the natural person. Women at work are not afraid to step out of stereotypes they created for themselves in order to succeed at work. A process, not universal, but a step to creating ease with the world of work.

Great women at work prioritize greatness and make a choice – There are tradeoffs to greatness, as to everything else. To be great in one area, one must invest in it, and this often is at a cost to other areas. It would be foolish to run away from the fact that women are still holding the line when it comes to emotional engagement with people and occasions. I cannot run away from the strange looks I get when I walk into a party hosted in my house along with the guests - I am the woman, am I not? How could I not have supervised the starters? Or the misplaced sympathy from teachers at school - “Oh, you are in a job” they nod. And I wonder if they are offering sympathy or empathy.

Women at work make choices - thought through choices. For most, the balance they seek is one they construct. Those who chose to be great leaders had to invest in support structures and awe inspiring organisation. Those who choose other roles construct their own systems. I have yet to find women who slip into working patterns by default - most of us have to work hard at defining our days and years Women at work use self doubt as a tool for continuous improvement - Judge me on this, but I have yet to meet a woman who shies from sharing herself doubt. It is her source of strength. The constant questioning is a part of the cycle of improvement and regeneration. This process of renewal also makes decision making more responsive, flexible and nimble. Is it unsettling? Does it make for tough times when decisions are being formulated? Yes, certainly. It is agonising, often debilitating to live in self doubt. But each time, one emerges stronger and with a clear sense of the path ahead.

And in this, the ability to find strength from weakness, I bow to all my sisters, women at work.

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