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Women Managers: To the top and beyond

Preeti Mehra

Women in top management positions are still a rare species. But things are changing and more and more women are heading teams and delivering results. So what does it take for a woman to get to the top, and more important, stay there? Read on...

Women at the top are still rare. Globally, they comprise only 10 per cent of senior managers in Fortune 500 companies, less than four per cent are in the uppermost ranks of CEO, president, executive vice president and COO and less than three per cent of them are top corporate earners. In India too, it is no different. May be worse.

Though statistics elude us, if you look around, you will not find even a handful of companies headed by women or women at the helm of strategic departments. But that does not mean that the situation is not improving. Yes, it is — women are being taken for jobs of responsibility, though it may be more on the HR, servicing, IT or finance side and much less in hardcore production or marketing jobs.

Nevertheless, women who are at the top are determined to stay there and more are aspiring to reach there, glass ceiling or no glass ceiling. In fact companies themselves are now more open to women as leaders — at ICICI, it's the women leadership that is making a mark.

The three approaches

Management studies on the gender initiatives taken by the corporate world show that companies have followed three approaches: There are some companies that like their women employees to be part of the `boys', adopt masculine styles of functioning, play golf, take on tough assignments in factories or overseas and be assertive leaders just like the men.

Other companies recognise that women do the same work but they have different needs that require to be addressed and accommodated at the workplace. Hence, they offer their women employees not only the statutory maternity leave, but other conveniences as well. So, inbuilt in their system are flexible working hours, working from home, allowing women transfers easily (when the husbands move) or even being amenable to women choosing alternate career tracks within the organisation itself.

A third set of companies go the whole hog. They not only accommodate women employees, but recognise that women bring with them a difference in approach and attitude to the workplace. Hence, they also place them appropriately, so that their skills and interactive style of leadership brings gains to the organisation.

However, management studies on gender equity also recognise that all the three approaches have their limitations. That being part of the boys' golf game or making use of flexi hours or even being praised for bringing in the `feminine' approach to running an organisation do not change the essential gender inequity inherent in the system. That would require a larger social change and more so, a drastic shift in perspective.

Therefore, women in corporate India are aware of the constraints they work under and obviously try to make the best of the bargain. They typically bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility for home and family and thus have more demands on their time outside the office. And when they do reach the managerial level, they bring with them both the silver lining and the dark clouds. But they flower, if they are allowed to flower, despite all the obstacles, which are mainly societal and perceptual.

The contradictions

Says Ranjana Kumari, Director, Centre for Social Research which runs a course under its Gender Training Institute for corporate executives and managers on `Leadership and Management with a Gender Perspective', "Several corporate men and women who attend our course have conveyed two basic psychologies that dominate the thought and action of women managers, and they are contradictions of each other.

"A woman-led office is always a better, brighter place for everybody to work in. You are bound to find flowers, plants and socially relevant posters. Women managers are more accessible and use a human, participatory approach with their colleagues. But there is a flip side to it — there is often a complaint that women bosses are aggressive and dominating and push for a job to be completed more than normal.''

However, Ranajana Kumari, who has specialised in women studies, attempts to explain why this happens. She feels that when women reach the top it is the anxiety to prove themselves that gets translated into certain actions. Often women managers tend to subsume their female identity to be part of the top management.

The justification is, ` I'm a manager, not a woman' and the worry is how people in the organisation respond to them.

Sue Evans, Principal Consultant, A.T. Kearney, has another explanation, one that involves perspectives.

She feels it could often be due to double standards. "What's assertive in men is viewed as aggressive in women, and it's mostly men who make this complaint,'' she says and then adds, " But I do believe women often have to overplay their assertiveness in order to be heard. Women have softer, higher voices and have to muscle in to get heard at a meeting.''

Adept at juggling

One of the strongest skills she has found in women managers is their ability at multi-tasking. Women are used to performing different roles and struggling with different tasks at the same time, in the kitchen, at home and also at work. "She's adept at keeping a lot of balls in the air and juggling around the tasks she has to perform, this gives her an added advantage. However, the downside could be losing a little of the focus,'' she says.

Sue Evans, who was earlier with Gillette in the United Kingdom, recalls that one of her best bosses was a woman. " I remember watching her carefully, but very cleverly manipulate the men at a meeting and bring them to agree with her point of view. However, her manoeuvres were not political and I really respected her for the way she did it.''

Ritu Nanda, CEO at Escolife and Ritu Nanda Insurance Services Pvt Ltd (RNIS) is a veteran at starting ventures at Escorts.

She is categorical in her view that indeed women managers bring with them a different style and different skills. She says, "Of course women managers do things differently from men managers because research has shown that women have 40 per cent more nerve connectors than men.

Research has also confirmed that the female gene is stronger than the male gene. It is for this reason that women see things laterally, intuitively and differently. They can handle more, tolerate more and deliver much more than a man.''

Ritu Nanda also does not agree that women often make aggressive managers. "Women are born to be managers. They are managing people, family, home, office, life etc. etc. all the time naturally and with utmost ease. The issue of becoming aggressive does not arise.''

Sue Evans too lists all the positive attributes of women managers. She feels that they have a different mind set and build teams in a different way, by nurturing as well as delegating.

A majority of them also have less of a need to dominate and demonstrate authority. She points out an important aspect of women in leadership — that they tend to be less political and more pragmatic in their approach. In fact she cites political ineptness as one of the reasons why women do not fare as well as men.

In fact, management studies show that women's style of functioning, which is essentially `interactive leadership', involves several characteristics including encouraging participation from others, making inter-personal relations positive for the entire team or department, being able to share power and information with others, getting people passionate about their work and increasing people's feeling of self worth.

However, this participatory style is not something that women `acquire', instead increasingly it is being said that it comes to them naturally due to their inherent ability to nurture and take people along.

There are also other things that come naturally to women. As Neerja Sharma, General Manager and Company Secretary, Ballarpur Industries Limited points out, "Women are a lot more organised and their commitment levels are higher. They also plan their job more efficiently and are more effective in delivery.''

She feels that women in general and women managers in particular have a different value system and that integrity is ingrained in them. She too disagrees that women managers are uncertain of themselves and look for reassurance and hence tend to be aggressive. "All the women I know are very confident of themselves. It's a pleasure dealing with women as they do not beat around the bush and desist from playing politics,'' she says.

Ambition takes a backseat

Neerja Sharma believes that if there are less women at the managerial level in the corporate world, it is not because of any kind of discrimination. "I would blame it on women themselves. We are not ambitious enough and prefer to take the easy way out. The opportunities are the same for both men and women. You should be able to deliver and that's about it.'' She feels that though in the initial stages of one's career women may have to make an extra effort, at later stages there is no prejudice against being a women. "It's a man's world!'' admits Ritu Nanda. "There is definitely a level of difficulty in the acceptability of a woman as a manager at the top level in organisations, unless of course she has a great qualification to her credit. But we do see more women today at top levels than ever. At the end of the day nothing succeeds success ... and then everybody bows down and accepts you ... that is the way of life.''

On the downside many believe that what holds women from positions of power is their tendency to take the path of least resistance. With the natural tendency to encourage participation, used to sharing power and information and being brought up with values that promote accommodation and submission, women take the backseat very easily.

"In fact several companies avoid recruiting women when they are out hunting for fresh MBAs,'' says management guru Arindam Chaudhuri of the Indian Institute for Planning and Management. He attributes this to women always being under family pressure, having to take a break due to marriage, deliveries etc. and hence from the company's point of view are unable to live up to their responsibilities.

However, Arindam Chaudhuri has a lot of good things to say about women managers, that is when they reach that stage after going through the initial phases. "Women managers are extremely good team workers and much more responsible, that's also because they are under pressure to prove themselves due to the existing atmosphere.''

His experience has been that they never `keep you hanging', are systematic and decisive.

About complaints of women being aggressive or rude, he feels that these come from men who cannot accept women as bosses. " It's more to do with the psychology of men than the women themselves, '' he adds.

And perhaps that's where the truth lies. Women are great managers but very few make it because of not being ambitious enough or because it's primarily `a man's world'. On the other hand, men find them aggressive when they are only assertive and getting the job done.

Principles of leadership

· Know your job and be technically proficient

· Seek responsibility and take responsibility at the workplace

· Make sound and timely decisions

· Set an example and you will automatically have followers

· Know yourself and seek self-improvement

· Know your colleagues and look after their well-being

· Communicate effectively with colleagues and delegate work

· Encourage innovation and team work

· Appreciate others honestly and you will be appreciated

· Ensure that tasks are understood and accomplished


Thanks & Warm Regards.

From India, New Delhi
ok the 2 sides of the coin have been explained...but personally dont you think that the change is happenin at a VERY slow pace...and to whom do u attribute the blame to? is it the women folk themselves or is it the system...???
From India, Delhi
Dear Diana,
The change is at a slow pace nevertheless the change is happening. The problem lies with the mind set and attitudinal structuring that is deep seated or rooted towards women reaching the top. Today a good no. of women head organisations and this is proof enough to show the shattering of glass ceiling. Most organisations are also providing mentoring programs for women with potential to reach the top besides women being encouraged to be a part of old boys network.


From India, Bangalore
Dear Hari & Diana,
Women in mgt. r at a disadvantage and find it extremely difficult to advance to higher mgt. positions though qualified in every which sense.
They r gen. outside the network which is a means to advancement in careers.
Why r women hindered in upward mobility?
1.A series of sex-role stereotypes-barriers:Attitudes,Unfavourable climate,Lack of receptiveness from male employees,bias & Old boy networks.
2.Culturally ingrained inacceptance & condoning of the above.
Statistics reveal very interesting points abt women holding positions.
50% Low & lower middle level positions,23% middle level positions & a mere 3% top level positions.Exceptions r there but ........
Glass ceiling audits r being conducted to take corrective action.

From India, Bangalore
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