Monday, July 08, 2013

Leaning in at the IIMs

This column was originally published in Businessworld, dt Jul 1-15, 2013

It's Time for Women to Dream Big

The Economic Times reports: Data from the five IIMs at Calcutta, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Lucknow and Indore shows that the institutes are set to welcome a record number of women in the 2013-15 batch. With the exception of IIM Ahmedabad, which has acceptances from 80 women, the other four will all have more than a hundred women each on their rolls.

The question is - what happens next? Will these women make a significant impact on corporate India - at top management and in leadership roles?

My somewhat cynical answer is: 'unlikely'. Unless we address this issue as a whole.

To create female leaders you need to address the supply side, which is what the IIMs are doing. But that is just step one. To keep the supply moving through the corporate pipeline is the bigger challenge. We can't ignore that and expect women to simply 'figure it out' on their own.

I belong to the class of 1993 at IIM Ahmedabad, which had a record number of women. We were 30 girls in a class of 180 ( double the previous year). Twenty years later just about 50% of us are in full-time jobs.

The issue is not lack of competence but the choices we made.

When I interviewed Sangeeta Patni for my book 'Follow Every Rainbow', she summed it up beautifully.

"A woman is a womb plus a man. There's no difference in terms of ability, or what she can achieve. But a woman needs to know how to take care of her need to nurture and raise a baby. This is the place many women falter in their careers."

You are expected to navigate this issue 'naturally'.

Natural is to feel exhausted and guilty and give up.

What we need is to sensitise female students about the road ahead, and the turns it is known to take. So that they can navigate the twisting path of career + family. Instead of getting knocked off the road itself.

You can have your kids early and jump back into a career, make a success of it. I have friends who have done that.

You can have your kids late, when you have 'brand value' in an organisation.
That works too.

You can take a break, or not take a break.
Rely on your mother. Or your mother-in-law.
Find a good maid. Or a great creche.
There are many many many ways to do it.

The most important thing is you must believe it's possible. And that it's important. And work towards 'keeping my career' with the same intensity as you had when 'getting into IIM'.

Three concrete suggestions to IIMs:
1) Hold a series of talks by women (preferably own alumni) who are in leadership roles today. Let them candidly share 'how I did it'. Some of them will even take on the role of a mentor.

When a young woman has just had a baby and is almost quitting/feeling hopeless, the moral and practical support of someone who's 'been there, done that' can make all the difference.

2) Also sensitise the male students. Many of them will marry their own batchmates or other qualified women. But then they slip back into 'caveman' mode and focus on their own careers.

The most progressive, educated couples never actually sit down and talk about this issue. Or think of out of the box solutions. It is understood that if children are to be raised, women will occupy the backseat in the family car.

3) Make 'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg compulsory reading for both men and women. And all professors too. All the above points are raised and tackled beautifully in the book.

Women must be more confident, more assertive and dream big dreams.
This has to start right from bschool and never stop.

As Sheryl Sandberg says in the book: "A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes."

That should be the outcome of more women in IIMs, in IITs, in IAS, in primary schools and colleges, in every walk of life.

To see this happen in my own lifetime, is a cherished dream. And fond hope.

Also read my previous blog on this subject: Lipstick Jungle

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth