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Women face dual challenge: Display talent, beat patriarchy

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India continues to rank the third-lowest in the proportion of business leadership roles held by women for a third year consecutively. For women executives, there is a dual responsibility: One of leveraging opportunities to demonstrate their talent equally, and the other of working the maze and triumphing the patriarchy to show other women how it can be done.

With only 7% women in senior leadership positions (mostly in HR director and corporate controller roles), we as a country are reversing the course, with female labour participation declining over the last decade. The 7% represented at senior management levels is not only indicative of the apparent leakage in the pipeline but an indication of our society, organisations (microcosms of society) and the government having to seriously reflect for change, and enable equal opportunities for the dreams, aspirations, financial independence, identity and actualisation of women to fructify.

But this piece focuses largely on the women already in the workforce. From the outcome of what can be termed a privilege in our society — access to an English education, opportunity to be employed, have an identity of their own and financial independence — only a minuscule privileged minority gets access to this despite the optics around women empowerment and equality.

Careers are built on a longer-term vision for self and work when passion and commitment combine lethally to convert into economic opportunity. This article provides women some keen insights for managing their careers effectively — many insights/tips could be applicable to men too. We all know situations of being marginalised and not being taken seriously are often experienced by males also. So, here are some undiluted lessons for women executives who have the ambition and fire to get more from their jobs by converting them into careers. The difference is careers are built on a longer-term vision for self and work when passion and commitment combine lethally to convert into economic opportunity. Now, not everyone may find the ideal job they are passionate about at the start, but the trick is in staying with it till you discover your true passion for the job. There are some tips, tricks, ideas most emanating from my own career which makes these ideas eminently implementable:

Build deep professional expertise as you travel up the hierarchy: Ask yourself are you five questions deep on your subject matter? Have you been serious about your own learning? Do you have the reins of your learning in your hands? This involves asking for exposures, being prepared to work hard, stretching and being ready to do what it takes by ensuring exposures to learning blocks for your next role.

Find great mentors, teachers and role models: As you travel through your career, you should build well-roundedness, develop gumption to work on feedback and get identified for key roles and assignments. Ideally mentors find you. If you are serious about your own learning, constantly seeking opportunities and exposures, mentors emerge to help you. Teachers and role models can also help interpret the cultural landscape and manoeuvre your career to success. These interactions can help you mature, reflect and learn with agility.

Build a great personal brand: This is to do with building your reputation at work and through your network professionally. What traces of reputation do you leave behind in each transaction? Whether it’s a presentation you make or your participation in a meeting or keeping a delivery commitment you made to a colleague… Managing this well by enabling the “experience” of dealing with a positive professional each time goes a long way in how you get perceived for future roles. As you grow, joining a professional network and keeping the learning curve steep to gain knowledge from the outside world will always make you attractive internally. With social media and so many platforms, it is not so difficult to do this. But managing your reputation inside-out will help you to be seen as credible and authentic.

Lean in for tough jobs: Do not let anyone define the boundaries on the job you can/cannot do. Expecting exceptions for being a woman, or not being able to deliver up to 100% of your role requirements, or cultural and other inhibitions can become a great barrier to your success. Travelling, working long hours for your projects/assignments must be done. Working both hard and smart is the key to enable women to handle their myriad roles effectively.

Speak up & get noticed: Leadership positions are given to people who have a point of view and the courage to express it. If people don’t know you, then you are not talent in many workplaces. Research shows women lack executive presence or struggle with it — looking, speaking, acting like leaders. Demonstrating gravitas begins from having the courage to “speak up”. We are culturally predisposed to be agreeable as women. We must assert, get heard and speak to be taken seriously.

Plan your career: Don’t let it accidentally occur by default. Professionals with a great career have a keen understanding of their strengths and have the dexterity to make career choices around those strengths to make it long-term, gratifying and economically successful. Distinguish between liking to do and good at doing jobs that will deliver success.

Work-life balance: The ultimate altar at which many of us give up our dreams. I believe succeeding personally and professionally requires keen discipline. A supportive family, husband, house help is all invaluable, but most of all do we have the ability to bring some of our managerial prowess and personal effectiveness to our homes and to our work alike? Being well-organised, managing our time well, and developing a keen sense of priorities will help manage your frustrations and disappointments with self better. I will not deny this is a stretch, especially because we are all trying to pursue careers in a large ecosystem of patriarchy that expects many jobs to be done by women alone — other than childbirth. All this is changing at a greater speed to enable equal partnerships in building families instead of unfairly loading on the working woman. We must learn to say no tactfully or draw the line at work more often and also learn to ask for help — both personally and professionally. If some of this sounds simplistic, it’s not meant to be as this is an arduous task full of high points and low ones as you pursue your career. But over a period of time, as you get the hang of managing your career and family, the highs are guaranteed to be more than the lows.

Talents are a gift and using them are way of making your gifts back to God. Underestimating and under-utilising your talents is a colossal waste. A recent study busted the myth that women were under-ambitious by reiterating that what women executives lacked was perhaps enough confidence.

It is in fact the culmination of the years of conditioning in a patriarchy and surmounting the early impressions left by significant women role models within our families — who lead very different lives not having had the privileges of education and empowerment at times.

Overcoming the conditioning or questioning the deeply held assumptions are key for this incredible journey to unfold. Each time you submit power personally for peace, lack of courage to speak up or assert, remember we just took our own journey of empowerment behind by a step and having each other’s back as women is also so crucial in this incredible journey. Sisterhood, enabling and celebrating successful women only means one more triumphed the patriarchy, one more has mastered the maze and can now become a role model for the rest of us.

The writer is founder and CEO of Capstone People Consulting.

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