Panel discussions

Women in Leadership: Emerging Perspectives

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A lot is known and written about women in leadership. I am going to share some emerging perspectives from a corporate world angle and from my own personal experience. 

The Big Shift and New Frontiers

There has been a big shift in corporate India in the last decade or so. Working for 28 years, I have witnessed this first-hand. The topic of ‘women in leadership positions in corporate India,’ has now come into popular and public discourse, carrying a lot of attention. There is much thinking in board rooms of progressive companies about how to strengthen women leadership. 

Over the last ten years, women are in leadership positions not just in traditional part of Corporate India, but also in other adjacent areas like law firms, investment banks and even the startup ecosystem.

In my own industry, there are women bartenders who are coming up in other parts of the world. We don’t see that a lot in India but it is happening.  I also heard about women bouncers in restaurants and bars. These are new frontiers that women are conquering. We know about women in the armed forces, women pilots, and women in sectors such as construction.  The work that coaching institutes like CFI have done for women has played a positive role.

There are initiatives to attract women to come back into their working roles after they have taken some time out for personal reasons. Organisations are coming up to create networks of women. All these look like a thousand flowers blooming. While we have reason to be optimistic, we can’t shy away from the fact that there is still a lot to do. The journey has only just started.  The direction of travel is right and we need to keep going at it.  

The Leaky Bucket Syndrome

If we look at what is happening in India, we see the famous leaky bucket syndrome. Nearly 50% women are in the tertiary educated graduates’ space and 25% women are entry level professionals. But only 4% are in senior management. Only 11% are women board members. That is a cause of concern. There is a Companies Act guideline which requires at least one woman as a director on listed companies. But there are many companies which still don’t have that one woman. In many of the family owned companies, women board members are drawn from the family rather than independent professional women. 

A recent study suggested that nearly 80% of women lack confidence at work. Coaches have a key role to play and address this malady and suggest what we can do to really let women lean in

Our Business is Our Mirror

Having said that, India Inc., is now willing to pay much more attention to fix the gender diversity problem. But we have miles to go. Fundamentally, business and other places of work will be a reflection of the country and the society in which we are. 

The contribution of women to India’s GDP is just 18% and it is the second lowest in the list of countries.  Thailand and Vietnam fare at 40% and China at 41 percent. So there is a problem at a national level and that’s again a mirror to what is happening in broader society. Unfortunately, it is a vicious and a reinforcing cycle of gender inequality in our society, which then leads to and feeds on economic development and attitudes and beliefs. All these reinforce each other to result in gender inequality at work.

A recent study suggested that nearly 80% of women lack confidence at work. Coaches have a key role to play and address this malady and suggest what we can do to really let women ‘lean in,’ as Sheryl Sandberg famously said.

Top 3 Obstacles for Women

We have heard that inhibitions keep women back. The top three obstacles for women in reaching senior roles were cited in a study as:

a)            Juggling work-life balance

b)            Lack of visible internal opportunities, and 

c)            Lack of confidence in their abilities

Some of these come from social conditioning as well.  More than half the respondents in the study said that managing the negative mindset and dealing with the imposter syndrome is a challenge for them. The imposter syndrome makes women shy away from taking ownership and responsibility and getting the pride of achievement.  To change the trajectory of women in leadership roles, women must take responsibility for themselves and not feel guilty about ambition and drive. So there’s a lot that women themselves have to do as well.

Achieving success on gender diversity in corporate India and getting more women in leadership positions requires leaders, managers, employees and importantly women themselves to change the way they behave. This is not easy and the process takes time. To achieve this, I have come out with ten simple commandments.


1. Believe that diversity is at the heart of better business decisions.

Organizations and people must truly believe that the more diverse the people are (diversity not just in gender but disabilities, sexual orientation, ethnicity and so on), the better you will get at business decisions. When we have more diverse people around the table, we will get diverse perspectives, opinions and views, lively discussion, heated debate and challenge. 

Such a process leads to looking at any business situation, issue or opportunity through multiple lenses, leading to better business decisions. The collective and cumulative impact of many better business decisions will lead to better performance of companies, as many studies like that of McKinsey & Company, whose findings I have referred to, have shown.

2. Diversity has to be a visible business priority for the CEO and Executive Leadership.

Diversity in leadership is not the sole responsibility of a few people or the HR department, though they have an important role to play. But if you genuinely want to make a step change in an organization, then it has to come from the top. As culture in an organization is driven by the CEO and the top team, the same is true of diversity. It should not just be a priority limited to board room or CXO table discussions, but it must be visible. The CEO and executive leadership must take a public stance and make a commitment.

3.Targets are a must.

Many male colleagues and friends have discomfort about targets on gender diversity in leadership roles. But in my experience, targets are an absolute must. It is not easy to get women into leadership roles, and there are a lot of business challenges and performance pressures on companies and leaders. If you don’t have the dashboard or a target, it’s very tempting and easy to fall back on and say that we really tried but it was hard to get women.  Targets hold us to account. If you make them somewhat public, it helps to put a constructive tension onto the CEO and CXOs to say that we need to get there. Targets have to be achievable but they have to be stretched.

4. Policies are important but not sufficient.

There are certain basic policies which are almost foundational. But if companies truly want to make a difference, they must be bold. They must have at least one best-in-class policy and achieve parity on the rest.  Flexi hours, for example, is one of the very big positive developments which a lot of companies including my company have announced recently. Last year, we introduced a four-week paternity leave policy. These are all very progressive in nature.

It is incredible how even very sophisticated, exposed, evolved and progressive people can have biases that they are totally unconscious about. These unconscious biases manifest themselves in various ways.

5. Get the MEN leaders from large functions into the tent.

The whole agenda of diversity cannot be driven in any organization only by women. We have to get the men leaders who lead large functions in organisations; for instance, commercial, manufacturing and finance teams.  We have to get them on board, ideally on a voluntary basis. The fact is that men still dominate positions of leadership; and unless we get them in, we cannot have the sustained change and commitment to this agenda.

6. Role model women leaders in the business are a must.

Women leaders in business are very important for furthering the journey of women in leadership.  Over the last decade or so, I realised how important it is for women who are still in middle and junior levels of management and professional networks to be able to look up to and get inspiration from women on their functional and leadership competencies. They are able to realise that if X person could get there, so can they! That element of confirmation of possibilities is very important, particularly given what I said earlier about women having self-doubts and imposter syndrome. 

7. External hiring in the short term, sustained talent development in the long-term.

External hiring in the short term is important and necessary at the early starting point of the journey in organisations, because you simply don’t have enough women in the leadership roles.  But for the long term, there must be sustained talent development, so there are enough women in the leadership pipeline who can then move into senior roles. Here again, coaches have a key role to play. 

8. Corporate reputation as an employer of choice for high performers.

I’ve taken the liberty of putting my own company Diageo as an example of this commandment. The corporate must have a reputation as an employer of choice for high-quality professionals and high achievers. This is very important because women have to make big opportunity versus cost trade-offs when they decide to continue to be in their career track. They have other responsibilities at home and, therefore, more than men for women it is important. If organisations want to draw women in, it’s necessary that they are seen as progressive, respect meritocracy and make women feel that it is their performance and merit that count more than who you know.  

9. Attack unconscious biases.

It is incredible how even very sophisticated, exposed, evolved and progressive people can have biases that they are totally unconscious about. These unconscious biases manifest themselves in various ways. It could be in terms of choosing or not choosing women for certain roles; it could result in certain kinds of micro aggressions as a behaviour at workplace which put off women, more than men. Organisations must attack these biases. Women and coaches have to play a role there as well.

10. Culture, Culture, Culture!

This is like the big ‘aha’ of an organization. Everything boils down to the culture of an organization. It must not just attract but retain men and women; the culture must enable women to flourish and take leadership positions.

For an enabling culture, four aspects are important:

–              Value people, not hierarchy. 

–              Provide an inclusive environment. Encourage people to be themselves without the need to act in artificial avatars.

–              Culture must be performance driven. 

–              The visceral feel of the organisation must be inspirational and not transactional. 

I have been part of this journey in a company, in an industry, which is seen to be a male bastion. We have three women out of eight in the executive positions. In the next level of leadership, ten out of 28 people are women. We have moved the dial from 7.5% about six years ago in terms of the proportion of women among the total employees to 20%, which is,  hard to achieve in a large company like ours, but we have got there.  These Ten Commandments have all played a role in getting us to where we are. In my company, I am very proud to say that women are in very influential and key positions.  They are there in multiple functions. We just clocked hundred women in our manufacturing team, which is really difficult to attain.  If it can be done in a beverage alcohol company, like Diageo India, it can be done anywhere!