The annual MMA Women Managers’ Convention is a celebration of the spirit of women, and the many diverse roles women play. Each year, the theme for the convention revolves around the evolving roles and needs of today’s women.
Working mothers today perform more childcare and face increased job insecurity; there are fears that COVID-19 has undone years of advancement. But could the pandemic be a catalyst for progress? The MMA Women Manager’s Convention 2021 facilitated meaningful dialogue about the challenges faced by women, impact of the pandemic and what it means to the New Woman of today.
The 4-hour virtual convention had a key note session with Ms Kate Sweetman, former editor of HBR, and conversation with Ms Ranjini Manian, Chairperson, Global Adjustments Foundation and three special sessions titled, ‘The Elephant in the Room,’ ‘Playing Field,’ and ‘Silver Linings.’
Edited excerpts from the various sessions:
Kate Sweetman, author, Thinkers50, thought leader and former editor, Harvard Business Review, in conversation with Dr Ranjini Manian.
Ranjini: As a former editor of HBR, you have been “living and breathing leadership.” In one of your blogs, you have mentioned about five essential domains of all effective leaders—Strategising, executing, engaging with today’s talent, building the next generation and being personally proficient. From your experience, are women leaders of today better at strategizing or executing?
Kate: As the world has speeded up, we find that strategy and execution collapse with each other. Strategy is planning for 3 to 5 years from now, while execution is about the day-to-day things. The success is not in doing these two separately but doing it together.
How comfortable are today’s women leaders in building the next generation of women leaders?
Decades ago, when I started my career, women did not help other women. There was a scarcity mentality. But people like you say, “Look. We are not competitors. We are sisters. We should help each other.” We can create networks, be positive and collaborative and help us all to succeed. 15 years ago, when I studied leadership, I was stunned by how helpful people were.
What would be your prescription to women leaders to manage their personal proficiency—especially their physical and emotional fitness?
I studied many successful CEOs and, universally, I found them all pretty fit. Every single senior executive that I worked with, started the day by doing something for themselves. They did meditation, rode bicycles, and went for a jog or a swim. They always did something very physical.
You need to recognise what you need emotionally. No one can tell you that. It could be spending time with children or in garden, reading a book or by being with themselves. You have to be who you are. When I come from business trips, all I want is to spend time with my children. These days, I want to work on weaving. It changes over time.
We need to keep our lives more integrated. You may have many assignments but you have to be who you are at the moment. You have to be mindful. ~ Kate Sweetman
From your rich experience with HBR, what sets a woman apart from her male colleagues?
We need to keep our lives more integrated. You may have many assignments but you have to be who you are at the moment. You have to be mindful.
Do you think aspirations of women vary from country to country? Or, are they tethered deeply to the cultural roots?
It depends on individuals. I have a couple of observations. I was giving a talk in Qatar for a women’s group in a big international company. A woman came up to me and asked me, “How can I get my husband to stop interfering with my career?” I asked her what she wanted to do and she said that she wanted to become a petroleum engineer and ride in helicopters in the petroleum field. I did not have an answer. I had stereotyped women wearing an Arab dress to be seeking traditional jobs. So it doesn’t matter where you come from.
I was based in Malaysia and doing a research studying about leadership and followership in 18 countries. From the responses, we found that gender did not matter in terms of what people aspired for themselves. People should not feel constrained by gender, countries and so on.
What is your advice to prepare our women for global leadership roles?
Julia Child is an American woman. She went to France and learnt to cook better than the French. She wrote a book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” She said, “Find something that you are passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it. You will become an expert in it.” Eliminate the word failure from your vocabulary.
Special Session 1
The Elephant in the Room
Moderator: Sharanya Modi, Head HR, EFL
- Deepali Naair, CMO, IBM, India and South Asia
- Sneha Sharma, Racing Driver & Airline Captain, Indigo
- Sarah Kirlew, Australian Consul-General in Chennai
Ranjini: I run a non-profit organisation—Global Adjustments Foundation. We work on a movement called ‘Champion Woman’ to empower women from within. We were not tech-savvy. Naming the elephant in the room took a lot of time for us. We had to persuade Corporate India to give time for women to undergo programmes on mindfulness. Once they understood the importance, things started falling in place.
Deepali Naair: 27 years ago, when I started working, there was no term called diversity and inclusion. I was one of the first female management trainees the Tata Motors hired. Now I work in IBM where there are many wonderful women who support each other. Due to Covid-19, more women have lost their jobs. They also found it tougher managing their homes as they were denied of their house maids due to Covid. It was a double whammy. Our identity comes from our work. We are also the primary care-givers at home. I believe that women need the support of mentors, sponsors, coaches. I have had a life coach. Women leaders find it easier to share their vulnerabilities with the team. They score well on empathetic leadership.
The rest of the world should be gender sensitive. But the women as such should be gender agnostic. ~ Deepali Naair
Sneha: I race formula cars and fly air planes. For both these jobs, there is no work from home. During lockdown, everything came to a screeching halt and it affected me. We started flying around June with a lot of restrictions and Covid testing. It was quite stressful and increased our workload.
It is important for women to be financially independent. For me, the elephant in the room was ‘looking at the woman as over ambitious’ when she tries to become successful. Women have every right to be as successful as a man.
Sarah: For most of the pandemic, I was in Canberra doing work from home for the Ministry of External Affairs. Women were most affected by the pandemic—70% of the frontline workers were women. The lockdown increased the risks of domestic violence. There was the challenge of balancing multiple roles like home schooling, child care and managing a full time job.
I am lucky my husband is extremely supportive. As per statics, 1 in 4 women found it difficult to continue their work during the pandemic and stopped working. Even prior to the pandemic, our leadership agenda was that women should effectively work from home. Both men and women should share the responsibilities.
Even though we can’t expect the same level of performance from our people during the pandemic, I have observed that everyone had a desire to contribute more than they normally do. ~ Sarah Kirlew
R: Is there a lack of gender sensitive response to the impact of the pandemic? Should the response of the corporate leadership have been different?
Deepali: The rest of the world should be gender sensitive. But the women as such should be gender agnostic. We require male sponsors, male mentors and coaches. That is where you have to be gender sensitive.
How much welfare would be ‘too much welfare’ for women?
Deepali: I worked in HSBC. When I came back after my pregnancy sabbatical, they had implemented a lot of flexible policies. Such benefits must be offered to everyone including men. They may have to drop kids at school and come to office. More than gender, across the world, companies now consider inclusion across age groups, gender and ethnicity. Women should rise above their limiting beliefs. We are shy to ask for help. We don’t feel entitled.
It is said that every crisis is an opportunity. What are the opportunities and positive aspects that women discovered for themselves from the pandemic?
Sneha: Before the lockdown, my schedules were erratic. But during the lockdown, they were streamlined. I developed a routine. I practiced fitness at home without equipment. I did yoga and stretching. I got back to cooking. I took up my hobbies. I started educating myself on the technical aspects of both flying and racing.
Deepali: Many women have been able to find their other side, their alter-ego. Friends of mine published books, some took up educational causes, and some got healthier. Some became successful home-chefs. They could run classes which they never thought were possible.
I have been asked to write a book on leadership and collaboration, for the last two years. It didn’t happen though I had done enough research on the subject. Last June, in the midst of the pandemic, I launched my podcast with 25 episodes. It is a best seller on aawaz.com. It brought the childlike excitement back in my life. I interviewed 25 CEOs who are the Who’s Who of Indian Corporate Industry. Personally, it has been a great learning in mentoring and learning.
When targets are not met in the WFH scenario, will it affect the career growth? What is visible is only the results and not the efforts that women make.
Sarah: We have all been learning through the pandemic from virtual seminars and meetings. Even though we can’t expect the same level of performance from our people during the pandemic, I have observed that everyone had a desire to contribute more than they normally do.
We always talk about gender equality between men and women. How much equality exists amongst women themselves—between working professional women and home makers?
Sneha: Raising a kid is also a full time job. Women create mature adult assets to the world which may be male or female. Working professionals can also do that but it is a personal choice. Indigo came with an option of 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off. Many companies are coming up with such initiatives.
Tell us your story Sneha, how did you become a racing driver and a pilot?
Sneha: I started racing about 15 years back with go-karting. I couldn’t get professionals to coach me. I learnt from the local mechanics whatever they knew like braking, overtaking, etc. With this knowledge, I started participating in a lot of local races. I won many and was picked for the national team in go-karting, saloon car racing and formula car racing. I became the first woman to win an international racing in four wheelers. Between my racing stints, at the age of 17, I went to the US for my flying studies to California. I learnt basic flying on the Cessna and other multi-engine aircrafts and got my CPL with Instrument Rating. Then I came back and converted my US flying license to Indian license. At the age of 20, I joined Indigo. Now I am flying as a Captain of Airbus 320 nationally and internationally.
Great Sneha. You have broken all ceilings and sky is the limit for you. How did you become a diplomat, Sarah?
Sarah: I joined Foreign Service directly from University. I had a series of postings. I was in Cairo, New Delhi, Canberra and Beijing. I am now Australian Consul General based in Chennai. You need good role models. I was lucky enough to have fabulous role models including our current head of Foreign Service Ms Frances Adamson who is an extremely experienced diplomat and a mother of 4 children. I worked with her in Beijing.
Special Session 2
Playing the Field
Moderator: Sharanya Modi, Head HR, EFL
- Pavitra Singh, CHRO, PepsiCo India
- Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi, INSV Tarini
- Anuranjita Kumar, CEO, Women in Technology – ACE
Pavithra: The subject of D&I is very close to my heart and I am a D&I evangelist. In Pepsico, D&I has evolved. We get a lot of strength from diversity. The business case for D&I is right in front of us every day. Real progress will happen when we work on D&I through systems thinking. There has to be an intention, push and pull and accountability. All three are very important.
Sharanya: Do women leaders bring a different sensibility?
Pavithra: Yes. Women leaders lead with both IQ and EQ. They are great listeners and open to feedback. They can make a tremendous impact in the culture of the organisation.
Is D&I an expensive proposition for organisations to do?
Pavithra: The benefits of diversity far outweigh the cost. Inclusion is tougher. We need to create an environment where D&I can thrive.
Anu, Can you tell us about your organisation—Women in Technology.
Anu: I am not a techie. It’s a startup venture, completely out of my comfort zone. Anything we do in future is going to be defined by technology. When I looked at STEM sector, there were very few women. So last year, we launched our startup. It focuses on engagement, enablement and employment.
For me, the term biological clock is more of a metaphor. The term was coined in an article that appeared in the late 70s where it was mentioned that the clock is ticking for career women. ~ Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi
What is that makes women to transition from surviving to thriving in roles?
Anu: I have worked in a male dominated space—in New York, London and India. There are biases and systemic issues. Men also do not have an easy journey to leadership. They also face the same politics and dynamics. When we go into a global role, we are at the intersectionality of gender and colour. The way to work around this is with the help of mentors. A lot of men I worked with were my mentors.
When I launched my startup after 26 years of working, it was scary. Making a pitch to investors was very challenging. If it did not work, I was ready to go back to my job. That made me put on my wings.
Vartika, can you tell us a bit about your sailing experience?
Vartika: It was great to have sailed with a bunch of female officers. It was a first of its kind expedition. It was the first Indian circumnavigation of the globe by a female crew. The navy pushed for it and we prepared really hard. It was a great feat not just at the military level but at the national level too.
With women flying fighter jets, do you feel that a level playing field has finally been found?
Vartika: We are slowly moving forward. Women are coming into many unconventional roles. However, people still have rigid mindsets and it reflects in how they see women in lead roles.
Do you have any advice for women students who generally avoid choosing courses like mechanical or automobile engineering which are considered as male dominated.
Vartika: I am a graduate of aerospace engineering. We have an inherent fear and to a large extent, it is passed on from generations that unconventional works are not meant for women. These are mental barriers and need to be broken. Only then, we can change the perception of how we view ourselves and also how we are viewed by others. My message to the girls is not to restrict themselves to a set pattern. We are more than what we think we are.
With women excelling themselves in many professions, is this perception of “Biological Clock” just a myth?
Anu: I don’t think it’s a myth. Biological clock and career clock coincide in some ways. We see many women stepping back from their careers because of the maternity situation. It is changing but a bit slowly.
Pavithra: There are many parties to it. The organisational policies too matter. I have been a beneficiary of sabbaticals in my company. Policies may be there but implementation is often a problem. Role models and senior leaders play an important role.
Anu: Smaller companies struggle to compensate women, like long maternity leave and other benefits. There are penal provisions against non-compliance of acts like POSH. As a way around, we need to incentive companies for supporting women workforce, rather than rap them on the knuckles.
Vartika: For me, the term biological clock is more of a metaphor. The term was coined in an article that appeared in the late 70s where it was mentioned that the clock is ticking for career women. It was invented so that women never went beyond their traditional roles. Unfortunately, it pushes many professionally competent women towards marriage and motherhood, many a time even before they are ready for it. To me, there is no direct correlation between the physical make-up of the female and the career graph.
To give you a perspective, Jeanne Socrates was the oldest person to circumnavigate the globe at her age of 77. We as team of 6 female crew circumnavigated the globe for 8 months. So, to me, biological clock is more of a myth.
Do men and women approach a crisis differently?
Vartika: Women have ability to anticipate a crisis, analyse and arrive at logical solutions better than men.
Pavithra: Women are very resilient. They lead with their heart. They are very open and can listen during a crisis. But we fall short on confidence. That is one thing which holds us back. We need courage and need to believe in us.
Anu: It is better for women to get a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Beyond a point, gender will wither away.
Special Session 3
Moderator: Sowmya Eswaran, European Ambassador, Global Adjustments Foundation
- Meena Ganesh, CEO and MD Portea Medical
- Aarti Mohan, Co-Founder, Sattva Consulting
- Niloofer, CEO, An Exponent in Advaita Vedanta & TEDx Speaker
Sowmya Eswaran: The topic ‘Silver Linings’ is close to my heart. Covid and the lockdown phase reminds me of my own life. I was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. I underwent nine months of intensive treatment. I had to maintain my energy levels. Throughout the Covid period, people have undergone different kinds of hardships. The important thing is to seek the silver linings. It makes the difference between whether you come out of a prolonged hardship with growth or stress.
Meena Ganesh: I would like to talk from my company Portea’s perspective. During the pandemic, everything that was elective in medical treatment became secondary. We are a home healthcare company. So certain aspects of what we do became very important. Many patients, especially elders, could not go out and they needed help. In the Indian medical ecosystem, primacy is given to infrastructure based care.
In May 2020, we discussed with the Government and told them that 85% of Covid positive tested patients need not go into a facility. We went back with a plan of keeping them at home, monitoring them, providing tele-consultations and, if required, moving them to a hospital. This took wings. We worked with Delhi Government, the GCC and five other states. We managed 400,000 patients in this process.
Aarti Mohan: At Sattva, we work to support social impact, on the ground, by working with philanthropists, corporates and their CSR teams. The pandemic took a heavy toll on SMEs and migrant labourers and all people. It pushed us back in the areas of inclusive development that we already made. The silver lining we saw was that women played a stronger role. 85% of the health workforce is women and they were battling at the front line. Women also stepped up and supported their local communities. In Delhi, working with another voluntary organisation, we could mobilise 900 women volunteers overnight for our reach-out initiative during Covid.
Niloofer: “What lies before you and what lies after you are tiny matters compared to what lies within you.” Our minds are capable of looking at the silver lining behind all that is dark. Personally, the lockdown was a time for me to stop, study and grow. It served as the perfect cave that the wise men of the old used to go to. A lot of people also needed help, psychologically. We have the capacity to keep the external things outside our mind. Yes. Pandemic exists but it need not exist in me. If there is a storm, you can look at its havoc or as to how it cleans up the place. The pandemic has got people to visualise and get into new ways of thinking, working, living, communicating and recreating themselves. It has been a mirror for everyone.
Most women think that they should aspire for a career. They also look for stability which is unlikely if you are in a startup. Families discourage them against taking risk. ~ Meena Ganesh
With more entrepreneurial opportunities available for women, can you suggest three sectors where the biggest opportunities lie for women, particularly in social entrepreneurship?
Aarti: Post-pandemic, I believe there will be opportunities for women in:
a) Healthcare and wellness: There are 27 new job roles that have opened up in this sector
b) Digital, mobile and internet services: Can a woman weave a duppata in Kutch and sell it to a woman in Chennai, facilitated by e-commerce?
c) Food and food processing: Right from providing mid-day meals to thousands of poor children to providing healthy food in urban areas.
Why do we see only a few women taking up entrepreneurship as a career option?
Meena Ganesh: Less than 10% of the startup cohorts are started by women entrepreneurs. I am referring to the organised part of the startup ecosystem. That does not mean women are not entrepreneurs. If you look at the rural sectors, especially the self-help groups (SHG), micro-entrepreneurship, they do very well. The microfinance is predominantly absorbed by women and they are the best in repaying the loans promptly.
In home based entrepreneurship also, we see lot of women on YouTube selling various services. When it comes to the formal entrepreneurial system, there seems to be some block. Most women think that they should aspire for a career. They also look for stability which is unlikely if you are in a startup. Families discourage them against taking risk. The investment community is also male dominated. More women must come into this space.
The extended family is slowly disappearing and small nuclear families have come to stay, where both the spouses go to work. Is this a positive trend for women? Is there a need to reverse this trend?
Niloofer: It is definitely advantage to women because there is an avenue for women to express themselves. It paves the way for women to contribute to the society and economy. Women also need a support system from the extended family. We can move towards appreciating the capacity of women to contribute to world progress. Let them shine and contribute. Give them all the support and nourishment through strong bonds with elders and other family members.
Talking of work-life balance, during an interview as CEO of Pepsico, Ms Indra Nooyi remarked, “I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all.” Do women have it all?
Aarti: The pandemic has shown us that we don’t have it all. We cooked more, took care of our children. Women in India do 5 times more unpaid work than in any other country.
To get the mind to rest is a challenge because the mind is trained to run at its own pace. ~ Niloofer
Meena Ganesh: Nobody can have it all. It is important to focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have. The question is: are we moving forward so that men and women can have a more equitable life?
E-commerce and digital marketing have changed the market place much faster in the last one year. Could you suggest some specific areas of training for women to get into this domain?
Meena Ganesh: Growth mindset is very important. Women should constantly look around and ask, “What is the new thing that’s happening?” and keep learning. Your company may not help you with training but if you have to stay relevant in this fast changing world, especially in technology, you need to invest in yourself.
Aarti: Women need to learn the fundamentals of digital and financial literacy. There has to be life-long learning. It can be through bite-sized nuggets, rather than chunks of learning.
Entrepreneurship is often seen as a second career option by women after a few years of corporate life. Entrepreneurship demands your time 24 x 7. So is that the right time?
Meena Ganesh: I started my venture in the year 2000 when my son was 8 years. Being one of the first BPOs, it was physically taxing. I started from ground zero. The family support is super important to help you succeed. If you are sure that is what you absolutely want to do, any time is right time.
The pandemic has shown us that we don’t have it all. We cooked more, took care of our children. Women in India do 5 times more unpaid work than in any other country. ~ Aarti Mohan
Aarti: I think it is not a second career but your second baby. I don’t think there is any right time. I started moving from corporate sector to entrepreneurship when my child was three months old thinking that I’ll be my boss and that I would have more time at my disposal. How wrong I was!
You must have the resilience and tenacity to go through very difficult things, at different times. The support system from the family and colleagues at work is also important. Older entrepreneurs have been more successful because they bring in their experience.
We can maintain physical health through regular workouts. How can corporate leaders keep their mental fitness at the highest levels?
Niloofer: The answer for what we do for mental fitness mirrors what we do for physical fitness. We use our body and allow it to rest. The muscles need rest to recover and be fit again. To get the mind to rest is a challenge because the mind is trained to run at its own pace. The mind has to be trained to rest. I have read a philosophical story titled, “The Yogi and His Mat.” There is a yogi. He has a mat. Wherever he goes, he takes the mat with him. He unfurls it, sits on it and talks to people, eats food, sleeps on the mat and when his work is over, he rolls it up and takes it with him to the next place. There he uses the mat again and takes it to the next place. End of the story. I wondered if this is a story at all. But it has got very deep implications. The mat is our mind. We use our mind. Shouldn’t we also roll it back and tell it to keep quiet and relax? Can we use the mind as an instrument, rather than the instrument using us?
How does mental recharge happen?
Niloofer: It happens if you get a good 7 -9 hours of sleep, depending on the individual. However the mind is so burdened with thoughts. Getting the mind to cooperate with you is a skill. For example, when should you eat? Eat when you are hungry. Allow your mind to relax when it is strained.
Are the criteria for professional success different for men and women?
Aarti: Why should it be different? We need to level the playing the field and then look at the metrics of professional success.
Meena Ganesh: Not just companies, individuals too must create the level playing field in their own minds.