Ms Bharathi Baskar, Motivational Speaker, Writer and Diversity Champion, on the state of women in corporates and on life’s lessons on what to leave and what to choose.
I’ve been in the corporate sector for almost three decades. I have an interesting observation to share. At the bottom of the pyramid, that’s the entry level, in banks, IT, FMCG or other companies, they hire more women than men. As the pyramid goes to the middle-level management, there are about 70 men and 30 women, across the industry. When you reach the top of the pyramid, we have about 94 men and 6 women. I call it the theory of falling women.
Why are they falling? In the corporate world, it’s one of our biggest challenges to ensure that we promote diversity. Some of you might be asking me why I should be disturbed about it, because it was no women at the top some time ago. I’m not happy about it at all. Because this number has stayed as it is, for the last 15 years. That’s what is worrying me. This number is not seeing an arithmetic or geometric progression. If we take the academic area, in our schools and colleges, women dominate the space. Some of us, who belong to the generation that saw our mothers or grandmothers to be the first entrants into educational institutions, could vouch for that. We see that girls are definitely entering more and more into colleges in engineering, science, medical and other disciplines. The academic dominance is not converting itself into dominance in the corporate world. Why would that be?
Don’t shoot two horses
When it comes to sharing household duties, we are definitely not where we should have been, though it’s much better. I hope the younger generation, when they get married and when they have children, will change diapers, feed their children, take them to school and attend parent-teacher meetings. Also, there are things that women want to do and they’re not willing to let go. So that’s what I’m here to discuss.
Sometimes you will have to leave certain things when you want to get something else. There is a Russian proverb that says that if somebody tries to shoot two horses, for sure, he will not shoot either. So when women try to do multiple things—they want to be the best mother, the best wife, the best host, the best person in the office and dressed up as best as they could be. If you want to do everything, sometimes your focus is lost. You’re forced to give up something at one stage and the easy option is the career.
At office, it’s difficult to raise your hand when an assignment is given to you. I have seen it in my organization several times. Let’s say there is a boss and there are 10 people in the room. The boss announces a project. Maybe there are two women and eight men in that room. The boss asks which one of them thinks to be the best suited to lead the project. From whatever I have witnessed, all eight men will most certainly raise their hands, whether they are really qualified to do the project or not and if they believe they can do it or not. No questions asked. The two women will look at each other. If one woman half raises the hand, the other woman will also do the same.
Our minds are very much conditioned. We don’t try to assess whether we are qualified for the project. Our first thoughts are about what will happen, if I take up a project and go home at 10. Do I have to travel more and more? Does it mean that I need to take on more load? Who’s going to take care of my kid? We always have a cluster of thoughts in our minds, rather than being focussed single-mindedly on our ambitions in our career. Is it good or bad? I’m not here to judge. I’m not here to say that the two women should have raised their hands. No, I’m not going to say that.
I think we need to come to an equilibrium in the society and abundance, where the best will get the assignment, irrespective of the gender. If it happens to be a woman, then the domestic duties will have to be equally shared by the other members of the home, including the husband. If they decide and share the household duties and responsibilities in such a way that they ensure that there is no guilt in the mind of the woman who has taken up that additional assignment, then this six will become 10 and then 15 and then 30. One fine day it will be 50.
Ashwin’s master stroke
I’m not a big fan of cricket. But sometimes I would love to watch the last overs of the games, just to see the adrenaline rush in the crowd. Many of you may remember the recent T20 world cup match played between India and Pakistan, where in the last over, India had to get 16 runs to win. Virat Kohli was batting like a man possessed. He was at his best on that day. On the other side, supporting him was Hardik Pandya. He got out and Kohli continued to score and did his best. Dinesh Karthik came in and got out. We had one ball remaining and two runs to win.
Ravichandran Ashwin came in. As he revealed in an interview later, Ashwin was absolutely not prepared to walk in. He cursed Dinesh Karthik, walked from the dressing room to the middle of the ground, which he describes as the longest walk in his life. He went in and faced the first ball that was bowled at him. Guess what? Ashwin left that ball and it was declared a wide. His judgment was absolutely good. He could see that it was a wide and then he left it. They called it, ‘well left,’ and I heard that for the first time and it really inspired me.
What happened when he left the ball? How did he take that decision? I was really intrigued by that. The pressure was so much. This is the last ball and you have only two runs to win. There is every reason that he could have attempted to play the ball and hit the winning shot, yet he decided to leave the ball. That gave the Indian team an extra ball and an extra run. When the extra ball came, it was worth playing. He played it, scored a run and we won the match. That’s one of the best wins that we have had. Of course, it’s against Pakistan. What else would you ask for?
Well left is well played
I could even remember that when I was studying in a government school, mostly in Tamil medium, we had a cricket coach. In retrospect, I’m really surprised that government schools offered such good facilities. Generally, girls don’t play cricket at that age. We haven’t seen much of cricket either because very few houses had televisions. Every time, we tried to be a little aggressive and hit a ball that was going a little off the pitch or outside, our coach would lose his cool and scream at us. But every time, we took an informed decision and left the ball, he would call us and tell us that we did well.
‘Well-left,’ is the most underrated shot played in cricket as well as in life. Sometimes, it’s better not to play some of the balls that are coming to us. I am not propagating procrastination or inaction here. All I am saying is that let’s not try to play all the balls that come to us. Let’s choose our balls and battles. In organizations as well, I have seen this behavior, especially in members of the senior leadership. Some of them want to get involved in everything and that would be micro management, at its best. They would get involved in matters where they have absolutely no expertise, concern, responsibility or authority, but their voices will be there. They will have a comment on everything.
Eventually, it becomes a personality disorder that unless you say something, you feel that you’re not complete. Many a time, this behavior leads to being people who are ‘last-word freaks.’ ‘My word has to be the last everywhere.’ What I have learned is that when you focus only on your goals and things that you really want to do, you’ll do much better, rather than trying to hit every ball and getting out. If you leave some balls, your chances of survival are much better than in cricket. It’s very important that you ignore certain comments made on you.
The grass is blue
Once a tiger and a donkey got into an argument. The donkey said that the grass is blue in color. The tiger said, “Are you nuts? The grass is green in color.” They were arguing and arguing and it reached a certain point when they wanted to present it for arbitration. They went to the arbitrator—the Lion, the king of the jungle. The king was seated on his throne. The donkey and tiger approached the lion. As they were going closer to the Lion King, the donkey screamed, “Your Majesty. Don’t you agree that the grass is blue in color?” The king, without wasting much time said, “Yes.”
The donkey said, “This tiger is annoying me, arguing with me. He says that the grass is green in color. Would you please punish him?” The king said, “Yes. I will punish him with six weeks of silence.” The donkey was absolutely thrilled and happy. He kept chanting that the grass is blue and went off. The tiger said, “Your Majesty. I accept the punishment. But may I ask you one question? Isn’t it true that the grass is green?”
“Of course, it is green,” said the king. “Then why do you punish me?” asked the tiger. The king replied, “Your punishment has got nothing to do with whether the grass is blue or green in color. A courageous, independent, intelligent creature like you is wasting your time, arguing with a donkey if the grass is blue or green. On top of that, you have the audacity to bring it for arbitration and waste my time too. The punishment is for that.”
Sometimes, whether you agree or not, we are donkeys and many times we are tigers and seldom we are lions. If the other person is not willing to see the reason, it is best to leave the argument, because we have got more important things to do. A lot of us have had this experience with a toothache. We might need to wait a day or two to visit the dentist. In that interim one day or two days, there is this temptation to take our tongue to the tooth, which is giving us the pain and then feel the tooth. Though the pain will increase, it’s extremely difficult to resist the temptation to take your tongue to the ailing tooth and feel that excruciating pain. Why do we do that? Because it’s very difficult to resist the temptation. Sometimes in our homes, in our workplaces, in the social platforms that we are operating, there is a temptation to say certain things, which we know for sure, are going to be absolutely useless for us. Yet, we end up saying that word, and then spend probably the next 15 days or one month or whatever, trying to defend our position. How much of our time is lost in doing this!
We talk about time management and often hear that everybody has got 24 hours. There are goals for us to follow. There are things to do, of which there are compulsive assignments. The only way to do it is to release certain things and pick up only those things that are going to help you. Do things where your focus should lie on.
Poet Thiruvalluvar in Thirukural, a collection of couplets, describes the behavior of a stork. The stork, he says, patiently waits by the river and allows tiny fish to pass through. It waits till it sights a big fish and then grabs it. That’s exactly what we need to practice for ‘well left.’ When we leave certain things, it gives us ample time and space to do the things that we really want to do.
The hare & the tortoise story retold
Let me narrate one more story which is the Zen version of the hare and tortoise story. All of us have heard the original story. In the Zen version of the story, the hare comes and talks to us. It says, “Yes. I am the hare who lost to the tortoise. That’s what Aesop has made you believe. Actually, I didn’t lose the race. I quit the race. But Aesop wrote the fable in such a way that the entire world thinks that I have lost the race. Do you think that a hare will lose to a tortoise? Do you believe that if somebody is halfway in the race, he will sleep to let the tortoise, of all species, to pass him by? No, I didn’t lose. I was not even sleeping.
“I entered the race because the stupid tortoise went about calling me for the race, for a long time. When I knew that I was far, far ahead, I decided to just rest for a while at a lush green meadow there. There was a good stream and carrots were available for me. When I was taking my break, a bearded Zen guru appeared and asked me, “Hey, what are you doing here?” “I’m running a race?” I said. “Are you running a race? I see you sitting here,” the guru retorted. I explained, “I’m actually running a race. But I decided to sit for a while because the tortoise, my opponent, is far behind.”
The guru chided me, “You’re running a race with the tortoise. Everyone knows that the hare is faster than the tortoise. If they give you a medal for winning the race, where will you hang it? Let me get it straight. Today, you’re running a race to prove that you’re faster than the tortoise. Tomorrow, you will run to prove that you are faster than the snake and the day after, it will be against an elephant or any other creature. When will you stop running this race?”
Run your real race
“That’s when I decided that I would quit the race. But the story was made in such a way that I was resting and the tortoise had surpassed me. Whether it’s a marathon or a sprint, I am always faster than the tortoise. I decided I must choose my true competitors and exit from the race.” So, according to the Zen version of the story, the hare had ‘well left,’ so he has the energy and time to run the race with the real opponents.
Friends, if at all, a race has to be run in life, you will have to choose what you really want to do. There are certain words that you will have to leave unspoken and there are certain actions that you will have to desist from doing. An immediate temptation to give back, is not going to be good for you in the long run. There are certain assignments and tasks that you’ll have to give up so that you have the time to focus on your Swadharma. Your Swadharma is where your heart and mind lies.
It’s a very tough decision on what to leave and what to choose. There is only one way to do it. Find out where your natural talent lies and what you are interested in naturally, and then you have ample choices for choosing the ones that you really want to do and thereby you will achieve your goals. Remember, when you’re trying to hit two horses, you will end up hitting none of them.
Dr Lata Rajagopalan’s fireside chat with Bharati Baskar
When did you discover that you could be an orator?
Very young, when I was probably about eight or nine years old, I was selected for a school drama. When I was on stage, I was very reluctant like anybody else at that age. But once I got onto the stage and heard the audience clap, I found out this was going to be very close to my heart.
Who inspired you to develop this facet of becoming an orator?
My eldest sister. She is the first orator in our family. She continues to be a huge inspiration though she’s not on stage anymore. I followed her everywhere she went. At one stage, she stopped but I continued.
What genres of movies do you like watching?
Any movie where a woman is shown as an intelligent person or good.
Who is your favorite singer?
The one and only SPB.
An author you admire?
In Tamil, I admire Jaya Mohan. He is a leading author in Tamil literature today. He can also write in Malayalam. He has written Mahabharata in 14 volumes, having about 25,000 pages. I think this is the longest novel ever written in the world. In English, Jeffrey Archer is my favorite. I love short stories.
Have you ever been nervous on stage?
I have been nervous, I think, on every stage. You’ll learn how not to show your nervousness over a period of time.
Do you prepare extensively on topics or do you take a hint of the topics and speak?
Literary topics need a lot of preparation. Social topics, generally I don’t prepare. You have to be just you. Go with the vibe. You’re on the stage and you take off from what your previous speaker has spoken. If it’s about a different topic, like something on physics, medicine, etc, I do prepare.
Do you argue a lot in real life? It must be hard to win against you.
I don’t argue much at home. I leave some of the things. Certain things are well left.
Does your family play a role in your preparations?
Not in my preparations, because I just keep it to myself. My second daughter is a critic. Usually, my husband and my elder daughter say that I’ve done well, whether I’ve really done well or not. If at all, I get a topic about finance, then I take some tips from my husband, Baskar, who is a chartered accountant.
Do you aspire to be a moderator in debates?
Most certainly. I am already a moderator in shows but maybe not in the popular Sun TV debate where we have our moderator, Mr. Solomon Pappiah. It’s lovely to work with him as a team. When I am a moderator, I enjoy that position equally well.
Every time we watch Television debates in America, we realize that debating skills seem to decide political careers. Have you ever thought of entering politics?
Not really. I am at a stage in life when I want to give back something. I’ve had a very long and I am still having a career in banking. I’ve been on stage for almost 22 years. Now it’s time to give back to the younger generation. There are a lot of questions in their minds, and sometimes they don’t know whom to ask those questions to. I want to be in that position. Politics is not my space.