How Women work: Fitting in and standing out in Asia?

Read Time:12 Minute

Ms Aarti Kelshikar, Intercultural Coach & Author Founder, 3A Consulting in coversation with Mr Ninad Gadgil, President-Abrasives, Carborundum Universal Ltd; Ms Devasena Ravisankar, Global Head- Innovation Ecosystem, Cognitive Business Operations, TCS and Ms Mythili Chandrasekar, Consumer Behaviour and Brand Strategy Enthusiast.

Aarti Kelshikar: For my research on how women work in leadership roles and succeed in Asia, I chose six countries: India, Singapore, Philippines, China, Japan, and Thailand, because they are reasonably diverse. Also, I had some familiarity and some access to people there.  I started in 2020 and interviewed 61 women across different industries and functions, largely in the corporate space; and some entrepreneurs. I also interviewed men. I asked people for their leadership inputs and cultural inputs and sometimes for both.

My basic premise or hypothesis is that leadership at a broad level is gender agnostic. But I do think that women have to encounter a second layer, which is navigating socio-cultural perceptions, biases, expectations of society, etc. I thought it would be interesting to see how they navigate the second layer and build trust and credibility. What’s their style of leadership? How do they communicate? How do they influence in organizations? What are their blind spots and pitfalls? What are some of the strategies to work effectively across Asia? I will share a few insights from the study. 

If you look at women in senior management positions in emerging Asia Pacific, the figure is about 37% whereas it is 30% in the developed countries of Asia Pacific. It is a bit interesting, because we would assume that developed countries would have more women in the workforce. One explanation for this divergence is that Japan is included in the developed Asia Pacific category. Japan is an outlier in terms of women’s participation and empowerment. As someone told me, they really came late to the DNI party and they have a long way to go.  

In Thailand, women lead with their head, heart and humility. In Singapore, it’s a very result driven approach. They focus on efficiency and bottom line and it’s not so much on relationships or the softer aspects. In China, women have to be visionaries to succeed. I don’t know whether it’s because of their legacy of having emperors and kings. It’s very important there for a leader to envision goals and to be agile, because things keep changing as they change in the rest of the world as well. In Japan, it is very, very nuanced. You have to read between the lines on what is said and what is not said. It’s very patriarchal and hierarchical.

In Philippines, they focus on relationships. When my husband was working there, he would share that sometimes women would start crying in the workplace and he didn’t know what was happening. It’s a very sensitive, emotional kind of a place. I’m not trying to say if it’s bad or good. It’s just the way it was.  

The other insight is that culture is an enabler for Leadership and Success. A lot of women prefer to work in MNCs because they felt that MNCs gave them the freedom and space to be, to think, to express themselves, to take decisions, to be supported and to be called for crucial conversations. I think when women are in less hierarchical and more inclusive setups, they really flourish. They thrive in a place where they are respected and there’s a lot of collaboration.

In some places, women are expected not to rock the boat. They shouldn’t make too much noise. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Disrupt, but disrupt gently. It is like, somebody’s asked to make an omelette without breaking eggs. Let me share an anecdote.  

There was this lady, one of my interviewees. She is incredibly talented and she used to work with Unilever seven years ago. She talked about her time when she was in a board meeting in London. All the top people from Unilever, across the world had come here for this meeting, to discuss strategies for haircare products. She said, “I was sitting at the table and looking at everybody around. All the men around me were older, white men with little or no hair and they were talking about strategies for Asian women’s hair. I just felt that as the only Asian woman there, I was perhaps the only person who had some real insight on the topic that they were discussing. Unilever’s top team at that time was a big boys club. Initially, I tried hard to fit in, as a Thai lady in London. But over time, my learning was that it is less about fitting in and being accepted and more about feeling confident and comfortable in my own skin.” It is interesting to learn about how people navigate the cultural expectations and yet retain their individuality.  

A lot of women I noticed didn’t make some bold splash or declaration. They came in quietly and observed the cultural cues. They didn’t try and act like a man. But they focused on adding value to themselves and to the teams. Once they built their cache of trust and credibility, they tried to make their presence felt and created impact through various ways—collaboration, communication and connection. They chose how they wanted to fit in and when they wanted to stand out. It’s an amazing, unique skill that women bring to the table. We don’t really talk much about it and it is seldom recognized as much and it needs to be showcased. We need to have more inclusiveness in conversations and cultures. It’s not us versus them but we must have a win-win.  

Devasena Ravisankar: I started my career eight years ago. I was an engineer back then. Unlike most women those days who did coding and application development, I chose to do hardware—assembling of PCs, networking and all of that. It was all men everywhere. I was the only one woman there. At that level, you need to have depth, passion and substance. But once you become a leader, people start expecting more. That is where you want to put in extra effort to say that you will be able to deliver it. The trust comes by leading from the front, by nurturing the team and ensuring that the team also trusts us. Trust is built by having empathy. I have had a lot of challenges in complex implementation of projects and technology implementations. We used to have customers across the globe. You must stand for your team and be transparent in whatever you are dealing with. This is how, I’ve thus far been successful in my career.

Ninad Gadgil: In hard core industrial sectors like manufacturing, there is a much higher percentage of men. But in fields like health care, banking, finance and R&D, we see a lot of successful women leaders. The situation is definitely changing rapidly. We have heard of Titan now coming up with an all women crew and plant. In our own company, we see a lot of women in functions like quality assurance and customer service, but it’s still very difficult in manufacturing, partly because of cultural issues and partly because of infrastructure issues. Sometimes, men do not want to take the extra effort to make women comfortable, like providing safe transportation when women work in second shift. In many of our industrial cluster areas, you do not have yet safe residential places for women. Those are areas that we definitely need to move the needle because we have all seen the great qualities and competency that women bring to the workforce, across all functions. I’ve seen that women not only succeed in areas where detail- orientation is required, but also in areas where you need a strategic mindset and out of the box thinking.

Aarti: There is a corporate leader based in Singapore who says that she operates with an 80-20 mindset. It means that if I have 80% of the correct data, I will go forward. Singapore is a country where you need to be 100% correct, before you commit. A waiter in a restaurant will not give you something if he’s not sure of what you want. She said that, in her experience, men tend to operate from the big picture or strategic level and many times, they don’t get into the details. Whereas women love to hang on to the details and they probably get lost in those.  The ideal formula is to be able to do the details, because that’s important and at the same time, zoom out and look at the macro bigger picture. It’s not about having one or the other, it’s having both and you must know when to zoom in and when to zoom out. Somebody told me that you must know when to be on the dance floor and when to be in the balcony. This combination of skills is important and women seem to be doing that well and better than most others.  

Devasena: We view that women coming to work is something great. But do women really aspire to become CXOs? Maybe not, because, there was no urge from a society perspective and nobody expected them. And second, they had to do the work life balance.  But of late, I’m seeing even within TCS, more women are willing to do big and aspire for senior management roles. We have more programs which enable and nurture women workforce and we ensure that they are given a platform. Of course, it’s all going to be performance based at the end of the day. The millennial women have this hunger to aspire for more.    

Aarti: My advice for the younger generation would be two things. One is, developing an authentic personal brand. Gone are the days when HR departments and companies were looking after their employees for the next 20 to 30 years. Everybody has to look after themselves. You have a world where AI is coming in and commoditizing jobs. So, it’s really important to hone and develop a personal brand. What do I mean by that? Identify your strengths and what you stand for. 

I was recently talking to somebody in Morgan Stanley in the US. She told me that when she started as a part of a team of 10 or 12 people, she told herself that she would do the best research for her team. Today, if they need macro- economic research, she’s the ‘go-to person,’ because she has consistently delivered and done a great job. That’s her strength. Today, you have social media and all the tools but building an authentic brand is important, because people can see through it. 

The other piece would be related to thinking strategically or thinking big. Women want their child to do well, have a great education, etc. But they don’t really think big when it comes to themselves. It’s important to start doing that, not in a very aggressive, competitive way but in your own way. A lot of women think about their job and they don’t think about their career. Also, they must think wider and broader in what they want to aspire, to be ahead of the curve. Networking is important but it has to be done strategically.  

Ninad Gadgil:  We have to create platforms for women to speak up. Some of them have very challenging assignments where the intensity of competition is very high. They are not going to get all the answers on their own and they need to seek out help. People say that that it’s okay to be vulnerable. You can’t take it at its face value and show your vulnerability at the wrong moments. Showing vulnerability in the right context is important. Once you show your competence and warmth, you’re getting that credibility. Then you become a confident leader that is accepted by many. With that level of confidence, perhaps it’s okay to show vulnerability. This is equally true for men and for women.  

Mythili: There is data that the country’s productivity will go up with more women in the workforce. Is there any study or data on a company’s actual results coming from women employment, both at leadership levels and at workforce levels? 

Ninad Gadgil: I think it’s a very straight correlation, because you can clearly see that a lot of users and customers are women. That’s why a lot of food companies and cosmetic companies have hired women in marketing roles and they’ve clearly seen business success. In the industrial sector, we now see women in purchasing, commercial and supply chain roles. I see a strong need for industrial companies to have women in the sales force and in customer service and definitely in product management because, women can see patterns that are missed out by men.   

Mythili: Between the East and the West, do you see differences in how women work?

Devasena: Women here are committed and are ready to go beyond the call of duty to deliver anything. But if they want to show and exhibit and become that leader, then that is where an extra bit of pushing is required. This comes naturally to those in the Western world. 

Aarti: Women are different in Europe and Asia. There are some broad cultural differences in leadership and management. For example, hierarchy tends to be a bigger value in Asia. It comes in the use of titles, a sense of identity and the respect that you have for the boss. Second is the confidence and control. In much of Asia or in Singapore, people don’t have that confidence unless they have all the data. Whereas in the west, they can take decisions, without getting bogged down by some of the cultural aspects. In the West, assertiveness looks different because people are more vocal. Here, we are slightly more nuanced and we have a different way of exhibiting it. People say that we are not aggressive enough or assertive enough. These are very real value judgments that are made about people and situations.  

Devasena: I don’t think there is anything that stops women from claiming their rightful position, if they actually performed and they are fit for that. We need to coach our women and give them the platform where they can voice out.  

Aarti: It’s one thing to have more women and to tick the diversity box. But it’s very important as an organization to have that culture in place. And culture takes a long time and it is led from the top. People have to create that culture where everybody would like to work. 

Devasena: Women should not shy away from taking help, especially from husbands and their in-laws. Definitely, you need a mentor in the workplace. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who really cared to know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure each one of us, when we get into a workplace, should be able to find a suitable mentor. It can be a male or female, but get that person right. That is the one who’s going to push you and pull you through your career.

Becoming Powerful and Unlocking Your Potential

Read Time:17 Minute

Ms Nirupama Subramanian, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, GLOW & Founder CEO, Powerfulife, in conversation with Ms Mythili Chandrasekar, consumer behaviour and brand strategy enthusiast. In this discussion, Nirupama shares her thoughts on what it takes for a woman to break different barriers and mindsets.

Mythili Chandrasekar: A few months ago, I heard you speaking at a forum on archetypes of women and power and about discovering your own power. You have done a leadership role and consulting and coaching with 25,000 people across 75 organizations, and I presume, majority of them are men.  What are your overall experiences in leadership and coaching? What are the big themes emerging today? Where does power fit into all this? What is the difference that you see in a woman’s path to leadership versus a man’s path to leadership?  

Nirupama Subramanian: I finished my MBA from XLRI long ago in 1994. I joined the corporate world, stayed there for some time. Now I serve the corporate world by leadership coaching. Most of my participants have been men. There are three significant differences in the leadership journeys between men and women.

The first is career intentionality. When men join work, they join with the intention of sticking through. They have to rise to the top and stay there till they retire. So it’s almost like, there’s no option. Women enter their career with much less intentionality. They don’t usually enter the workforce thinking they have to stick out there till the end. They enter thinking, “I’ll do my best. Let me give it a shot. Later on, we’ll see what happens.” That hasn’t changed significantly in the last 25 years. More women are entering now but we also see a big drop off at a later stage.

Secondly, women don’t really focus on career impact, which is focusing on building your brand, networking and doing all the things outside your core job. Women don’t do this, again, very intentionally. We have a lot of biases in our own mind about boasting and putting ourselves out. We think, “It won’t look nice talking about my achievements or I don’t want to be seen.” There’s a lot of social conditioning. Women are not as forthright in doing what is called office politics.

The third is the big thing we call as work-life balance or prioritizing. There is a lot more responsibility that women carry about domestic responsibilities. This creates guilt, conflict, exhaustion and burnout. If they get support, it’s almost like, “I’m so lucky that I have a supportive spouse; a supportive in-law. So I’m able to focus on my career.” This is the reason why many women drop off. The ‘3M’s that impact women are Marriage, Motherhood and Mobility. 

Mythili: How do you define power? How do women approach power? How can we discover our power and realise our potential?

Nirupama: Women’s empowerment is a catchphrase. For some reason, that annoys me, as it seems as though we are waiting for somebody from outside to empower us. I started doing some reading and research on power as part of my leadership development. When we say powerful, it’s usually something big and strong and being masculine. There are three kinds of power. The positional power is what you get from being a CEO, a Prime Minister, a professor or a parent.  We also get discretionary power because we are born into a particular family or a race or in a majority religion or as a male, etc. These powers can be taken away once the context changes. The third category is personal power. To become more powerful, I need to redefine what power means. I need to understand how I have been kept powerless. That is the way my work with ‘Powerful,’ started.  

 Four Ds to deny power

People, especially women, are kept away from power, by what I call the four D strategy: Deter, Diminish, Decorate and Divide. Deterrence is by using the threat of punishment. Eg. If you cross the Lakshman Rekha, you are in great danger. Not only men, women themselves do this to other women. We keep people feeling small and from doing the things they want to do, through punishment.   

The second strategy is ‘Diminish.’ People are distanced from power if you make them feel less confident. In the fairy tales, it’s always the woman who needs to be rescued. Even many learned people have said that women are incapable of learning science or doing medicine; women’s brains are smaller, they are too emotional and so cannot be effective leaders.  Micro aggressions like this make women feel they are not as capable and confident. There’s research that women don’t apply for promotions unless they feel they’re 100% sure. The act of diminishing people, unintentionally or intentionally, keeps them from power as well. 

The third strategy is Decorate. This means rewarding people for behaviors that align with what is expected of them. A woman is expected to be a good girl, an ideal Indian woman, traditional, conservative, modest, caregiving, the perfect wife, daughter or mother, an employee who doesn’t talk but sacrifices. If we are perfect, we get rewarded. If not, we are made to feel that we are good at nothing. Seeking that label of being perfect, keeps women feeling constantly exhausted. Women themselves unwittingly become watchdogs of the patriarchy. The fourth is ‘Divide.’ We always see in the television soap operas, stories of divide between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. They are never shown as bonding together. We prevent other women from succeeding and are judgmental of other women. These are the four strategies.

When I was working many years ago in Citibank, I always thought that I would not be able to manage such a stressful job if I had a family because I saw very few women role models. Later on, when I continued working after my daughter was born, I felt guilty. After my daughter fell ill, I felt very guilty that I was not at home. So I quit my full-time job because it was so ingrained in me that I had not been a good mother.  

The archetypes

So what are the options? What can we do? This is happening to us on a daily basis. So one of the sources I found was what we call archetypes. I read a lot about archetypes from the work done by Carl Jung and Freud. Archetypes are nothing but stories and patterns.  We know how a hero has to behave. We know how a mother has to behave. So archetypes are very strong images and patterns that are deeply ingrained in us. They also depend a lot upon culture and context. I started looking at them as sources of power and energy. In India, we do this very normally and easily. If you want wealth, you pray to the Goddess of Wealth—Lakshmi. Saraswathi is an archetype of knowledge. Because most of the work has been done by Western men, I wanted to bring terminologies that Indian women could relate to and draw power from, especially since there have been so many biases and stereotypes around these archetypes.

The six feminine power model

I want to share a model, which I call the ‘Six Feminine Power’ model. When I did interviews with women and through my coaching work, I saw there were six distinct archetypes. I have given them names that connected with me and which a woman can easily connect to.  The six archetypes are: Kanya, Apsara, Veera, Rani, Ma, and Rishika. 

Kanya is the good girl. She is loyal, optimistic, devoted, beautiful, responsible and positive. She is the epitome of the good daughter and good wife and she is a very powerful person. But the flip side of Kanya is, sometimes we see her as weak, suffering and not asserting her authority. We believe Sita was powerful, but she still needed somebody to come and defend her. This energy or power, at the flip side, makes us feel lost, submissive and docile. It might not help having too much of this energy.

On the contrary, Veera, is the warrior energy, the energy of being bold, courageous, having fighting spirit and taking risk. But historically, this has not been an energy associated with women. We’ve had very few women warriors. In our mythology, women were not allowed to fight. Draupadi never went to war. Only last year, the National Defence Academy allowed women cadets. We need Veera to be leaders, to take leadership positions and to take charge of our lives.  Similarly, all the other sources like Rishika (The wisdom seeker), Rani (The noble queen), Ma (Nurturing caregiver) and Apsara (The seductive beauty) can be strong sources of power for us. But we have stereotypes and biases that prevent women, for example, from accessing education.

Avvaiyar had to wait

I have a 21-year-old daughter and am very proud of her. She was brought up to think no less of herself than a boy. When I speak to some of the girls whom we support, we still see that when the family has limited money, they would rather educate a boy than a girl. So it continues till today that the pursuit of knowledge or wisdom is not something women should aspire for. In my book, I have spoken about the story of Avvaiyar. As a young girl, she wanted to go into a spiritual mode and write and sing songs. She couldn’t do that as a young girl. She got married, became an old woman and only then pursued her Rishika energy.

We feel that women cannot be beautiful and intelligent at the same time.  I created a psychometric assessment tool which is the only validated psychometric assessment for women in the South Asian context. You can take this and find out what your powers are. I am a high Rishika and I have a lot of Kanya. Interestingly, I found my Ma energy a little low. After this self-awareness, you can start working to actively build your power, which you feel you need in a particular situation. 

The power of wholehearted living

We can do that through affirmations and by changing our mindset to self-belief. We have to work on the body to feel confident and powerful as well. I’ve been doing yoga for nine years and I find it very useful in taking very specific actions. You can access your personal power, even if you don’t have positional power, to take up leadership roles. You can become a leader in your own mind and start seeing yourself as a powerful person. Martin Luther King says that power is the ability to achieve purpose. For me, power is wholehearted living, where I can live truly feeling and honouring all my strengths and qualities. So this is a framework for women to access their power and overcome any roadblocks.

Apsara is the energy of being openly expressive, as seen in the dancers, the celestial nymphs, the free spirits and people like Marilyn Monroe. They are flamboyant. An interesting personal story is that my apsara energy was quite low. It was very easy for me to write my book ‘Powerful’ because of Rishika energy. But it was not easy for me to market it. I really hesitated to get onto Instagram or social media till last year because I don’t want to do videos. But I have a purpose and I want to take this message. So one of the things I started doing was becoming more active on social media by accessing my apsara energy and overcoming the blocks that I had. So more and more women and of course men can know their power and find out how they can support the women in their lives.  

Mythili: What is the fundamental belief in this model?

Nirupama: Be true to who you are and your core power. Access other powers as needed for you to be more successful, happy and less stressed.  It is about achieving the optimum balance.

Mythili: Can you give us some more examples?  

Nirupama: Recently, I have been coaching a leader who happens to be a woman. She was having a lot of trouble managing her team. We found out that she was very high on Ma energy and she was very care-giving and nurturing. She used to be very relaxed and lenient with her team members. She would keep on their work on herself, thinking that this was her role as a leader. She was not getting the results that she wanted as she was overdoing it.  She did not take care of herself and was going through burnout.

We suggested that she needed to balance her energy. She shouldn’t give up her empathy, compassion and caring nature but she needed much more of veera energy to be able to take charge and speak up for herself. She also needed apsara energy, which is focusing on self-care. The Ma thinks that caring for self is selfish and she will be valued only if she gives enough value for others. The leader picked up a lot of physical health issues and the team was getting out of hand. She felt very panicky and started micromanaging, which is the extreme of Ma.  She was equating her self-worth with doing things for others, which was not helping her beyond point. We told her that taking care of herself did not mean she was selfish.  

Sometimes, you can adopt a persona like the late Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha did. In the political world, she couldn’t afford to be seen as kanya and apsara. She embraced ‘Ma’ and adopted the larger than life persona of Amma. It was a very conscious shift in her thinking, body and behaviour, because of which she could be successful and effective in her new role. You have to do it mindfully and imbibe internally the energies that you need to succeed.

Mythili: If there are parallels for men, would they be very different? 

Nirupama: King, Warrior, Lover, Magician and Sage are all male archetypes. We’re looking at the five Pandavas as five archetypes. Interestingly, there is no strong caregiver in the male archetypes. The father is usually seen as the authority, stern patriarch, provider and protector. 

Mythili: How do you multitask? What were the lessons on leadership and power in the way that you navigated and managed to do so much?  

Nirupama:  In my journey, having clarity on my values and needs was very important. I did my MBA. I was a typically good, ambitious girl who wanted to get a good job. For me, success at that time was money and status and being associated with a big brand—Citibank. I was quite proud of that. I realized it wasn’t giving me that much joy. Through the next few years, I became a mother as well. I spent some time thinking about what was important for me.

It was a dream for me to write books someday. I wanted to do certain things that gave me joy and enabled me to use my skills.   I definitely needed to earn my own living. My husband and I were batch mates in MBA.  I always saw us as equal in size. 

Once I had clarity on my values, prioritising was the next important thing. I’m lucky because in India, we have people to whom certain tasks can be delegated. I’m fortunate to be in that socio-economic strata when I have somebody to clean the house and somebody to cook. I decided I will not get into that. I do not want to be a perfect homemaker.  My family needs to be fed and my house needs to be reasonably clean. That was a call I made. I delegate things which don’t give me joy but which can be done by others. That’s how I manage.

The third thing is, I am very mindful about my time. Now I get paid for the number of days I do coaching or number of coaching hours. Sometimes I have to make a very mindful choice: ‘Yes, this one week is for vacation and it is for family time. It’s okay, if I’m not working at that time.’ So it’s about making mindful choices. There’s never a perfect work-life balance. Especially, after the pandemic, we have to look at work life integration.

The last thing is that I seek help and support. I was not very good at doing this early on in my career.  I would hesitate to ask people for help and want to do everything by myself.   

Mythili: Beyond getting economic independence using your skills, what do you see as your calling or mission?

Nirupama: For me, it’s to live in my full power and enable other people, especially women through my work of coaching, facilitation and writing. My writing is a means to help people to stand on their own.  

Can a woman who has fear of losing the job work with courage?  

That’s a tough call. One has to be very clear about one’s order of priorities and values. If your self-respect and self-esteem are at stake, I think it’s very important to be courageous, because you cannot sustain a job where you feel diminished or disrespected. It is not going to be emotionally or mentally healthy for you to be in a situation, where you’re constantly feeling that way.

The second is the belief that it’s not a thing that you are going to do it on your own. Have the belief that you will have a support system. If not this job, you will find something else that is going to work for you.  Find out who is your source of courage and support, a role model who’s a source of inspiration that you can draw upon. Reach out and talk to people so that you can get the courage to go ahead. Very often in tough situations, we forget all the space that we have. It’s the veera energy that is needed. You may have to awaken the sleeping warrior in you.  Speaking up for yourself, especially in today’s world and environment, is important, rather than suffering in silence.

You spoke about work-life balance. Many times, women take it on themselves that the household or the children are their responsibility and do not allow men to help them in these domains. How can they come out of this mindset?  

It goes back to the fear that many women have that they will be considered as good mother only if they are good home makers and caregivers. Fundamentally, that mindset needs to shift. A lot of women don’t have any other identity, especially if the person sees herself as a homemaker and a mother. She sees those roles as particularly important and so she doesn’t want to give that away. A husband who wants to help his wife succeed, can tell her that she will continue to be a good wife, mother and a home maker, even if she gives away a part of her job and then let her tap into what other dream she has.  

When we pursue our passion, we are always told to proceed with caution. This has resulted in a fear of failure. How then can we pursue our passion?

True. This is what I call the deterrent strategy. Many girls are told that they can do whatever they want only after marriage. The first thing for us is to make sure our dreams are bigger than our fears. Look at what will be the impact if you pursue your passion. What are all the good things that you can do, if you pursue your passion? Imagine and visualize the kind of world and life you will be living if you didn’t have that particular fear. It is very important to create a visually compelling future picture.

Secondly, address the very specific fear. What is the worst and the best that can happen? The best should ideally be more compelling than the worst that can happen. If you give it a shot, you will have learned something. People will say, “At least you have tried rather than living a passionless life.”  If you redefine your failure as a learning opportunity, then it will not look so terrible. I published my first book only when I was 39 years old. I didn’t win the Nobel Prize or whatever, but I’m so glad I took the risk of rejection and failure. I can proudly say that I published three books. Just go for it

Power is intoxication. But power is a state of mind. How do you enhance this concept in Indian women?

Power does have negative connotations. And especially for a woman, we say that power goes to her hair. You have to redefine power. It is the ability to be who you are and do what you want, of course, adding value and living your purpose. That is the balance that our power should bring. In fact, I would say that with power comes greater responsibility and with greater power comes greater responsibility. 

How Gender Equality Benefits Men

Read Time:16 Minute
Ms Anuradha Das Mathur, Founder & Dean, The Vedica Scholars Programme for Women & Director, 9.9 Group India, shares her thoughts on what liberation means for both women and men. Ms Mythili Chandrasekar, Consumer Behaviour and Brand Strategy Enthusiast, led the conversation.

Ms. Mythili: Why do you say that men are at a disadvantage when it comes to gender equality?

Ms. Anuradha: The issues that we’re talking about are so big and deep rooted, that there’s no question of any one person’s or even 20 peoples’ work making a change. When we think about gender equality, it’s not women’s equality but gender equality. We keep thinking that women are at a disadvantage. The truth is that it is not ‘us versus them’ at all. We live in a world where men and women are both disadvantaged by this deep rooted notion of patriarchy. So what it does to women, it also does to men. Everybody wants to be successful. The common notions of success are totally associated with men’s lives and what they do, because money, achievement and power are so central to men, in our thinking. Women have been relegated to the confines of the walls. There is an interesting study done around happiness for men. And the truth is relationships and hobbies are taken away from men, because they have to fend for themselves, their families and communities and everybody around them. There is this burden of the stereotype that women feel ‘we are pushed into the house and we can’t go out’; and the men are ‘pushed out and they can’t find their way into the house.’ This burden of expectations, stereotypes and societal pressures are deep rooted for both sides. In fact, patriarchy is damaging to men.

The Zero Sum Game

We believe that it is women against men, because we are looking at a zero sum game. We live in a world where everybody can be better off, if it was more equal. When a family goes out for vacation, the man carries the burden of making that experience possible for his entire family. How tough it is! The pressures that we put on men to make them feel like they are worthy and successful, are absolutely untenable. Increasingly, there are men who want to be a primary parent. They like to be there for their parents, when they are ill. They’d like to be able to help a friend in trouble. But if your boss calls you and you have a job commitment, then you don’t have those choices at all. 

The last thing I want to talk about is that our focus always is on making women financially independent. Our organisation Vedica was set up to do that. But we don’t ever think about the fact that if we focus on women becoming financially more independent, we will liberate men to be able to follow their heart a little bit. Why should the world allow only women the opportunity to follow their heart and men to only follow their heads?

The number of men who commit suicide because of failure, every single day in India, is more than double the number of women who commit suicide. The second thing is, where there’s a dispute, they just assume that the natural parent and the only person who can really care for children is a woman. Lots of prejudices exist.

The third thing is physical strength. Nutrition is the same for men and women. But imagine if you have a son who can’t lift a suitcase and put it into the loft. The shame and the inadequacies that are associated with not being physically strong can be devastating for men. We have to bring the same level of empathy and this lens when we talk about equality. We have to make the world as equal for men as it is for women.

Ms. Mythili: Do you think that women are aware of this and do they see men through this lens at all?

Ms. Anuradha: Success in a conventional sense is all consuming and overrated. We don’t look at rich persons with any kind of sympathy. Because money and power are meant to make up for many other things. I don’t think that’s true. That’s why people regret about what they didn’t do, when they reach 70 and 75. We are not giving women the opportunity to feel fulfilled outside the home and for men to feel fulfilled in their personal life.

Ms. Mythili: We tend to see men as the establishment and, in general, we lack empathy with any establishment. What happens when women enter the workspace?

Ms. Anuradha: The participation of women in the workforce is less than 20% in a nation where higher education has grown by leaps and bounds. Lack of financial independence is a source of indignity. Dignity and dependence don’t go hand in hand. That’s something I’ve discovered. We are so keen for women to be financially independent, so that they can hold the reins of dignity in their hands. 

Global research shows that women do more than three times the amount of work than men do, in the home space doing domestic chores. In India, women do 9.8 times more domestic work than men. So where is the time to go to work?

The third thing is, girls are brought up to believe that they have a choice. Men are brought up with not having that choice. Now, unless this becomes the same, how will you have equality in the workplace? I have so many friends who say, “Oh, I’m not enjoying my job or I don’t like my boss, I quit.” How many men are able to do that? They live lifetimes of working in jobs and sectors they don’t like. They suffer all kinds of nonsense at the hands of a boss who doesn’t like them. They can’t quit because they’re responsible for the livelihoods and the wealth creation for everybody around them. A combination of all of these things creates a very unequal field, at the starting point for women not participating enough in the workforce. 

If we create space for men to be more active in the home space and for women to be more active in the workplace, then we will create a more equal world. I read the other day a line which said, ‘In order to liberate women, we need to liberate men.’ Another line read: ‘Why do we continue to undervalue fathers and overburden mothers?’ In a world where we approach equality, men and women will both be better off.

There is this notion of making unpaid work at home as paid work. If the work that is done in the home by a family member becomes accounted for, it would change the way we think about the work do at home and the work that we do outside. So women will be happy to go out and men may not mind if there is an income associated with being at home, taking care of the family.

When you come to the workplace, it’s been set up by men for men. The pandemic, in that sense, has thrown up many questions. Women and men have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home. We must make sure that we keep the good things that came out of the pandemic like flexibility and work from home options. The moment you talk about working women, you isolate the issue. If you mention a working family, all these things become important. True, there is a systemic issue, a vocabulary issue and a societal issue.

The workplace issues are now clearly getting more attention. The problem is that in the last 20 years, there’s been a lot of new companies with D&I functions. But the participation of women in the workforce has fallen despite that. I feel a whole bunch of seniors sit and decide what corporate policies should look like, whereas the recipients and users of those policies are much younger people, both men and women. They have to talk to the right people to decide what they want. All these things together will make a difference to the workplace.

Both men and women make sacrifices but unfortunately, all the sacrifices of one kind are made by women. And all the sacrifices of another kind are made by men. All the advantages of one kind are taken by women and all the advantages of another kind are taken by men. Broadly, we have to move the world, more to the centre for both. Sacrifices, adjustments and compromise are a part of human life and the way we live and feel like. They shouldn’t be completely attributed, at one end to one and at another end to another.

Ms. Mythili: I love the fact that it’s not about gender neutrality but gender cooperation and collaboration. Women think that the money they bring in belongs to them and they can use it for all the extras. The money that men bring in is considered for meeting the basics. Is this changing?

Ms. Anuradha: These things are so nuanced and there isn’t one answer. The first thing is that in the informal sector or the lower income strata, in many cases, the women bring in the money, as men don’t care about the families or don’t make enough money. In the formal sector, there is this belief that you mentioned. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of books that have come out that talk about women with reasonable earning power in middle class India, who don’t have control over their money. They work, earn and come back. The money is handled by the husband or the mother-in-law. At Vedica, we encourage young women and make them less awkward about money matters. Women and money is a very awkward relationship. When women ask questions about money, they are termed ‘money minded.’ When men ask questions about money, ‘they are responsible and make investments.’

Ms. Mythili: How does gender equality play out in the workplace?

Ms. Anuradha: There was a global research on why there are not enough women in senior management. Peeling the onion led us to discover that women fall out of the workforce, sometime between 28 and 35. It’s very leaky pipeline. It led us to think that we teach our women to get jobs. But sadly, we don’t teach them how to keep it and how to navigate conflicts and when it looks tough at work. The man doesn’t have a choice. So he’ll shoulder it.

We’ve seen how much men regret not being able to be there for birthday parties and other occasions. When women are guilty, they quit. So women, when they start approaching senior positions, if they last through the leaky pipeline, are encouraged to learn about negotiation and becoming more confident and assertive and having difficult conversations.

The Double Bind

I want to draw everybody’s attention to the fact that in the workplace, you want a woman who is very poised, isn’t emotional, negotiates hard and has difficult conversations. Imagine that person as your mom or wife or daughter. Nobody wants them in their house. So women have a very peculiar problem. It’s called the double bind. What makes them lovable and likeable at home and what makes them likable and successful at work are different. So we as individuals have to get much more comfortable with being the way we want to be at work and at home. There has to be more space at home for us to be tough. And there has to be more space for us to be emotional at work.

People keep talking to me about tears. Men are encouraged never to have tears. In my workplace, the majority of women cry and get over their stress exactly like how men shout and get over it. Extreme emotions are not a good idea. But moderate emotions on both sides should be okay. We have to succeed against the way we have been conditioned to be, over many years. The reverse is true in the home space.

When you call a woman ambitious, it’s never a compliment. We have to get comfortable with wanting success and pitching for a promotion. There’s again research which shows that when there is a job advertisement that needs 10 parameters, women want to match all 10 before they apply for the job. Men will apply if they match even three. I’m just broadly saying that we should apply, if we meet seven. In workplaces, men and women both allow stereotypes to continue. When it’s women, they say, “Oh, don’t put her on that job, because she doesn’t want to travel; or she has a young baby.” Even without asking, they make assumptions. Then there are other stereotypes like, successful women don’t help other women. We must nip it in the bud, because these things perpetuate an environment not conducive to women becoming empowered. We must work on building networks. We have to find a band of men and women who are allies. We can have aggregator voices and advocate for the things that need to be changed.

Ms. Mythili: How does the culture improve with women in the workplace?

Ms. Anuradha: I wouldn’t even say it’s just women. I think it’s diverse. Women form half the world. Sometimes, I ask, “How dare you refer to women as diversity and inclusion? They are half.” There are lots of research that say more diverse the companies are, the better the performance is. There is research coming out that women-led investment funds perform better than their peers. There are products for which better purchase decisions can be made by women.

Ms. Mythili: What about men’s reaction to the increasing numbers and increasing influence of women in the workplace? Are they adjusting to that and are they in a position to appreciate?

Ms. Anuradha: I think the lip service has begun and that’s a great sign. We have to paint the picture of a world that is better for both men and women. In that space, we will make room for better diversity. In a workplace where men are larger, they suffer burnout. The millennials and the Gen Z are going to help this mightily because they are anyway caring for work-life balance.

Ms. Mythili: Tell us a little bit about what Vedica does.

Ms. Anuradha: It is apost-graduate certificate program. We are not a university. This is our 8th batch. We have a batch of 20 women who come and spend 18 months with us in this residential program. It’s got one-year MBA curriculum along with three other tracks, including communication and critical thinking. At Vedica, we want to equip women, not just to get jobs, but to keep jobs and to know what the inequality in the gender space will lead to. They are prepared for it; they are skilled for it; and they are committed enough to continue to change.

Ms. Mythili: You also run an elder care organization. What led you to do that? There’s also a big element of the burden of elder care falling more on the woman.

Ms. Anuradha: Yes. Women aren’t working because of child care and elder care. In the early days, they drop out because of childcare and later on, they drop out because by now they are responsible for elder care. Our focus is on making sure that women don’t quit. But the emotional part of the problem is a problem to be solved in the world. There will be a very happy by-product, if we solve this problem, so women can work all the time. In the bargain, we have created employment opportunities for women, because our elder care across the country in 80 cities are predominantly managed by women. They have an income and they get to do something that they would like to do. It has been a very meaningful journey.

Ms. Mythili: I read that, one of the things that motivates you is the concept of ‘paying it forward.’ It’s something from your childhood and upbringing that triggered this. Tell us about this.

Ms. Anuradha: A lot of my inspiration comes from my mother. My mother is an IAS officer. She retired 20 years ago. But I grew up watching a woman who could put flowers in the house, bake cakes, drive a Jeep and shoot a gun. She was the pivot of the family. I used to feel as a younger person, when women girls around me in school or family complained of anything, I used to just think these are women who make excuses. I was a complete tomboy. And I went through life just being a helpful person.

When I was getting to my 30s, a lot of my friends from school and college, had kids and were quitting work. I wanted to give them projects and things like that, just to help friends. It had nothing to do with women. Fortune Magazine and the US State Department pick 25 women from across the world under 40 for a program. You go and spend six weeks in the US where they expose you to women in leadership, politics, government and business. So you shadow a Fortune 500 woman CEO for four weeks. I was chosen for it. The program was so interesting, designed and curated in a way that opened my eyes to be able to look at the world with a gender lens.

Mainly, I still remember how guilty I felt, because I realized that I’d had a very privileged childhood, where I wasn’t discriminated against. I had exactly the same facilities and opportunities as my brothers and people around me. I had used the privilege to be blind to others who were not as privileged and I was so ashamed of myself, that in my head I said, “I have to pay this privilege forward in this lifetime and that over the next 15 to 20 years, more and more women should feel like they weren’t discriminated against.” That was the kernel for Vedica. As part of a program where we have 120 girls, each one of them shadows a woman CEO or a senior woman business leader for six weeks.

What can women achievers do to inspire others?

Globally, there just aren’t enough role models for young women. Women don’t go out and do public things, even if they are achieving things in their own way. When it comes to off sites and conferences, they may say, “I don’t have the time.” But this has started to change and that’s a big plus. What we do is over the 18 months that we have at Vedica, we have at least 100 people who come and talk to our girls. It includes women who are old and young; loud and quiet; modern and traditional; married and single; mothers and those who are not mothers. But each one of these women is successful in her own way. When you look at this group of women, over the time, you realize our girls get the message that I can be successful being who I am.

We make it so reverential for women that we think that giving up is the right thing to do. But adjustment and compromise are a part of all relationships. The entire burden of compromise and adjustment should not and cannot lie on the woman. So we have to build more equal homes, in which we create space for our own dream and aspirations.

Sometimes it’s okay to put yourself first. That’s really the aspiration that I would like to tell everybody. Parents must tell our girls that they can dream, they have right and spell out their choices.  

Breaking Biases

Read Time:16 Minute

Vani Aiyer, GM Corporate Communication, Nissan Motor India, talks about her own biases, the biases that people have about others and how we can overcome them.

Bias according to me is the eighth sin. First, you need to know if you exhibit bias. Then, how do you manage that bias? You could exhibit bias purely by your body language, the way you speak to people or the way you turn away from them. So bias can be demonstrated in multiple ways. But the fun part about all of this is its challenging. I’ve worked in the automotive industry for 25 odd years. Around a year and a half, I worked for Pond’s. That’s how I started my career. Somewhere in the middle of my career, I worked on health food drinks of Glaxo SmithKline. I was better handling petrol and diesel guzzling vehicles and my heart was in the auto industry where I learn something new every day and learn how to tackle something new every day. The auto industry, though, is fraught with bias. I will not restrict the conversation on bias to just man or woman. It also happens by virtue of your religion or culture or country or city.

Bias with Objects

When you look at inanimate objects—a circle, a triangle and a heart, you already have a preconceived notion or a bias. Now that could be a black hole or a circle. There are multiple types of triangles.  The moment we see a heart, we think it’s too tacky or cringey.   My generation used to draw hearts everywhere and we had heart-shaped balloons. But it was embarrassing to buy them on Valentine’s Day for your boyfriend or husband or wife. So hearts have their own bias. Just as basic shapes and inanimate objects have bias; it is obvious that you will have bias when you are human beings. When you have a voice, you will have an opinion. Your opinion will create bias. Look at the fruits. A pineapple is hard and prickly on the outside, but it’s intensely sweet and it comes with its own characteristics. The same goes for an apple. We believe the pits are dangerous. I’m sure your notions are then built on the basis of that bias. Grapes are bad for people with diabetes. There used to be a time when I would see a bowl of grapes and say, ‘wow.’ Today, if I see a bowl of grapes, I turn away. We all change with our life experiences. You are nothing but the experiences in your life and what they make of you.

Bias with People

When it comes to people, we judge and mentally create a balance sheet of their liabilities and assets. It could be emotional or rational.  When we see Rahul Gandhi, we may say that he does this or doesn’t do this. If we see Ricky Ponting, we associate him with brashness. Of course, he was Australian and we have this love/hate relationship with Australia. We think of Kangana Ranaut as making a fair amount of noise and that she is opinionated. We might have never interacted with Rahul Gandhi, Ricky Ponting or Kangana Ranaut but we have opinions about them.  I still remember one of my meetings with Arnab Goswami. It was the first time I met him. I already had an aura of sound around him, but he was very quiet and his handshake was soft and gentle.  Again, when you meet people and they don’t follow etiquette of certain kinds, you judge them. You have bias and they choose to drive your conversations or how you talk to people.

Debadging the Cars

I just want to take an example from the car industry. When we try to bring a product into the market, we first show everybody a car exterior. We debadge the cars, which means that you will never be able to see any logos or spot the manufacturer. You’ll be able to see the muscular lines, the stance of the vehicle, the grill and the headlamps.  Then we show them the car interiors, the luxuriousness or the lack of it.  Then you go through a whole list of its technical specifications.  After you’ve seen all the physicals around it, then you announce the name plate. Once we hear the brand name, we get a different opinion about it. There can be a lack of bias, or a bias, depending on your opinion about the brand in the marketplace. Once you do that, the price will drive a completely different conversation: “No, it isn’t worth it,” or “It is worth it,” etc. Then when you actually drive the car, it brings in a bit of a punch or the lack of a punch. The dichotomies are there for everyone to see.  By positioning or how you brand the vehicle, you pre-conceive people’s notions. They may think, “I’m going to see a big bold, beautiful car in the showroom.”  That’s how positioning plays its part. Then finally, when you look at all of these from the ecosystem of a business or brand, you have a certain opinion. The more research you do, the more conversation you have about something.

Pony Tail and Education

I am a sari clad women. I’m wearing a ponytail. I wear my ear rings; I’m very traditional. But the moment I tell you that I was schooled in Haryana, mostly Hindi-speaking schools—13 schools in 10 years of which only three were English medium, you will have an opinion and that will drive you. If I say that I was in a convent those last two years, you will again hear me differently. The moment I tell you that I went to a particular college—Dayanand Anglo Vedic college—it brings in a certain perspective to it. It’s a very studious college. It looked like a school. There were 12 feet walls with six-feet of barbed wire on top. So that again has a perspective. If I tell you my dad and mom were working people, it has a perspective. If I tell you, my dad was an IPS officer from the Haryana cadre, it will have a different perspective. If I tell you my mother taught in college—she was a Professor of History in Gandhian Studies—it has a different perspective. All of these add or derive bias.

Meddling in the Middle

I’m the middle child in the family. I always say that I carry the attitude of Madhya Pradesh on my shoulders, meaning it’s so large. I used to fight for everything because my elder sister was always older and she was somebody I could never say anything to. My younger sister was always younger, so I could also not say anything to her. I got stuck in the middle. I always got what my elder sister got as hand-me-downs. The next one was five years away, so she never got my hand-me-downs. My career began with JWT and that was an advertising agency. I started as an Assistant Accountant and I got out of there as a Vice President. I am extremely fortunate to have learned from Mythili Chandrasekar there. She drove me to work. She threw projects at me that I thought I could never do and books that I thought I would never read. I am more of a fiction person, but she made me read a lot of nonfiction and ensure that I did that. That helped me get rid of biases.

Then I worked in Ford and TVS. When I joined TVS, people would invariably ask me, “What’s an Iyer doing in Sundaram Iyengar & Sons?” It was a bias they had that was linked to the fact that I wrote my name as Vani Aiyer, but it was because of my North Indian upbringing; I didn’t really care what was after my name. Actually, I used to write my name as Vani Harishankar. Harishankar is my father’s name. But he said, if I have a smaller name, it will fit easily into a passport and he suggested ‘Vani Aiyer.’ He also said, “Anyway, you will only marry an Iyer. So Vani Aiyer will be fine!” So the Aiyer thing stayed with me. In TVS, I spent three years happily. They accepted me the way I am—with all the aggression, conversation, loud speaking and presenting myself. They had no bias in me as such. But there was a different bias. In TVS, most women were in the Secretarial department or in Finance as Chartered Accountants. You would not find women in business. I sat in the management committee conversations, which in itself was a bit too much for everybody. But I had the support of my bosses. I had the support of people who knew I could present my case and that I could articulate what the business needed.

Put Business First

If you put business first, there is no bias. The moment you stand up for the business, the bias goes. Remember you are here to do business. We are all here for time and money. The moment everybody is on the same page on time and money and you realise the fact that you need to do business, the walls of bias just come crumbling down.

Be Prepared

There is nothing better than being well prepared to manage your business on a daily basis. When I left TVS, I thought I had put the final nail in my career’s coffin. Nissan came to me at a time when I thought I was going to hang up my boots. For a year and a half, I worked with them in marketing and I realized the biggest bias I had to face was about numbers. Some of the bias, I created in me and some of the bias, others around me did.

I didn’t score well in school maths and it stayed with me. The fact that I got 7 out of 100 in one test in my class 8 stuck in my head. Every meeting I go, I make sure I write down the numbers, big, bold and in red on a sheet of paper. I can read it without my glasses and I don’t forget that number for my life, whether it is our revenue, profit, how many cars we sell or how many variants we have. That is my prep to ensure that people who sit opposite me, do not hold that bias against me, though I do it to me and sabotage myself. I will tell people that I am poor in Math but a rockstar in English.

In today’s world, it is not just what you have lived through in your career or life. It’s also social media because you have multiple personas.

The Seven Year Itch

I found an interesting way to exhibit how I lived through my entire life of 49 years. At seven, I believed I was my own enemy. My elder and younger sister used to study very well. I had dyslexia of sorts. In those days, nobody knew what dyslexic meant, leave alone, trying to find out if I had dyslexia. I had ADHD. I discovered all that later when I saw the film ‘Taare Zameen Par.’

The Rebel

At 14, I had decided to rebel. So I grew up in the early 80s when you had to get back home before it became dark. I never did that as I mostly stayed out of home. I used to play tennis for an hour, go for swimming and tuitions, which meant I never reached home before 10 pm. But I was doing judicious work and I was in the right place, doing the right thing. My parents always knew where I was but I was rebellious. I actually wanted to be a tennis player but my mother said, “What will everybody say, if a daughter of an IG plays tennis?” So my bias came from people around me and unfortunately, my parents too.

A lot of it is PTSD, at least in my generation. We have all suffered the trauma of our parents not knowing enough of how to deal with the problem, but they have also been our biggest backers. At 21, I thought I was a maverick because I made a decision to get into advertising. In those days, advertising was not a good place for girls to go because “that’s where, the not-so-good people hang around, work happens after dark, you will come after dark and stuff like that.” Within a quick 2 to 5 years, I had my two daughters. In advertising at JWT, at 7 am, I had to be at the plant if I wanted to meet my clients. Then, in the evening, the client would come back to office at 6:00 pm and the discussions would continue. So, it was like, I had to do a dual job. I ended up working from anytime between 6 am in the morning till 12 or 1 in the night. People, you work with, are equally strong about creating situations on bias, not because you are a man or a woman or anything. In fact, I have never thought of myself as a female. I am agnostic to whoever I talked to. I meet interesting people who have phenomenal stories to tell every day. I am age agnostic. We must spend time with people who can actually help us grow and overcome obstacles.

No one can take it away

At 35, I kind of cracked it. I had a boss, a gentleman called Mr. M A Parthasarathy. He used to be known as the brains because he was from BITS Pilani and he did his engineering and later, MBA from IIM. He was completely a 5-star, best performer. I remember him calling me one day and telling me, “Vani. You’ve cut your teeth on strategy and nobody can take it away from you in the automotive world.” I just looked at him with disbelief, as in most cases, my bias would put me down. That was the day my life changed.

Advertising took its toll, but it taught me a lot of things. It taught me how to fight my way up. I moved from advertising career to show space where I worked in events and event management. I worked with different brands—from General Motors to Toyota to Vodafone and so on. I have done cyclothons and marathons. What I learnt amongst all of this is that people come in all shapes and sizes. If you listen to what they have to say to you, more often than not, you will end up stumbling over your own feet. Listen to everybody, but do what you want to do and do what you think is right. If you have the right value system, then your conversations go the right way.

Different Faces on Social Media

Look at yourself on social media. Each social medium shows you differently. For instance, on LinkedIn, I look my professional self and if you go over there, my entire career history can be seen. On Facebook, I have my social conversations. On Twitter, I share my opinions about cricket, politics, media, cars, auto, about anything and everything. In Insta, I post lots of photos and stories and fun facts. It talks about how I think and how I feel very open. I am a big fan of Pinterest. If you go to Pinterest, I express myself and catch up on a lot of content, which is phenomenal. But each one of these social handles shows me differently. If you saw only one of them, you would talk to me differently. You would have a preconceived thought process about me or the way you would think of me. That’s how people would perceive you as well. So, the biases that you have, when you look at all of these social forums is just infinite. If you don’t have bias, you will be a saint. Every one of us has bias to begin with and none of us is a saint. The time that we have to do business is finite. We have limited time and limited money. We must try to see how to make bias work for us.

The Five Rules to Manage Bias

I have five rules to manage bias and they’re very simple.

Number one. Behind any successful man, or woman, there could be a man or a woman. It could be anybody. For me, it is my husband. We decided to keep our work life separate and even today; nobody comes to pick me up from the airport. Be agnostic. Be agnostic to religion, age, state, country or whatever. Agnostic as a word is a great takeaway. If you try to be as agnostic as you can, you won’t have any preconceived notions about people or where they come from.

The second and the most crucial, you must always be prepared. The best way to remove bias from any conversation is to be very well prepared. If you go prepared into a discussion, you will always go for a win-win solution.

The third and something I believe in: Be generous. I believe Karma exists because I have seen it occur. I’ve seen it happen in my lifetime, not once, not twice but a billion times. What goes around, comes around. How you treat others is how you will get treated at some point later. Then don’t ask the world why it is all happening to me. It is happening to you because you deemed universe to work in a certain way.

Fourth, have a voice. Have a point of new. All of us have a tongue. God has given us great functional tools. We can stand pain, power, stress issues, sicknesses and everything. But if you don’t use the voice that you’ve been gifted with, it’s a travesty to your body.

Fifth, and finally, make yourself so strong. When they say, ‘The strength is within you,’ I used to think it’s crap. I had no idea of what was within me. But I realised that, over a period of time, you end up looking at problems and solutions in creative ways and that builds you up as individuals. And that is what is within you. Answers are not there in any book. There is no guidebook to live life or move away from bias. You live through it. You try to put it into an Excel sheet. I think Excel sheets are fabulous stuff, even though I was completely against math.

The human beings are so different from anything else that you can be like a dolphin. Dolphins are still evolving but they push away sharks, knocking their sides with their bulbous nose when they are attacked. One would think one can’t escape a shark attack, but that’s how dolphins save themselves from shark attacks. When you go into a conversation and you want to have a win-win solution, you need to be dolphin like. You need to be creative, because that will drive bias away. We all have bias. We are not born with bias. We acquire bias along the way. The only way to knock bias out is to have your own little, cheat sheets on. These are my five cheat sheets but you will find your own experiences and your own means and ways to get bias out.

Negotiation Skills for Conflict Resolution

Read Time:12 Minute

Ms Radhika Shapoorjee, Founder and CEO, Mediation Mantras, focussed on key aspects of conflict resolution and what it entails. Her talk covered these points:
Is conflict an opportunity or threat?
What is conflict and its role in our everyday life?
What are the roots of conflict?
Resolving conflict with effective negotiations

Conflict is a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one, between people, across groups, across countries. Usually, it is a clash of ideas, opinions or interests. A conflict spiral happens when a small difference of opinion that is unresolved becomes a dispute. When the dispute is unresolved, it becomes a conflict. When a conflict is unresolved, many conflicts happen. Then it can escalate into words.

A small disagreement at home can escalate into many different conflicts in our personal and professional lives. The point is that, it is easier to resolve a conflict when it is small; when a difference of opinion starts.

Conflicts are everywhere

Why is it so difficult to address conflicts? Why are there so many conflicts happening in our homes, between parents and their children, over different ideas, over opinions, over interests and over generations? We see conflicts escalating between states over water or other resources. We see on television political leaders with different ideologies shouting at each other. There is anger and resentment. We see business disputes over various issues—personal or professional.

To give you a small number, our courts will take 408 years to resolve the cases across our country, if there is not a single case filed from today. Obviously, conflicts are not getting resolved. Justice delayed is justice denied and that is a topic of a big conversation that is happening across the world.
So how can we understand the roots of conflict in a deeper manner? We must understand the anatomy and psychology of conflict. Conflict is perceived as a threat. How can we creatively resolve conflicts, transform this threat into an opportunity and strengthen relationships? That is the essence of conflict resolution.

Resolving the Inner Conflict

The greatest story about conflicts that has shaped India, for sure, is the Mahabharata, and it has taught us many lessons. We all know that Krishna helped Arjun resolve his inner conflict first, before he was ready to fight the Kauravas in a battle that lasted 18 days. We must overcome our inner conflicts first, so that we can resolve our outer demons as they come in front of us, in a manner which is not destructive but constructive.

My work in conflict resolution has been really to help people understand that inner conflict, because when these issues are not resolved, they spill into the external world. So let’s understand that better.

Conflict and fear

Conflict is perceived as a threat and an attack. We react to that threat with fear. Since the beginning of humankind, fear was a means of survival to humans so that they could protect themselves from wild animals, nature, rival tribes and nature’s fury. All these have now almost stopped. We are in the comforts of our home. We have none of those physical threats. However, we do have the same instincts. When there is a difference of opinion, even our loved ones become threatening enemies.

We react in a way so that we can protect our own identity. If someone says that you are not a good mother, a good father, a good boss or a good colleague, you want to defend that position. That is the core of our conflict. With it, comes the fear. When we get fear, we react in only three ways – fight, flight or freeze.

We have been taught that good must overcome evil. Each of us has a sense of righteousness. We think we are right and the other person is wrong. This polarized view of our opinions and actions leads to so many unresolved conflicts in our everyday life. This adversarial way in addressing each other, where we are unwilling to listen to the other person’s point of view, results in small differences turning into full-fledged conflicts between people and communities.

Seeds Sowed So Soon

The seeds of human identity are sowed in the family and environment in which a child is brought up. Every child learns how to how to deal with conflict from the age of zero when they are born, to 7 years. Those are the foundational years and they watch their parents and family deal with each other. Do they deal with each other in a mindful manner or hostile manner? How do they communicate with each other and the community at large? When they come back home, what stories do they tell?

Children take away these things subconsciously and their social skills are developed and retained in their subconscious mind. Perhaps, you were brought up in an environment where conflict was completely avoided. All these will shape the way you respond as an adult.

Fears all the way

This is one of our biggest debilitators. We also have the fear of not being heard, the fear of losing money, the fear of health issues and the fear of death. All these fears are pretty much at home within the family, because that’s what all of us would have watched subconsciously and consciously. They go into shaping our identity and the way we handle conflict.

Therefore, the need to create a psychological safe place for the child and family to express themselves, to express their views in a way that differences are respected, is something that all of us must think about. Create a safe place where we can express and where we allow our family, our colleagues and our neighbours to come and say things which are not the same as what you stand for.

The Chief Culprit

When a difference arises, the first culprit is usually communication or a lack of it. When there is a breakdown of communication between people in conflict, suddenly there is a roadblock out there. Fear comes in and we start reacting. We see on social media the kind of resentment and hatred that people have for people they don’t even know. This comes from deep-rooted conflicts that have been sown by generations before, against people and communities. So we need to step back and see what is happening around us. Why are the courts clogged up? Why are our homes not seen as safe places? Why is our office not a safe place where we can discuss, be seen vulnerable and yet, do not get a fear of failure.

Look at how you respond to conflict. Do I respond with fear? Do I freeze? Do I flee? What kind of an environment do I create so that people can express themselves? Am I able to respect differences? We all come from very different emotional worlds and therefore, it needs to be respected.

Conflict is a teacher. It tells you that you need to progress and move forward and evolve to a higher place. If you don’t, you go to a lower place. Get into others’ shoes and understand where they are coming from. Make them understand where you are coming from. Have the courage of conviction to have the dialogue, to have that flow of communication.

The Eagle’s Egg

Here is an interesting story. A team of global CEOs were traveling on a plane. It was a long-distance 50 hour ride into Africa. They were going there to find a very rare eagle which laid an egg every 10 years and it was discovered that the egg had the solution and cure for cancer as well as diabetes.

Conflict is a teacher. It tells you that you need to progress and move forward and evolve to a higher place. If you don’t, you go to a lower place. Get into others’ shoes and understand where they are coming from.

Two CEOs were ahead of others in that search—One was the head of a cancer care pharmaceutical company and the other CEO was the head of a diabetics company. They were obviously in conflict as to who was going to get it. But they were wise men and they decided to understand their underlying needs and interests.

They realised that the cure for cancer lay in the yolk and the cure for diabetes lay in the white of the egg. So they both could take that one egg and share it and address a transformational solution to their business. If they had not had that conversation and decided to fight for that egg, they would have destroyed the value. That is something that could have happened.

Everyone becomes happy

I did mediation with two co-founders—One senior and the other, ten years younger. They had a running conflict for years, and it took me three months of about eight sessions to resolve their conflict amicably. Today, they continue to work in the same organization. But at the heart of that conflict were their own inner issues coming out in a not so good manner.

Once I created a safe environment, each understood where the other came from and I was able to help them. They negotiated a new and a far stronger way of functioning. The investor, who got me to negotiate, is now a happy person. The multiple investors in that organization are happy. Most importantly, the 3,000-odd employees who are affected by the conflict are happy. The conflict had created tension within the organization.

Resolve Conflicts as They Arise

Communication and good negotiation skills can convert a conflict into an opportunity. I am so grateful for having learned some of these techniques over the years and I have applied them to my daughter, son and husband. Resolving issues as and when they come up is much easier. I have made so much progress that I have set up my entrepreneurial journey in partnership with my husband Mr Shapoorji. He has played a big role in helping me understand conflict and shaping the path of my future purpose.

The moment you reprimand, get upset or put boundaries, it becomes one-sided. Then they want to rebel.

Remember Maslow’s need theory? Our deepest psychological fears are about our safety and security. This has been used by many marketing and advertising people in their campaigns.

You may have a small difference of opinion with your child when he or she goes out. Recognize that your child wants to be independent. Go two steps deeper into the mind of the child and then, your child will feel heard and wanted. The moment you reprimand, get upset or put boundaries, it becomes one-sided. Then they want to rebel. Understand where the rebellion comes from and address it early. This is an everyday part of life.

Learning from the Experts

Cultivate your own communication skills so that you can negotiate better. Over the last couple of years, I have watched videos of at least 500,000 people. I feel very blessed, full of gratitude that I could listen, read and learn from many people who are experts in the domain of conflict resolution—from psychologists to FBI negotiators, to mediators at Harvard.

My superhero is Chris Voss, former FBI negotiator. He has written a very interesting book called ‘Never split the difference.’ It’s an amazing book and one of many books that has influenced me greatly. ‘Getting to Yes’ by William Ury is also another great book.

One of my clients faced a media boycott. Over a lunch, we were able to resolve it. It is interesting that in that case, it was just the arrogance in the way that my client had dealt with them which had created the block. The simple act of inviting all of them for lunch, resolved it in exactly the same time that we took for our lunch. We all had a wonderful laugh and discussion about everything else and the boycott was taken off within an hour of that discussion.

Tips to remember

  • The Power of empathy: Empathy is understanding the other person’s point of view, how they feel and care about it. Harvard Business School has done a lot of work on strategic empathy and tactical empathy. The moment you empathise, the entire negotiation will shift.
  • The Power of Listening: The most important communication skill I would say is listening. One of our normal reactions when the other person talks, is to jump in and interrupt. Don’t do that. Instead, listen with your heart, ears and eyes. If you can see the body language, there is so much you can identify in terms of the emotions that the other person is expressing or not expressing.
  • The Power of Acknowledgement: It has a huge impact in conflict resolution. An interesting trick that Chris Voss has taught is mirroring. When you talk to me, I can take three of your last words and repeat it and mirror it. You will always feel heard. So acknowledge with the three last words. Use a proper tone which shows your interest. Even a small shift in tone can make the other person feel attacked or unheard. All that people want is that they want to be heard.
  • Silence is a great tactical tool: When there is silence, somebody wants to fill it up. Let it be the other person. In that filling up, there is so much which you can learn and so much about what the other person’s true feelings are.
  • Paraphrasing: Another way of acknowledgement is a great technique called paraphrasing. It is like mirroring except that it is just playing back what you have heard. This is a powerful technique in communication.
  • Summarise: Once you have heard out the other person, it is important to summarize what you have heard.
  • Calibrated Questions: Let your questions start with ‘what’ or ‘how.’ They will ensure that you will not get ‘no’ as an answer. It will allow people to elaborate the issue and how they feel. That opens up the space for conversation.
  • Getting to YES: At the end of the summary, you must decide to agree. How do you get the other person to genuinely agree? Use the power of ‘Three Yes.’ The first ‘Yes’ maybe just counterfeit. The second ‘Yes’ could be a confirmation and the third ‘Yes,’ a commitment. Therefore, if the person has said ‘yes’ three times, it means that he or she has committed to implement the process.

Gurgaon Moms: When women come together magic happens

Read Time:11 Minute

The exciting story of why and how GurgaonMoms came about and what they do. Edited excerpts from the talk given by Ms Neela Kaushik in the MMA-Women Business Forum on 16 Nov 2021.

I studied in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu. When I moved from the US to Gurgaon (now Gurugram) near Delhi, I was new to the city. I was yet to make friends. I wanted to figure out where to take my kid, what would be a good restaurant and so on. Basically, I wanted exchange of information. I am from a digital marketing background. Facebook groups had just begun. So I started the GurgaonMoms Facebook group. Later on, I realized that this was just a trigger that made me start a community.

One and a half years after I had started the Facebook group, we put together a small workshop for moms; women were quite excited about this concept, because suddenly they were making new friends and able to have conversations. The husbands were curious with whom their wives were talking in the middle of the night! Actually, the community gets very active 10 pm afterwards. The husbands even wanted access to the community and we were having a good laugh.

Space for being heard

Women started sharing how they finally felt listened to. People always ask me ‘why is it a women-only community?’ Because the challenges women face are unique—be it the middle age or motherhood. They face a lot of pressure and often break down. Coming out of it becomes very important.
A woman, at life’s transition points, needs to be accommodative and compromise more and more. In the process, she somewhere loses herself. It is nobody’s fault but it is just the societal constructs. All that it requires to break out of something like this is to be mindful and conscious of the choices that you make. That is why in a space like this, when you start listening to stories, you get reminders again and again of how women have been doing it. What are the right choices? People even trolled our group as a glorified online kitty party or a wailing wall.

The first time, I was really hurt, because it was belittling of the good work that the team has been doing. We have amazing team members and volunteers who put in their time and effort to bring about a lot of changes.
This is a beautiful space where women come to share their stories, ask for help and come forward to offer help as well. We have women CXOs and women achievers. They help another woman to get up whenever she falls down. Through the beautiful stories shared, she not only receives up-to-date information on parenting but also seeks inspiration for her own personal growth. We have some amazing examples.

Flooded with help

In 2015, when the Madras floods happened, being a Chennai girl, I spoke about it and our community felt so upset. We collected medicines and clothes and but sending them to Chennai was a challenge. One of our members, a CEO of a logistics firm volunteered to send four trucks. As going by road would take time, I thought of alternatives.

I knew that one of my friends’ husband works for Spicejet and I spoke to him. He agreed to take our things and deliver to Chennai. What started off as a small conversation in the community became a huge success story and created a big impact, as we could send four truckload worth of relief materials. That is when I realized that when women come together, magic happens. All that you have to do is to put out an intention there. We just organize ourselves to make things happen.

Closing the distance to help

During the Covid time, many got help. I myself was down with Covid but my team members stepped up beautifully. They all got their act together. There were doctors in the community who went out of the way to give free online calls. The community put up the list of doctors with their numbers.

Ambika, one of our volunteers, saw a post about a pregnant woman down with Covid and facing difficulty in getting food. She took it upon herself, drove all the way for one hour to provide food to the pregnant woman. She did not even post her help on the community. It is so therapeutic to be in the community.

Some of the challenges that we face are unique. When you go and communicate your problems in a bigger forum, the acknowledgement, compassion or empathy that you require may not be there. But here, it is a safe space where you can discuss anything, without the fear of being judged. You are encouraged to be vulnerable.

The forum also provides a safe space to learn and unlearn. Women often end up getting trapped in unconscious patterns of behavior, which are detrimental to their own growth and success.

More inspiring stories

A woman wrote about how she felt lonely because her kids have left home and she had no purpose in life. Seeing this post, the community members came together and met the distressed woman. One of them was a life coach who found out her interests and encouraged her to write in the community. She received beautiful reviews which motivated her. There was a woman who owned up one of her mistakes that she had done. As I was the person approving the post, I was worried that the woman would get trolled in the unforgiving social media spaces. But I was pleasantly surprised to see how women actually lauded her for owning up her mistake and encouraged her to move forward.

The forum also provides a safe space to learn and unlearn. Women often end up getting trapped in unconscious patterns of behavior, which are detrimental to their own growth and success. But in a community like this, you will come across people sharing instances from their personal life, asking doubts or even sharing stories of triumph and success. It can be even something small but can be life-changing. One of my friends brought to my notice that I do not leave my family to travel alone by myself. I have never done that before because I always thought my family may need me. So eight of us went together on a trip and I realized that even if you’re not there, the family will still go. I came back so happy.

Supporting entrepreneurs

McKinsey Global has estimated that India can add 770 Bn$ to GDP by 2025 simply by giving equal opportunities to women. The present contribution of women in GDP remains at 18% and Covid has only made things worse. In GurgaonMoms, we provide professional support.

In fact, two of the girls in the community made their first post about their idea of launching millet related products based on their own experience of looking for some healthy snacking for their children. They wanted women to taste their cookies and give them feedback. Guess what? Today, their company, Slurp Farm, is a huge brand and I am very happy that they were able to make that first post in the community and invite feedback. I remember that they received huge encouragement and they received the validation that they required as well. I also remember the founder of mother and baby care brand The Moms Co, which was very recently bought over by MyGlamm, mentioning to me how a single recommendation on GurgaonMoms suddenly saw a surge in one of their products. Such is the power of women and mom communities. We also help women find jobs. Today a lot of companies post their requirements in the community and they have found high quality resources. I suggest that if companies are looking for temporary or part-time resources, please do consider women and mom communities. Women prefer flexi-working.

Another thing that we are extremely proud of is organising our Mom Achievers Summit. At first, people didn’t understand why a summit for mothers was needed and that too from 9 to 5. There is so much about mom; parenthood is just a slice of life.

The cheering squad

You can come to GurgaonMoms any time you feel you’re down. You can just come for entertainment or to find inspiration. You have a ready-made cheering squad available for you. They mean it when they see it. It’s not like they say it, just to make you feel good. They all go through it. Women go through the imposter syndrome. We often ask, “Do we really deserve this?” That is when you need a cheering squad who will tell you that you deserve it and that you are the reason behind many things that are happening behind you.

The summit of success

Another thing that we are extremely proud of is organising our Mom Achievers Summit. At first, people didn’t understand why a summit for mothers was needed and that too from 9 to 5. There is so much about mom; parenthood is just a slice of life. Women have career aspirations, lots of hobbies and want to network as well. When we invited people, they were not willing to buy the delegate passes because they didn’t know what to expect and we had hundred plus women who attended the event. Half of them were invited by us. The next year onwards, the story was very different. We were getting sold out every year and we had to move from one bigger venue to another bigger venue until last year. In 2019, before the pandemic, we had an event that saw 450 plus members attending. In 2020, we were just moving to an even bigger space but Covid happened. The summit is the culmination of our efforts. If you want to experience the community, you have to attend the summit. In that one day, you will be able to understand what it is about. You will hear stories that will make you laugh and inspire, as well. That is what happens when women come together, be it in online space or offline space. The energy is just so palpable. Failure resume is popular these days. But I would like to share my learnings.

At the end of the day, I preach that women’s time has to be valued and so, the people who spend time on my community need to receive some sort of financial support. My learning is that money is not a bad word and sustainability is extremely important for this purpose.

Taking control of my life: I come from Chennai, growing up in Trichy and watching Tamil movies and dreaming a perfect life. After marriage, when I prepared coffee and gave it to my husband, he asked me, “Why are you giving me a cup of coffee in the morning? I can make my own coffee and you can make your own coffee. That’s how it has to be. It has to be a choice and you don’t have to do anything by compulsion.” That really made me question many other things in life.

For the longest part of time, I was getting used to giving away the control to my life and that realization came only a few years back. But after that, I have taken control of everything in my life. I know that I have choices. I am responsible for my own choices. If somebody is making choices for me, that is because I have let them make the choice ahead of me. Know that you have to stand up for yourself.

Big mind, small mind: My coach has taught me a beautiful thing that there is a big mind and a small mind inside each of us. The big mind always gives us such a beautiful picture of us and tells us that we are capable of achieving anything. That is true also. The small mind constantly tells us, ‘Hey, you’re not good enough. What happens if you fail?’ It will stop you from doing. Unfortunately, it is the small mind that we listen to most of the time. Instead, if you push yourself and listen to the big mind, beautiful things will happen in your life.

Reach out for help: Do not hesitate to ask for help. This is something that as women, we do not do. Probably, we think we don’t deserve it. When I started putting out my intention, I realized that the Universe conspires to make it happen and I can confidently say that if you’re in a women’s group, the group will conspire to make it happen for you. So do not hesitate to ask for help. The worst you can hear is a ‘no’ but what if you get a ‘yes!’

Money is not a bad word: We are a community of volunteers. But if I want to scale from one level to another and want the impact to be bigger, then I’ll have to talk in terms of numbers and money. I will have to pay our salaries. It doesn’t have to be a big amount like a corporate, though. At the end of the day, I preach that women’s time has to be valued and so, the people who spend time on my community need to receive some sort of financial support. My learning is that money is not a bad word and sustainability is extremely important for this purpose.

Magic waiting for you: I would like to remind each one of you that you are special and you deserve special things to happen to you. It can happen to you, only if you allow it to happen and make up your mind for it. For all this to happen, you have to be part of a community. I am speaking in the MMA network today which has such a great power. There is a community out there waiting to happen. There is magic waiting to happen.

Exit mobile version