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The inner ceiling

Gender equality has found prominence in organisational goals, encouraging more women to take up
leadership roles. However, professional women still face challenges while dealing with social coding,
corporate stereotypes, and inner voices.



s an HR professional, I have
the privilege of officially
having conversations beyond
PowerPoint presentations
and Excel sheets. Stories of
aspirations, lives lived, values,
fears, challenges, and many
individual aspects that create our identityboth
professionally and personallyare part of my
regular discussions.These conversations often end
up in self-reflection. Most often, it is inspiring
and energising. However, it sometimes does leave
me exhausted, and with an acute sense of despair
and helplessness.

During one of the early stints in my career,

we hired a significant percentage of fresh, bright
women engineers from various campuses in South
India. Many of them were from small towns and
villages and had received government scholarships
and community aid for their education. These
innovative minds did not take much time to
create their own niches, and soon transformed
into technical leads working with global teams
and travelling overseas. It was a dream come
true, until they reached the next phase in their
livesmarriage and motherhood. Less than 10%
continued to pursue their careers beyond ten
years. I noticed a few key themes that emerged
from my discussions with these women and
their managers:
Women who quit their job mid-career were
unhappy, but accepted it as the norm and were
prepared for it.

Women who continued fighting all odds were
consideredlatentlyby their social circle
as over-ambitious, money-minded, or
insensitive, especially if they were new mothers.
Women who continued with their careers had
an uphill task proving their commitment and
long-term career aspirations to the organisation,
and were kept away from critical assignments.
Organisations framed best practices to attract
talented women and eliminate any biases during
reviews. However, they did not provide any
psychological support or specific interventions
during these life-changing junctures.
High performers who returned to work after
sabbaticals were demotivated and ended up
in non-critical roles. They either looked for
alternatives to live up to their potential or lost
the zeal to perform.








Quotas: long journey cut short?

A big move in 2015 that addressed the glass ceiling
was the Securities and Exchange Board of India
(Sebi) issuing a mandate for public companies to
have at least one woman director on their board
by March 31, 2015. The media reported a mad
rush to find and appoint new women directors.
Most family-run corporations appointed daughters,
wives, sisters, or mothers as board members and
successfully averted the crisis. Many corporate
honchos critically viewed this move as tokenism,
while few others felt it was a good leap forward to
introduce diversity into the boardroom.
Do we need such diktats to achieve gender
parity goals? I am afraid we may permanently lose
the fight for equality if we take this quota route.
We have successfully eliminated the education gap
in the last decade. In India, female enrolment in
higher education rose from 6.7% in 2002 to 19.8%
in 2012, while that for men rose from 9.3% to
22.3%. Women contribute 30%-35% of the total
workforce. Women CEOs are becoming the new
face of India Inc. Indian women are engrained in
all professional fields, and are carving out a niche

Breaking ceilings through generations

Indian women contributed significantly as freedom
fighters in the push for Indian independence. Post
the independence struggle, women have played
key roles such as teachers and nurses in building
the nation. They gradually took up government
and private jobs. Since the 1980s, there has been a
significant transformation with women shifting to
management roles, especially in the financial sector
and gradually in other industries.
The mid-1990s witnessed another dynamic
change, when women entered the technical
industry with IT/ITES, and rapidly made progress
in the male-dominated science and technology
domain. It was impossible to imagine a woman
CEO in the 1960s, a rarity in the 1980s, but a
distinct reality in the 2000s. The momentum is here
to stay, with women steadily becoming a significant
part of the workforce. However, progress to senior
management roles has been much lower. Where do
we go from here?

Lately, there has been an upward trend with

more women making a steady departure from
norms and staying back to reach new heights
in their careers. However, boardrooms are still
male dominated. Changes embedded in corporate
systems are taking a long time to shift and, at the
same time, traditional socio-cultural frameworks
are taking even longer to melt. The first one
is commonly known as the glass ceiling, and
the other one I refer to as the inner ceiling.
I believe this is key to change, and needs specific
interventions at organisational and individual levels.

The middle-class
working women pool
is still dormant when
it comes to senior
leadership roles.

as entrepreneurs as well. We
definitely need more focus and
impactful interventions. The
problem at handonly 10% of
corporate women reach senior
management levels and less
than 4% become CEOsis
undeniable. However, creating a
quota is detrimental and only ends up posing a new
challenge to women leaders.
Marching into the leadership ring the role of
the rising middle class
Multiple research studies have proved the positive
correlation between a highly diverse leadership and
increasing revenue. Progress is inevitable and more
visible, especially in business houses and upper-class
urban families. In the past, business families were
quite particular about having a male child to take
over and manage the family business. Today, they are
grooming their daughters to take over the baton.

Laudable examples such as the TVS, Apollo, and

Lupin have created role models for the community.
The middle-class working women pool is still
dormant when it comes to senior leadership
roles. The rising middle class in India does give
prominence to higher education for women and
pursuing a career. In the last three decades, they
have established themselves as hardworking,
committed, and effective leaders. An important
shift has been the transformation of purpose.
Earlier, women from the middle class joined
the workforce mostly to support their families
financially. Today, they join to build a career and
obtain job satisfaction. However, the female talent
bucket is still leaking across all industries. Where
does the challenge lie?
Growing up in the North East, I never realised
the gender inequalities that exist in our society.
Equality is a way of life in the North Eastern states,
especially in tribal communities. That is probably
the reason why it took me a long time to relate
to the evident, but underlying pathos of women
managers. During my interactions with women
leaders, I found some common trends among
those from middle-class families. Despite their
long careers, they still grapple with a dilemma,
caught between deeply-rooted traditional roles
and the demanding organisational responsibilities
as one advances in the corporate world. They
tend to relate professional growth with personal
negligence, feeling guilty of being more involved in
their work. Women feel responsible for depriving
their families of nurture and care. These dilemmas
create immense pressurewomen either give up
or rebel, both of which distorts inner freedom
and peace.
Leadership is not a defined role; it is driven by
individual passion. Middle-class women dapple
with multiple roles, with little or no time for
themselves. As a result, they frequently ignore their
inner voice which plays a pivotal role in creating
successful leaders. This, I feel is one of the biggest
challenges face by working women today. Apart
from education, middle-class families have to value
equality in all aspects of life. Women should be
more aware of their self-defined inner ceilings, and




unshackle them . They have to take charge to define

their roles and build their unique identity, all the
while listening to their inner voice.
One of the recent role models for this segment
is Arundhati Bhattacharya, the first woman
Chairperson of State Bank of India hailing from
a small-town, middle-class family. She lived
in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, through her teenage
years and joined SBI after graduating in English
Honours. While working in the
public sector, she was posted across
various cities. She also took up
We often hear that
challenging assignments in India
women who have
and the US, while bringing up her
climbed the corporate
daughter with the support of her
family. She considers progressive
ladder have put in
conditioning as one of the key
twice the effort.
reasons for her success.


Mazumder is


Different leaders do things differently

Masculine corporate structures define successful
leaders as aggressive risk takers and decision
makers, who stand tall under pressure. Women
meanwhile are perceived as soft, nurturing,
and poor decision-makers who may fall
apart in crisis. Not to mention their lack of
networking skills.
We often hear that women who have climbed
the corporate ladder have put in twice the effort,
battling biases and negative perceptions. During the
course, many have acquired masculine qualities,
while others have successfully built their individual
identities. To retain female talent in the workforce
and elevate them to leadership roles, organisations
have to accept their multifaceted roles within and
outside the office. Here are some thoughts for
organisations to ponder on and implement:

Creating space for different styles of
leadership. Women managers bring in a
different set of strengths and values. They are
intuitive, multitaskers, creative, and have a
holistic approach.

Providing psychological support
during critical life junctures, including
professional counselling.



Role models play an important function. Teams

with successful women leaders tend to have
more women leaders in the pipeline.

Investing in interventions that help women
leaders become more aware of their dilemmas
and dualities, and supporting them to resolve
the dilemmas.

Specialised training interventions for
both gender leaders to understand their
intrinsic biases that are deeply rooted and
hence blindsided.
During a mentor-mentee workshop, I was
asked by mentors to give a checklist of mustdos for future women leaders. Trying to create
such a checklist will be detrimental to the
uniqueness of every individual. However, a
few thoughts and practices frequently shared
by successful women leaders on what they do
differently are:

Dream bigembrace the new opportunities

Stop blaming otherstake charge of your
dilemmas and make strong decisions

Let go in transactional areas, both at home and
officeown areas which create value

Form a support system of parents, in-laws, and
domestic help to manage the domestic front
stay close to people at the office and seek help at
work when under pressure

Up-skill both on the personal and professional
frontsgrab new opportunities as well as
demand, and take up challenging roles

Travel when possibletravelling creates
experience, and gives time to reflect and
introspect (I followed this tip during one of
my low phases when I had to respond to many
ifs and buts all around me. I planned my first
solo trip to the Scandinavian countries, and it
left me with a unique feeling of freedom that
is difficult to express in words, but I still feel it
every day)

Last, but not least, networkhave a
mentor in your professional space, build
your circle of influence, and play with your
relationship strengths.




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