Sisterhood of corporate success

Saundarya Rajesh | Updated on July 11, 2013 Published on July 11, 2013

There is great value in the relationships you forge at a networking event.

Women’s networks help professionals acquire friends, knowledge and confidence.

My friend Jessy, a 36-year-old successful senior manager of a well-known foreign bank, called last week, her voice full of angst. Reason: the arrival of her mother-in-law from Thiruvananthapuram to spend a few months with her. Not that Jessy and her mother-in-law are adversaries.

“I love Amma, and she is a complete dear, but she simply does not believe I can manage my home efficiently... that with two school-going children and as a working couple pursuing high-profile jobs, I am making it all happen. It’s a matter of three months for her, but for me, a problem of managing all the repercussions,” she moaned. Apparently, Amma had insisted on teaching Jessy cooking, while the live-in cook (appointed after an intense, no-holds-barred search) fumed in the corner. Some TLC from her understanding husband and an astute discussion with the mother-in-law helped avert a full-blown catastrophe and, in short, relationships remained intact.

Elsewhere, Roopa, a general manager at a large retail group, recently moved into a new role reporting to a female vice-president. She expected her boss to be more understanding about her difficulty in managing a home and two teenage kids. “But she behaves as if I were the very personification of inefficiency. I wonder whether she would have reached her current status had she worked under unsympathetic bosses like herself!” Roopa fumes, adding, “I am forced to recall what my mother used to say: ‘women are the worst enemies of women’.”

Is there any truth at all to the rather widespread belief that senior women are not the best of allies for their younger compatriots, whether at home or outside in the workplace? I would strongly disagree.

Today, a significant number of companies in India are focusing on ways to improve the 24 per cent women’s participation in the workforce (2011 National Sample Survey Organisation data). Many are attempting to shore up women’s presence at the board level from the paltry 3 per cent at present. Mentoring programmes, special recruitment drives and second career opportunities for those returning after a break are among the ongoing efforts to attract and retain women at the workplace. Adding an important dimension is the emergence of the women’s network groups.

Women professionals at a leading MNC have given a resounding thumbs-up to the concept of women’s network. In a recent study by the company, close to 98 per cent agreed that networking helped them not just acquire friends but also build knowledge, gain confidence, manage situations with the group’s support and last, but certainly not the least, obtain mentors. A women’s network fosters relationships that operate on what Prof Mark Granovetter calls ‘weak-tie networking’ in his book Strength of Weak Ties and Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers. It essentially means that your second-or third-degree connections — precisely the relationships you make in a networking event — could provide greater value than your strongest ties.

That corporate India sees senior women role models as a great source of inspiration and motivation for junior professionals is clearly evident from the large number of women’s network groups coming up around the country. In fact, such groups are increasingly recognised as critical retention tools to prevent the exodus of valuable women talent.

The past three years alone have seen the launch of several women’s networks including Vaahini of Accenture, Shakthi Oli of Integra, Women’s Business Council of PepsiCo and other groups belonging to Standard Chartered Bank, Wells Fargo, Intel, IBM, Cadbury Kraft, GE and Microsoft. Senior women executives here are taking upon themselves the responsibility of supporting women mentees for a better professional tomorrow — one where more women are on the rolls and a gender balanced environment is facilitated.

Women role models, mentors and just about any professional you meet at a network will make it look real for you — they are living proof of how it actually works. For young, ambitious women at the threshold of their career, a role model serves to keep aspirations flying high. A network interaction shows that you too can make it, a la a Kiran Majumdar Shaw of Biocon or a Kirthiga Reddy of Facebook India. Women at PepsiCo and ICICI Bank often speak of the tremendous influence that an Indra Nooyi or a Chanda Kocchar has had in shaping their career decisions.

Coming back to Roopa, all she had to do was watch Meryl Streep’s class act in the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster The Devil wears Prada. As the ruthless and cynical female boss, Miranda Priestly, to Anne Hathaway’s struggling young subordinate, Meryl was unforgettable. But as the story unfolds, one realises that deep within the seemingly unapproachable superior lies a perfectionist mentor — one who settles for nothing but the best.

So, Roopa could walk away from the movie with one of two emotions: Realisation that even though female bosses may have a redoubtable reputation for being mercilessly demanding, they force you to raise the bar rather effectively; or, relief that her boss was not Miranda Priestly!

The author is Founder-President, AVTAR Career Creators and FLEXI Careers India

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Published on July 11, 2013
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