When career ceases to be a priority

Saundarya Rajesh | Updated on January 03, 2014 Published on January 02, 2014

Your and Worth

What’s holding back the Indian woman professional?

On New Year’s eve, my grandmother called me: “You remember Sathya, our neighbour’s granddaughter? I believe she has problems at work. Would you be able to help her?”

A chat with Sathya quickly showed me that her ‘problem’ stemmed from a lack of ‘intention’ in her career. I wondered how to explain to my grandmother that what Sathya needed was an internal overhaul, rather than any external help.

My grandmother was a working woman in the 1950s. Without any of the career enablers that we speak of today, paati worked as a teacher, raised a family, cooked and cleaned, and rose from the ranks to lead an institution. To quote Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, the best career decision paati made was marrying the right guy. Her husband stood by her and made sure she did not sacrifice one avatar for the other. Did she face discrimination, prejudice? You bet she did. And these were very different from what today’s young woman professional experiences, because back then the very existence of a career for a woman was under question.

Much has changed in the past half-century. In the early days of women’s workforce participation, the idea of a career woman evoked highly polarised opinions. On one hand she was described as unfeminine and on the other, an object of pity. Writings on this issue, even from OECD countries, dwell on the tough journey a woman underwent to be acknowledged as a serious professional. And today, around the world, ‘the 3rd billion’ — as marketers refer to women’s spending power — clearly evokes serious respect.

In India too, the change is evident. The year gone by saw the advent of programmes that placed up front and centre the organisation’s intent to empower women managers. With a slew of enablers, companies wore their heart on their sleeves when it came to wooing the woman professional. Goldman Sachs, Unilever, Deutsche Bank Group, Shell, Philips, Genpact, Microsoft, Mahindra Group and Vodafone among others created history by pouring unprecedented executive time and effort into women’s careers.

Over a dozen organisations broke old mindsets and prejudices to start second career programmes for women. The SEGUE Sessions — skill-building initiatives for women — saw more than 3,000 women re-skilled for a re-entry, and several thousand others identified. Even with uneasy economic conditions and tight budgets, CEOs accorded pride of place to women-centric programmes. All of which should point to more women professionals, managers, leaders in the workplace, right? But, sadly, that is not the case. In fact, corporate India is still nowhere near the ideal 50-50 gender balance. On the bright side, however, more organisations than ever before have come forward to be counted among those that are welcoming to women.

At a recent conference, a senior woman leader from the US asked me a direct question: “Do you think Indian women really want to have a career?” The reason was her company’s poor showing in the workforce participation rate of women at their Indian arm, in spite of a great many initiatives. Even as I grappled for reasons — cultural ethos, lack of infrastructure, social mores — that held back the woman professional, I also remembered women like my grandmother who had faced it all and then some.

So, what does it come down to? The answer lies in an intentional career, for which the Indian woman professional has to adhere to four basic steps. They could, in fact, be resolutions for 2014 — for enabling a purposeful, fulfilling career for the woman professional.

Grow your network. This translates into ‘make good friends’. Remember the difference between weak-tie networking and strong-tie networking, and ensure you have sufficient numbers of both. Invest in your network and give back to it generously

Engage with your sponsor. You do have a sponsor, right? If not, the first step is to identify one. A sponsoring relationship is very different from a coaching or mentoring one. Learn the difference. Work to make sure that your sponsor continues to repose trust in you and backs you up.

Upgrade your skills. When was the last time you attended a course? Sign up for that online course right away and make sure you are honest about dedicating time to it. Your updated skills will prove to your bosses that you are really serious about your career.

Get your family involved. Husband, parents, children — every relationship that you cherish will have to know your love for your career. Help them to help you, and you will be delighted at how they rally around for you.

If there is one desire that I have for 2014, it is that we have many more Sathyas turning intentional about their career.

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

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Published on January 02, 2014
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