It's a Global Problem: Innovate the Solution

The Economic Times - August 2006

I had a set of questions posed to me by the ET team: Why do career women in India struggle so hard with their work - life balance? Are lessons from Nooyi's experience relevant to Indian career women? Who needs to change first, India Inc or the women? They requested that I write a "sharp piece" - which I think means cut out the politically correct BS and get straight to the heart of the matter as you see it. And so I shall, based on the many exchanges I have had with career women around the world, and from my own experience with five "proper" jobs in big and small organizations and then working for myself, while doing the maa, bahu, biwi, beti roles in the forever soap opera that is the typical Indian extended family.

First, Indian women are not more beleaguered or less evolved than their counterparts elsewhere in the world on the issue of the struggle to balance their work role and the rest of their life roles. The numerous serious and funny books and movies on the subject or proceedings of any women's' conference anywhere in the world are testimony to this. The specifics vary by country, but the story of guilt and struggle is the same everywhere. If we have lots more social gender bias and a lot more pressure to conform in our non-work lives, we also have a lot more family and friends' support systems and a lot less professional gender bias. That is in part because we belong to a culture than acknowledges women power and we see facets of it in politics, in settlement of family disputes, in religion and so on.

Are lessons from how Nooyi did it relevant to us here? Based on what I have read. I think so. My take from reading the piece in yesterday's ET, is that here is a person who had the confidence and the spunk to say "I have many roles, I do not come to the work place pretending my other roles do not exist; I do not believe that the sometimes irritating issues that come up when raising kids must be my own private cross to bear or badge to flaunt or halo to shine. I need help from the eco system, which I will create/maneuver/organize/ implement as sensibly and innovatively as I can. And the eco system includes my colleagues at work, not just my non-work friends and relatives. This enables me to work very hard and very well and add real value to all my stakeholders" Just as we are urged to create innovative solutions for work related challenges, we need to do the same for gender specific challenges that we face due to our other roles. These are roles, according to me, that are required not just for us to be fulfilled but for society to be fulfilled too. Our demographic dividend, insha allah, and our social protection of the old are facets of that societal role that we women do play. So in order to dump guilt, let us legitimize and accord equal importance to all the roles that we are called upon to play. In a talent short economy, where college seats of quality are short, our work place participation is an equally important social role too, not to be dismissed as a luxury of "self actualization".

Is our work place ready for us to find innovative solutions? Yes it is. But only if we think of ourselves as a special interest group with value to offer and lead the way by coming up with the solutions; and if we constructively and persistently, individually and collectively, dialogue with our organizations for implementing it. Yes, if women who can, do lead the way and establish precedents for creating new practices that work for women.

For many years, as Deputy Managing Director of MARG, a market research agency, all meetings that needed to happen after six p.m. or on weekends were held at my house around my dining table, because being home was important and necessary for me. My colleagues were fine with it; the quality of tea and coffee was a lot better than the office canteen! Clients were welcome to call at 6 a.m. at home, but they were told that I might not be there during the day if I had a car pool crisis or a PTA meeting. My daughter was frequently in my office doing homework, and everyone accepted her as part of the furniture. Math tutorial I needed to give her during exams was scheduled in my office and treated the way any other meeting would be - with respect. Till she was 8 months old, she lived with my mother in another city and all travel was done by me via that city and the detour paid for by my office. I figure they were doing me no favour - it was the price of having me back to work full time without an extended maternity leave. All these may sound like horrendous solutions to someone else. But the point is that each of us can innovate our own, which balance the needs of all stakeholders in our lives. Do male colleagues resent it? Not any more, as working wives are becoming more common. My finest moment came from a male colleague with a career wife, who said he had no embarrassment interrupting a meeting to answer the maid's phone call about his child's medication, "because you do it often, and I know you will understand"!

Never before have the organizational environments been so favourable for innovating such solutions. Progressive organizations celebrate innovation, and encourage re inventing old practices for something that works better. A trained manpower crunch makes the effort to help women stay in the work place more important than some abstract notion of diversity being good practice. Remote working, telecons and odd work hours are regular organizational features, with work and staff scattered all over the globe.

But HR managers have not yet awakened to the idea that they can win big time, if they think about women not as a problem, but as a consumer segment of considerable value, but with special needs; and hence requiring the creation of customized career offerings and roles that can unlock their value. I have written about this in detail elsewhere, and will be happy to mail a copy to anyone who wants to know more.

But we women must do facilitating this process of "awakening". We CAN create the "next practice" in the work place and relieve ourselves from the tyranny of guilt and misery, and be a more productive force in society and in the work place.