Can Women Win?

Ground realities have changed, but more importantly, it is the self-belief of women that has seen a sea change. More and more women now believe it is up to them to take charge, even though a perfect level playing field is still some time away

Can Women Win? - ITNEXT
According to Monster’s Salary Index Survey 2019 released a year back, women in India earn 19% less than men. The gap was 20% a year before. 
In a 2018 study, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce came with a similar number. It said for every one dollar earned by men, women earned 81 cents—that is the same as what India had, albeit a year later.
The Georgetown University study, somewhat allegorically titled, Women Can’t Win, found that despite making educational gains and pursuing high-wage majors, women still earn less than men.
You could blame society, gender ratio in educational institutes and a whole lot of other things to reason why the men-women ratio in business is so skewed. But what explains the wage gap between women—who make it and fight all societal odds to stay put in their jobs and perform—and men?
In short, that is the issue. Not wage differential per se: that is the manifestation of a bigger issue—that of women competing as equals with men, and winning. 
And be in no doubt. We have enough logic and examples to show that on an individual comparison basis, there is no issue. But if in the collective, it becomes an issue, the problem lies with the system.
“Why women can’t win?”
Let’s ignore, for a moment, what has happened historically. Are things too different today? Let’s look at the gender ratio of NEXT100—India’s only award for next generation IT leaders—the future CIOs.
Over the ten years of its existence, NEXT100 has produced 1,000 winners. Precisely 52 of them are women. That is a little more than 5%. That is the ratio of winners in the next generation.
In the first five years, the ratio was a meagre 4%. In the next five, it has increased slightly to 6.4%, with continuous rise in last three years to reach 8 winners in 2019.
Yes, just eight out of 100 winners are women. 
In an area like enterprise IT, where numbers are not high, this is precisely what we need to debate—why women cannot win, despite a lot of change.
What exactly are the issues?
We spoke to NEXT100 winners themselves to figure out what they think are the real issues and solutions. While they specifically talk about enterprise IT, most of the reasons apply well to any profession—maybe expect for a few where women do dominate, such as public relations, HR and teaching. 
While these women IT leaders touch upon a wide spectrum of challenges, issues and possible solutions, four underlying themes come out—two major challenges that still exist and two possible solutions, as articulated by them. 
The Challenges
While we have come a long way in the diversity path, some challenges do remain. These are the two most important ones identified by the NEXT100 winners.
Societal expectations & stereotypes still exist. Despite women’s education, professional success of some women, the broad societal expectations do exist, proving once again that it is not an individual woman’s issue; it is a system issue and that system included society as well, not just corporate environment.
“A lot of women leave their jobs to spend more time with their family"
Pratibha Monga, Group Manager, LG, CNS India and NEXT100 Winner 2019
The society has not moved at the same pace than the workplace, rue many.
“In the last thirty years, women have made more progress in the workforce than at home but at home, the rate at which men share household responsibilities is increasing very slowly,” Neha Misra, Global Program Manager, GE Transportation and NEXT100 Winner 2019 puts it so succinctly.
“Family plays a critical role here and a more open-minded family environment definitely helps women make progress at the workplace,” says Meetali Sharma, Coroporate Risk, Compliance & Information Security Leader, SDG Software India and NEXT100 winner 2016. 
“Women are often asked how they manage family along-with work, which male counterparts rarely are,” says Shweta Srivastava, Chief Information Security Officer, Paul Merchants and NEXT100 Winner 2018.
“We don’t hear men asking for advice on how to combine a marriage and a career"
Neha Misra, Global Program Manager, GE Transportation and NEXT100 Winner 2019
So, all talks of level playing field goes for a toss. Even if you manage to create a level playing field within an organization, the onus of “combining the marriage with career” or “managing family with work” is on women. 
Well, it is somewhat understandable that these things change slowly. But potentially more dangerous is the stereotyping. Says Misra, “Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives.”
The issue is not new. But concrete action on this front—which is beyond the ability of an individual enterprise—has to evolve from wider consultations. 
Flexi-hours & hiring more women cannot lead to diversity. As compared to say just 10 years back, organizations are doing much more to promote diversity. Some specific initiatives have become popular, as they are easier to do, measurable, and are often easy to demonstrate to the outside world, as they get good media space. 
Not to say that they are not real issues. They have gone a long way in making the workplaces and workplace culture far more suitable for women than ever before—which, over centuries, have evolved according to the needs/habits of men. 
But they by themselves do not ensure diversity. 
“Diversity policy should not just be a number that can be published in the annual report ­— it should effectively address the bias against women at work place and it should start at the top," says Priya Dar, Head - Digital Strategy & Innovation, Amway India Enterprises and NEXT100 Winner 2016. 
Take Women’s Day, for example. We are flooded with requests for carrying quotes from CEOs and senior leaders about diversity and there’s a lot of boasting about how much women are hired from campuses. 
“Diversity hiring is not the answer. It just increases the number of women and nothing else - if the policies are not conducive to us, we will move on" 
Priya Dar, Head - Digital Strategy & Innovation, Amway India Enterprises and NEXT100 Winner 2016
It is important to remove the bias that exists—and that is a result of a male domination for centuries. 
“A climate of systematic bias, a working culture that excludes women is at the center of the problem. Broader cultural changes are also needed"
Saritha Kaza, Deputy General Manager - IT, Toshiba Transmission & Distribution Systems (India) and NEXT100 Winner 2010
Agrees Sharma of SDG Software India, “Gender biasness needs to go away by providing equal responsibility and salaries to men and women.”
That brings us to something this story started with: wage gap that still exists between men and women. That is surely not because of family expectations or anything like that. Till the gap remains, it can hardly be called level playing field, flexi-hours and extra maternity leave notwithstanding. 
“Pay gap between males and females is an important factor, which discourages women to excel in the field"
Shweta Srivastava, Chief Information Security Officer, Paul Merchants and NEXT100 Winner 2018
While some organizations have consciously tried to promote diversity, by taking a number of distinct steps, often they fail to change things at the ground level. As Dar of Amway India says, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
The Solutions
So, what will make women win? Or rather, making them go for the win. Most women IT leaders agree on two. 
Nothing succeeds like showing them it is possible—or rather, it has been possible. 
Women at top: they inspire and influence. 
Most of the women leaders agree on one thing. There is nothing quite like having more women at the top. They not just serve as role models, they could actively work to remove the inherent system biases. 
Right from attracting more women to an area to show the path to the top, women performers can contribute in many ways as role models. 
“In enterprise IT, women role models; achievements should be widely discussed and publicized to attract more women into this area,” says Kaza of Toshiba Transmission & Distribution. 
She says, not just as role models, a few women at top can make others far more confident. 
“For example, have at least one woman on every interview panel. A female panellist can help other female applicants feel included,” she illustrates. 
“More women in leadership roles will make them (women) feel more motivated"
Neelima Sharma, Digital Officer, Hindustan Zinc and NEXT100 Winner 2017
“These forerunners will play the role model for many qualified women and will certainly inspire a lot more women to opt tech as career option,” says Srivastava of Paul Merchants.
In fact, Misra of GE Transportation goes a step further when lists fewer women in leadership roles as a gap. “Lack of women as role model in leadership positions in the industry is a challenge,” she says. 
She is quite unequivocal in identifying that as a reason for the bias or discrimination in the system. “Since there are already a reduced number of women in leadership roles, it is not possible for the junior women to get enough support,” she reasons. 
‘It is upto us now’. While unambiguously stating that there is a societal and organizational bias, many women now exude a sense of confidence that with all that has been done by organizations so far and changing outlook, it is probably time for women to influence and move ahead like never before. 
This is a voice that we are hearing for the first time from senior women leaders. While it is true that many young women starting their career are confident and often reject this talk of diversity and intervention by organizations, interpreting it as women being treated as ‘somewhat inferior”, most women in middle and senior levels do recognize the gap as real. That is because the challenges manifest themselves as they grow up on the ladder—be it their own needs of balancing work with more family responsibility or simply encountering challenge in delivering managerial duties in a male-dominated workplace.
But we hear some no-nonsense voices from these women IT leaders. 
“As women, we continuously underestimate ourselves and hold back when it comes to applying for a challenging job or taking risks in careers. Taking initiative pays off. Even managers with good intentions may not notice hesitations, hence taking risks, choosing growth, challenging ourselves, and asking for opportunities are important elements for managing careers irrespective of gender,” says Misra of GE Transportation, her voice exuding the confidence that now women know what to do, beyond trying to fight for the needs.
“Women do want to express more but most of the times, they cannot"
Kavita Sood, Quality Assurance Manager, Girikon and NEXT100 Winner 2019
Apart from expressing themselves, they need some softer skills too.
“Enterprise IT demands not only multiple technical skills but also various other skills like negotiation, cross functional teams management, networking, frequent travel, etc. 
There are obviously less choices and more constraints for women and naturally, this deters many women from choosing this as a preferred career and has resulted in the low numbers of women currently in Enterprise IT roles,” says Kaza of Toshiba Transmission & Distribution, quite matter-of-factly.
It is Meetali Sharma of SDG Software who is most outspoken about making the point.
“While no one can deny that challenges do exist for women and women leaders have a responsibility to see that it becomes smoother for the younger lot, it is also true that we cannot just keep complaining. Women must take charge,” she says. 
She adds that beyond biases, there are certain ‘limitations’ that exist within women. “Few women like to talk about their achievement. Sometimes, we think men just take too many breaks to go for a smoke and hang around. But I have seen, they often discuss work—and most creatively at that. I am not saying we should ape them but we cannot take a theoretical approach to work. These things are important too” she says. 
A typical problem that more than one point to is the taboo associated with a man and woman getting more personal. That is never questioned between two men or two women. For example, a hard conflict in the course of work between a manager and the subordinate is forgotten over a drink in the evening. Few women managers can do that; fewer subordinates would even think of going for such a sitting. 
“A woman’s own desire and will to succeed, enhance knowledge, take up additional responsibilities and gain visibility in the workplace definesthe solution, to a great extent"
Meetali Sharma, Corporate Risk, Compliance & Information Security Leader, SDG Software India and NEXT100 Winner 2016
“The ball is now in our court,” she says with an air of confidence. Women can certainly win. And there can be no better motivator than this one. 
If women individually are performing as good or as bad as men, but collectively still far behind men in the businesses, it cannot point to anything other than presence of a systemic issue. 
And forget not—here we are not even talking of more women or women’s issues but how they can win—and more importantly seem to be winning. 
For a start, we should stop debating if intervention is needed. Centuries of domination by one gender makes the system biased, even unintentionally. 
Take for example, a junior manager who, more than anything else, is interested in getting his work done with most efficient resource utilization. If he excludes a competent woman executive in a project team because he knows that she will go on a maternity leave anytime, is it gender bias? It is clearly not, on the part of that individual but it is, on the part of the organization, if the organization has not put a system in place that will encourage that manager to still include that woman despite her potential maternity application.  
How many organizations today have systems to address that? Very few. 
But it should be done in a manner that men do not find intimidating or unfair. More than anything else, that needs sensitization. They need to be told why it is important from a societal, organizational and their own points 
of view.
One of the newest concerns regarding lack of diversity is a possible bias induced in machines that learn from humans. If there is no diversity, we will carry that bias to the machines. It is a real danger that many technology forecasters warn against. 
It may be an irony, but at the end, if machines make us humans think and rethink—that too for a good cause—where is the harm.
Women, men and machines—rest assured, women can win.
Read our ITNEXT March 2020 Magazine to view the entire list of NEXT100 Women Winners through these 10 years.


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