Be the woman of your choice

The piece below had the following comment from a reader.
More than KV Kamath, the credit in ICICI should go to N Vaghul. The environment was conducive for the growth of women managers and the necessary flexibility was extended to women. They were given leadership roles during his tenure and by the time KVK came in most of them (lalita, kalpana, Chanda, Shikha, renuka et al) were in very senior positions. Of course, it is to KVKs credit that he took things to their logical conclusion and other women managers rose to prominence as well. Recently a global fund manager from US ranked that in all his experience ICICI is probably the most gender friendly corporation in the world!

Be the woman of your choice

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How can the rest of us emulate the women who have risen high in a male-dominated?

Shoba Narayan

It has been a great few weeks for women. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, in literature. Malala Yousafzai didn’t. She is young. If she stays the course, she can earn it in the coming years. The Nobel committee—perhaps smarting from 2009 when they gave the Nobel Peace Prize too early to the US President Barack Obama, who didn’t deserve it then and hasn’t done much to deserve it since—gave it instead to an organization so obscure nobody has even heard of its acronym—OPCW. Janet Yellen will likely be confirmed as the first female chair in the Federal Reserve’s 100-year history.
India’s 206-year old State Bank of India recently got its first female head, Arundhati Bhattacharya. Should he wish to, one of chairman Cyrus Mistry’s legacies could be mentoring and promoting women within the upper echelons of the Tata group, something that no Indian man in a position of power, save ICICI Bank chairman K.V. Kamath, has done.
The good news continues on the education front. Elite American universities are doing a lot of soul-searching about inclusion. Harvard Business School (HBS), under dean Nitin Nohria, just completed an ambitious “gender makeover” programme where it tried to answer the question: Why were women who entered with the same grades and scores as men falling behind during the course of the HBS programme? Under Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, women enrolments in its computer science programme went from 10% of the class in 2006 to 48% this year. In fact, most of the top US schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wellesley, University of Pennsylvania, and my own alma mater, Mount Holyoke, all have (or have just had) female presidents. This is not the case with the Indian Institutes of Technology or Indian Institutes of Management.
In a bow to this issue, I must mention the sad news of the demise of María de Villota—a trailblazing former Formula One driver, who died last week in Seville, Spain. How did she rise high in a male-dominated sport? How did Yellen and Bhattacharya do it? How can the rest of us emulate them?
India has about 30% women in the workforce, but this shameful statistic includes vast sections of society who are not the target of this piece. The target of this piece is much more modest: if you are a Mint Lounge reader who doesn’t work or you have a wife/sister/daughter who doesn’t work, this piece is for you. Why aren’t these women working?
There are many reasons why women drop out of the workforce, or don’t enter or re-enter it. Financial security is one culprit; raising children is another. Have you heard this line before? Have you uttered it? “My husband works such long hours. I have to stay home with the kids”.
This “Mommy Myth”, as books call it, looms large in the minds of women. They truly believe that their children will turn out better if they are home. I would like to suggest that this is not the case.
The factors that create successful individuals are complex. You’ll have to begin by defining success. Is it an achievement in the worldly sense or about integrity and character? Each requires a different approach.Sh
Most successful Silicon Valley (US) companies are run by ruthless, self-absorbed men who lack empathy and compassion. Are these the kinds of individuals that you would like to raise—and nothing wrong with wishing that your son or daughter turns out to be a Twitter founder like Jack Dorsey or Evan Williams, both of whom brushed out co-creator Noah Glass from the equation without compunction.
When moms stay home, what is the end-goal? If you want a high-achieving son, having an absent or estranged father seems to help: witness Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, former US president Bill Clinton, Obama, and the late founder of Apple Inc. Steve Jobs. Then again, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Microsoft creator Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton all grew up in stable homes. Which of these environments do you recreate and will it presuppose greatness? Some, like psychologist Steven Pinker, argue that it is all genetics anyway. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker suggests that a lot of our character and personality is because of our genes, something that Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt substantiates. In a provocative piece: “Do Parents Matter?”, Levitt and his co-author say that letting children watch television for hours does nothing to reduce their intelligence. “Parenting technique is highly overrated,” they argue. Reading to them at bedtime does little to increase their IQ either. So parents, particularly mothers, can relax and do the things that they want to instead of doing it “because it is good for the child”, etc.
Staying home to shape your child’s character is a dubious proposition at best and doesn’t account for future events. Circumstances can prod people into greatness, or they can cause great people to stumble and fall like former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. director Rajat Gupta. Some part of it has to do with dumb luck or destiny. Geography is an influencer: People who had a peripatetic childhood are different from those who stay in one place.
Perhaps it is time to accept that parents, specifically mothers, are just one cog in the wheel of a child’s life. Our contributions are more modest than we would like to believe. If you accept this argument, the only remaining question is: What do you want to do? Not you as a mother, daughter, sister or spouse, but you as an individual who happens to be a woman. Choose your bliss because the cliché is true: You have only one life to live.
Shoba Narayan’s bliss is morning coffee on a jasmine-scented swing with Raga Hamsadhwani in the background.