According to a 2017 global survey by Grant Thornton on women in business, India ranked third lowest in having women in leadership roles for the third consecutive year. There is a serious gap of women leaders when it comes to moving up from middle management to senior management roles. We need to consider that one reason for the same is women’s talents and skills not being recognized at work sufficiently.
A few examples illustrate the challenges women face in finding the confidence to express their strengths at work.
Never encouraged to speak
Lakshmi Sivan*, a young woman in the product design industry, working in a team largely consisting of men, was unable to fully articulate her innovative ideas for the client project she was working on. Although a talented graphic designer, she lacked the confidence to express her ideas, coming from a family where girls were rarely encouraged to speak.
One day, her business manager scheduled time with her and enquired why she was not speaking up at team meetings. The ensuing discussion in a supportive atmosphere helped Lakshmi express her apprehensions. Her manager subsequently reorganized team meetings such that every team member was consciously offered time to speak and share their ideas.
Often, it is our experiences that condition us. Lakshmi’s positive experience has ensured that next time she wants to speak up, she will not toy with the idea for days. It was the organization’s inclusive approach that raised her confidence in this case.
Prachi Goyal*, an engineer, talks of a very different experience. Due to health reasons, she discussed the need to work a 9-hour day instead of the 12 hours she was routinely putting in. While her manager was initially empathetic, his earlier expectations returned within two weeks. Despite having received good appraisals previously, her requests got her tagged as someone who was creating trouble for the team.
This toxic mix of being misunderstood and talked over has conditioned Prachi. What would you do, if you were in her place? Would you allow your vision to be colored by negative experiences?
How organizations create the space for women to express themselves
Managers, who are aware of acute biases, across industries, employ ways to be more inclusive. From ensuring that every single team member presents their opinion on issues, to religiously holding regular one on one sessions, they contribute towards inclusivity. However, such leaders do not arise in a vacuum but need to be trained by organizations.
Medhini Singh*, a manager at a pharmaceutical company, felt that she was losing promotions at work due to her work from home arrangement. For two years in a row she did not apply for a more senior role, since she believed it would not be entertained. When she attended a Leadership Development workshop, the trainer encouraged her to speak with her manager.
It was only on speaking up that she realized that the manager had perceived her to be less ambitious and decided not to "burden" her with a senior role. The training provided by the organization helped her understand what was holding her back.
Is it surprising that even women leaders can be susceptible to this ignorance?
Unconscious bias around how women should present themselves has shaped our attitudes for generations. It is only now, with greater discussion of these issues, that women and men across the globe are forced to pause in their tracks and introspect why there is a severe dearth of women leaders worldwide.
Organizations today realize that getting more women to move up the ladder can only be done by embracing an inclusive culture and by building in that confidence among women to "speak up."
Lately there has been a flood of training interventions on Diversity and Inclusion across organizations. However, the sheer size of an organization makes it a mammoth challenge to change an individual’s conscious and unconscious bias. The emphasis is on unconscious bias here, because more often than not, undermining a woman’s point of view/accomplishments is so ingrained in us that we aren’t even aware that we are doing it.
People perform best when they feel valued, empowered and respected by their peers.
It is time we understood that diversity drives efficiency and effectiveness. And no corporate or organization can boast of inclusion, until it is a space where women can freely speak up of their aspirations.