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Case Study: From ‘You’re Worth It’ To ‘You Can!’

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Kartika Rao stood outside the paediatric ICU staring through the glass at a little bundle inside a crib, hooked to all kinds of machines. Baby 27 was her newborn, born 45 days too early. At 4 am, Kartika stood there sobbing, supported by a nurse. Yesterday, a family member had said, "If you had the same commitment to being a mother that you have for your job, this baby would have had a better start...!"

Standing there, she sobbed inconsolably, confused and sad. How easily they had condemned her! All this because last year, when she was ‘told' to have her second baby, she had tried to reason: "We don't need a second child." Truth is also that soon after her marriage, families on all sides had nudged her to give them the real ‘good news'; her elevation as category manager at Teffer India did not touch their souls.

When she showed them statistics and suggested they adopt a child, her in-laws were upset. They wanted a real baby....

In private, she had explained to her husband, Dev, that given their lifestyles, neither had any time to give a child. "We must be fair," she said, "It is not a toy. You and I live via a mobile phone; a baby cannot be brought up using Apps!" Dev agreed too. But his mother had told him to stop being silly.

So they had one child, who was being brought up mostly by Mamooni, the nanny.

Now, here was Baby 27, the answer to "Saina needs a sibling!" This time, the reality of the madness that Indian marriages are hit Kartika. She had caused this... they said. Her own parents were heartbroken; led by tradition, they were unable to comment in any manner.

In her post partum state, Kartika was a mess. Her sister Rajshree, four years her junior, called from Dubai: "Karti, drop the grief, please. You need to take stock. This is your wake up call... You cannot delegate decision-making, Karti!"

Kartika: They are blaming me!

Rajshree: They can go to hell!

Kartika: I didn't cause this!

Rajshree: You know who is responsible for this! They enjoy seeing you in Brand Equity and your quotes! But they won't allow you choice....

When Rajshree arrived that evening, war broke out in the suite at Meadow Nursing Home. "What is the point empowering us to be literate but not empowering us to decide if we want marriage or not?" boomed Rajshree as her parents sat holding their heads. "Ma, Pa, see, Karti kept saying no to a second baby, but everyone was like, ‘arre, what is your problem, you just deliver and we will look after...' Today, everyone is blaming her career!"

Amrita Suri, Kartika's boss and marketing head of Teffer India, also heard all this having just walked in. She sat by Kartika's side, holding her hand as Kartika shook with sobs.

Kartika: To say now that I didn't want a second child will be rejecting Karan (baby). Why wouldn't they listen to me when I said that we cannot afford to have a second child? But they cajoled me and extracted a yes from me. They brought in all kinds of reasons; about Saina growing up selfish and lonely, I just fell for all that.

As Amrita came out and shut the door, outside Rajshree was thumping tables. "Amma, you guys think empowering a girl child means getting her to do an MBA. It means much more, okay? It means letting her make choices, ma!"

Dad: Her in-laws were persistent. What could we do?

Rajshree: ‘We' tell them the girl is old enough to decide! But here we have done a bit of this and a bit of that; everybody is happy except Karti! When Karti was choosing subjects in college, you said ‘this is Karti's life, she must decide...'. But she was doing exactly that last year na? When she kept saying she didn't want a second child, why did you tell her to listen to her in-laws?

Ma: Somewhere she too has to slow down, no?

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Raj: Why?! She is 31, not 80! She must make her choices. Ma, you cannot straddle two lifestyles — one traditional, one progressive. It can be one or the other, and balancing them is Karti's decision.

As Amrita walked towards her car, her ears were ringing with the argument. Yes, the Indian woman did go through a bit more than was fair. Two sets of families, one husband equalled three sets of ideas and a messed up lady manager.

When Amrita reached work the next day, the first to meet her was Abhiram Bose, marketing manager of home hygiene, whose category head was Kartika. "So, there is no saying when she will resume?"

Amrita: She is entitled to 4-6 months maternity leave, so why speculate so early? 

Bose: It's different, Amrita. If all was well, she would have worked out of home. Now it looks iffy. Home hygiene took over four new brands in January. Monsoons are a month away. Ela and Ivy must have huge bursts pre-monsoon.... So, may be you want to start thinking of a Plan B?

That was when Maansi, Kartika's assistant, came up to them and said, "Kartika has asked me to convey her message to you." Maansi read out: ‘I had drawn up a plan for when I will be away. Will forward that today. But nuts and bolts, the plan is for Lalita G.G. from Chennai to come in and step in for me.' She conluded by saying: "It is all arranged...."

Bose: Thanks, Maansi. Forward the mail when it comes, please. [Then to Amrita who wore a half smile] Getting Lg (as she was known) to come here is outside the budget...

Amrita: Lalita's dad, who lives in Delhi, needed a knee replacement. She had the choice of taking three weeks off in Chennai, or stepping in for Kartika in Delhi and straddle work and hospital.

Elsewhere, Rajshree was sulking and venting her ire on her mother, when her dad said, "Raj! This is not good. Don't forget that we can educate the girls — it is up to you to apply that education, child!" 

Rajshree: Education does not empower in India. Real empowerment will come when parents will be able to shake off their fears of tradition. All that they do to their children is an outcome of their fears, nothing more.

Mom: Raj, don't be bitter. It's only a crisis. Just because a problem develops, it does not mean the edifice cannot bear it. If problems do not occur, how will you know if your education has empowered you or not?

But Rajashree was still angry. "Life is not about completing the family album," she vented out some more.

Back at Teffer, Amrita had dealt with all kinds of women issues, but in the past two days she had gained an unusual insight into the duality that pervaded women management in India. Her job was so tough. The marketing head of Teffer India, she had been a strong votary of gender diversity in India. Last year, when Teffer Worldwide (TWW) had asked India to buy into its Gender Diversity Initiative (GDI), India MD Srini Coomar had been anxious. The problem, as he saw it, lay among those educated ignoramuses who derived their sense of ‘I' from a tradition that they bought in parts, in pieces... and then they assembled a life out of all that, toning down tradition to make it acceptable.

To Amrita, Kartika's situation typified the Indian woman's — where a decision was forced upon her. Her periphery comprised IIT super heroes, doctors, naval commanders, teachers and chartered accountants.... Their education had not helped them comprehend that a woman must have choice and expression.  She recalled a near hysteric Rajshree saying, "Education does not empower!"  Not the man, not the woman.

Kartika's mail arrived. It read, "Sorry about all this. Karan is not out of danger and I have developed some infection as well. Meanwhile Lg (Lalita G.G.) will take over for three weeks, with me supporting on BB. Her dad's surgery is on Monday. She will come to work from 12 noon to 5 pm on all days, and will be available on phone at other times. She is a solid resource and I value her immensely...."

Srini came over to Amrita's room, where Bose was present too. "This is so encouraging! I feel good, as if I have achieved something!"

Amrita: We should have the faith that women in senior management positions will invariably take the lead in working out a plan to deal with their portfolio when they are away. I can't think of anyone who will walk away and leave it to others to deal with. I think we must teach our junior lady staffers to think smart.

Bose: Don't forget, there is an incremental cost — even if Lalita is stepping in, she is going to straddle two stools sitting out of the Delhi office.

Amrita: I would view it as a marvelous opportunity to test if  "high-potential" managers at the next level can step up, and then use the experience to build a future pipeline.  

Later, Srini met her in the hallway and said, "Don't celebrate yet. There is this thing that will come up, Amrita: ‘We men are having to step in for women.' And then, won't women come to be seen as ‘always needing help'?"

Amrita: We must expect this and more, Srini. No pain, no gain, haha. But I can tell you from my experience that 3 or 6 months is a very short time in the career of both the lady manager and indeed Teffer. Time flashes past, and teams adjust. They always do, Srini!

But women would have to pay the ‘earnest money deposit', felt Amrita. The proof of intention had to come from women and rightly so, she felt. For example, Kartika was grappling not so much with an ailing infant as with social norms that had mostly to do with straitjacketed roles from an agrarian era.

In the US, where she had worked for 12 years, Amrita had three women under her but they were not in formal marriages. Dealing with them was different. To Srini's ‘How', she replied: "I guess in a live-in relationship, straightaway the peripheral families and the expectations are not there. Then again, in the West, marriages are between the two adults and mostly families keep out. But in India, there is a lot of drama and a capping down of the woman's intelligence verily! I do feel we cannot replicate a GD plan like a template. India is different. We need to examine the core sociological issues."

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Chris Reed (AMEA head, during a telecon): I was reading a White House mailer recently on equal pay, where it was shown that women earned 77 cents for the same job that men earned a dollar for. But what I found compelling was the statement that President Obama made in it — Women are bread winners, too! That in more than 50 per cent American households, women's salaries help pay bills and provide for the family!

Srini: Point being?

Amrita: That women need to recognise that their role in the household budget is serious, hence their approach to income and retaining a job has to change and must necessarily involve independence of thought. Having said that, I think we are dealing with completely different cultures, traditions, upbringing. To think that a GD initiative in the US can be copy pasted onto India... no, it cannot work like that.

Chris: But India has been taking the education of the girl child seriously!

Amrita: No matter how progressive the parents are, there will be covert buying of jewellery and subtle training of the girl into habits and attitudes that she just might need. The point I am making is that some gardening begins even before the girl expresses, so that you have already begun to condition her. The girl is conditioned to think Bollywood wedding, groom on a horse, first wedding night and candyfloss romance. The Indian girl does not marry; she is married off. A decision others execute for her! There you have the DNA for choicelessness!

So, is India taking its girl child seriously? Here is something to chew on: there is an advertisement these days on prime time TV in which a little girl, looking at old albums, asks her mother if she too will get jewellery at her wedding. This agonises the father. Gold prices are going up, he says. To which the mother cheerfully tells him about jewellers who have some scheme that lets fathers save for the wedding gold. So India straddles two stools with no point of view.

These are — you will see, fantasies of the mother. Here is her pet Barbie and she shapes her mind and body... you will not see this anywhere else in the world.

Srini: Amrita, what you say is largely true but it does not always pan out like a bad deal...

Amrita: Depends what you mean. This is about generations of conditioning. About a belief system that is not conducive to grooming a woman professional. 

Amrita's mind flashed scenes from the nursing home and a frustrated, sobbing Kartika, protesting that her decision was not respected. So, she said, "It is an upbringing devoid of logic. It is an upbringing by a mother with conditioning and her in-laws with conditioning, who all jointly shape and slap the new baby girl into a form that their own conditioning demands!

"Then she enters the pre-planned arena of marriage, where more conditioned souls jointly determine the contributions that a woman manager can deliver! So the woman manager comes as a pre-finished product to us, with just a percentage of her will that she can call her own! Hence, the gender diversity act is not going to be as easy as we think. Srini, to complete my argument, it is not about good and bad, because the ability to make choices happens where there is equality, fair play, friendship. And to make fair choices, I do think there needs to be happiness, friendship, nurturing...

Chris: How does this impact our GD initiative?

Amrita: I think trying to replicate the US format will not work. Or, it will work marginally for the rare few who manage to fly over the cuckoo's nest. But if the intention behind the GDI is to add the feminine quality to the workplace, then you have to have a far different programme for India. Far, far different....

India has delusions of growing successful women, but its programmes lack sincerity or honesty. All we have done is increase the length of the leash and we are patting ourselves on the back. But neither am I advocating any rebellion, please. All I am saying is: the Indian woman is a bonsai; her choice-making instincts have been neatly clipped at birth and she has been groomed to do as the rule book prescribes. Truth is that if you want contributing women in the workplace, she needs to have the mental and emotional space to work.

Srini: I wonder if we are overstretching a point... a lot of shift is visible now in India. Just go to the malls and see the young people there. Look at the young girls; they are free to go out with boys, hang out in pubs, wear what they like....

Amrita: That does not indicate anything. Yes, India has more clothes, more malls and less colleges. These girls — throw them in a workplace, can they make that objective shift in the mind? Srini, we are talking about a mindset. That mindset comes with another kind of conditioning. Just as you can condition a girl to think she is designed for home-making only, and she does a fine job of that, likewise you can condition her to know that she has choices in life. But for that we need to talk to our women continuously.

Chris: Yes, then equally you need to examine what the men's role is to be in all this. The Asian male has a story too, no?
Amrita: Frankly, this is not about the men or the infrastructure... we can blame all that till the cows come home. At the root of all this is mental space and willingness. The desire or the drive to be, to be! Will men change, should they not be doing the dishes, should not companies have day care centres, flexi careers, ...should not the cities be safer... yes, yes, yes, but these are not core to a clear-thinking woman. My point is that there has to be a mind with enormous space to make choices and the confidence to deal with the consequences fearlessly. She must be willingly, single-pointedly capable of managing her conflicts and the numerous relationships in her life, yet not lose her feminine grace!

Srini: I think I know where we need to begin. We should let our brands talk. Our brands should become the teachers of ‘awareful' choices — yeah, I coined that phrase, haha.

Amrita: Love it. If our brands tell women to believe that they need to be fair/fairer or beautiful or sexy, the women will teach their daughters too to think ‘body', not mind. If our brands teach her the value of being a contributor to a beautiful world, to be fearless and adventurous, she will take the lesson home and groom her daughter to be free in the head. That generation of women will then come with the ability to participate in managements. Until then, any GD initiative will only deliver numbers, not performance.

Srini: That's even better. Merely educating will create literate women in bondage. We need to take our initiative to the social level and work through our brands on the fabric of society.... Create an environ of respect, equality and nurturing so that this generation encourages its daughters to know they have choices!

Amrita: Including the choice to stay home, and be mom... which should be hers to make!

To be continued

Classroom Discussion
Can a person make confident choices at work, if he has not done so for his life?

casestudymeera(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-07-2012)