Friday, February 10, 2017

At 24, Sarita Lives Life On Her Terms

Met a woman today who blew my mind. As is my wont, I chat with cab and auto-rickshaw drivers, servers in restaurants, household help, vegetable and fruit wallahs, et al. It gives me a more holistic view of people and their lives. And it teaches me heaps.

Today, I met and chatted with Sarita Dixit who drives a Meru cab. I was frustrated with not being able to find a single OLA or Uber to get me to a important meeting, so I called Meru. I expected a male driver to call me (talk about stereotyping!) and I was lucky to get Sarita. As she drove me to Gurgaon, in unbelievably heavy traffic, we chatted. I asked decidedly invasive personal questions and she answered me with great honesty and dignity.  Here is her story (almost in her own words, converted from Hindi as best as I can).

Sarita was married at the age of 16. A school girl who knew nothing of life, having really not lived life to have enjoyed it. She was married for 4 years to a man who beat her at will. She accepted that being beaten was something that just happened. If a woman hit anyone, she was called shameless. But when a man hit a woman there was no shame, so it was OK.

In 2012, when she was 20, her husband died in an accident. Her in-laws threw her out of the house, saying that they had no use for her or her 4 month old child. She went to live with her parents, and learned to drive. At first she did private contract driving for JNU professors and then for some NGOs.  Then in 2014, she was a part of the first batch of women trained to be drivers by Meru. 

She tells me that she works hard. She is at the end of a 24 hour shift (worrying, no?) She wants to earn enough to support her parents, and ensure her son has a good education. Hard work does not bother her at all. 

I decide to take Sarita for coffee and a sandwich at Barista (I've had to cancel my meeting in Gurgaon due to traffic jams, and she hasn't eaten for hours). We continue to chat.

We chat about her safety as a woman driver specially in early morning and late night trips. She says she is prepared. She has learned self defense, and has a panic button in her car. She works for Meru as Meru has verified passengers. Also that the police are very supportive of women cab drivers. 

The biggest detractors to her career has been relatives & neighbors and male commercial drivers. Relatives and neighbors tut-tut at her wearing trousers and working outside the house and at all odd hours. They want her to get married again. She does not want to be dependent on a man. Male commercial drivers resent a woman taking their job. Her take - its not their job. They are not as good at it as she is - so - it is her job. Let them beat her if they can!

What does she need? Sarita wants more public restrooms (she is recovering from a kidney infection caused by holding her urine for hours). She wants help to understand and utilize government schemes for the poor. 

She leaves me her number and asks me to call her if ever I need a cab.

And she blows my mind away!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Ladies, Stop Looking Only For Women Mentors, Coaches, and Role Models

March 2013: Women of the Border Security Force
Lead the Beating Retreat Ceremony at the Wagah Border


Time and again we hear:

1. Why are there limited women role models?
2. How do we find more women mentors and coaches?

As a woman who has worked ~30 years in male dominated industries, companies, and teams, I have rarely sought out a female mentor or coach. My role models have been successful people. People. Not just women. People who have skills, value systems and behaviors that I admire, and want to learn from.

This could possibly be because 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago there were even fewer women in senior roles in the companies I worked for or networked with than there are today. So I am even more surprised that in this day and age, where there are so many more women in the workforce, women are still looking for gender specific mentors, coaches and role models.



Why are women seeking other women to be their mentors & coaches?

Gel Pen Coloring by Mercy Valson
1.  I believe women-only programs, tho' well intentioned, have built a belief that only women can and will help other women grow personally and professionally. The question to ask is whether you believe that as a woman you can grow without the men who can form upto 95% of the workforce in many companies and industries.

2.  Women tend to think that only other women can understand them. Not true. This is like saying that only a parent can understand another parent. Any rational adult can understand and empathise with another adult.  Gender is not the determining criteria.

3.  A successful woman can tell another woman how to get there. First, no one can tell you how to achieve what you want. They can help you find the way by asking you the right questions. You have to do the analysis and introspection, define your goals and time frame, acquire the skills needed, etc. All this has nothing to do with gender.

4.  A woman can aspire to be only as good as another woman.  Really??? If that was true, we would never have had a woman astronaut or Prime Minister or pilot or a hundred other careers that were male-only bastions. Women who are passionate about what they do and want to achieve their dreams, don't care about whether there are other women in that space, they just go out and create space for themselves.

Why looking for women mentors only may slow your growth?

Photo: www.womenmeanbusiness.com
1. Often there are too few women in management to be able to mentor women across all levels in an organization. A mentoring relationship is a long term relationship and needs investment of time and energy. It is also a two way relationship. If you are a woman looking for mentoring from a senior woman leader, then remember she can't mentor 10 - 20 people. At best she can effectively mentor 2-4 people at a time. Are you one of the 2 people who she can and should mentor?

2. If you are working in a male dominated industry, would it not be better to have a male coach or mentor? Someone who can help you navigate the system, a system that he is familiar with, whose language and nuances he has worked with and through? Wouldn't it be great to have a male advocate in a male dominated company? I have found many male colleagues who are great developers, nurturers, supporters, and promoters of woman. We need to identify and reach out to them.

3. A role model is a role model. They are achievers. They have value systems and behaviours that are admirable. They have lived real lives and have real stories to share. Finding the right role model to emulate is far more important than the gender of the role model. Looking for gender first limits your choices of role models and hence your growth.

4. Looking for only a woman mentor or coach may just be re-enforcing your subconscious belief that your gender is more important and dominant (or restrictive) that your knowledge, skills, behaviours and attitude. Question why you are looking for a woman as a mentor or coach or role model. If it is because you feel comfortable talking with women, it may be time to break out of your comfort zone. If breaking out of your comfort zone is difficult, then actively find a woman mentor or coach to help you - there are many good women out there.

There are times when a women mentor or a women only forum is just what you need. A place to voice your aspirations, challenges, and struggles with other women. A zone where there is the comfort of privacy or people just get it without too many explanations. Just as you need this space, so do other women. Find these forums and actively work in them, mentoring other women. Sometimes paying-it-forward is the best way to find the right mentor for yourself.

So, don't wait for your company to start a women's network, or a mentoring / coaching program.  I believe women would benefit from spending some time, ideally facilitated by a professional, charting their goals, understanding their competencies and what they need to develop to grow, finding the best mentor or coach, learning how to approach them, and committing to working with mentors and coaches.


Just as all professionals invest in acquiring qualifications & certifications
I am asking women to invest in personal coaching or mentoring
Within and outside their organizations
By a coach or mentor, whatever their gender

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

7 Key Components Of A Successful Gender Diversity Program

Are gender diversity programs in corporate India only about the ratio of female to male employees? Or about assertiveness training and power dressing? Are these programs delivering only flexi work policies and childcare crèches in offices?  While these are all key issues that need to be addressed by gender diversity programs, there has to be more. Much more!  

I believe that an integrated program to encourage and celebrate diversity needs to be inclusive. The program needs to address how women think of their careers. It needs to bring to fore unconscious biases that exist in the way we think and behave whether we are men or women.  It needs to help us appreciate and leverage the gender differences in our world-space (not just the workplace). 

Here is my list of Must Have's in any Gender Diversity Program

Courtesy SHEROES
It's Gotta Start from the Top. Organizations can spend as much money as they want on Diversity Programs, but if they don't OWN it, at leadership levels, then it means nothing. If employees in the organization don't see women in top leadership roles, women who are respected across industries and countries as professionals, women who have got those roles because of their calibre vs. their gender, then any diversity program will be seen as hollow. Also, women in leadership roles will ask the right questions and challenge the program to be better. 

Have Sponsors / Champions with an Emotional Connect. Sponsers / Champions don't have to be women.  They have to be individuals who have a strong connect and deep understanding of women's issues. If you can't find someone like that, then look for people who have struggled with and overcome discrimination or have strong authentic stories of overcoming odds. 

Courtesy www.48days.com
Believe Gender Diversity is good for Business. Gender Diversity Programs are NOT an HR initiative. If gender diversity is critical for business, then should not the program be managed by a business manager just as marketing programs are? Gender diversity programs, tho' mostly managed by HR, are successful if they can articulate the impact of diversity on key business metrics.  For a gender diversity program to be effective it must have diversity measures (that go beyond ratios) for managers. And these measures must directly impact managers' compensation, career growth, and opportunities.

Courtesy SHEROES
Rebel Against Stereotypes. A real diversity program is NOT about women wearing pink on Women's Day! Women (and men) are multi-faceted - they want careers, play games, listen to music, eat at nice places, smoke cigars, drink wine, love adventure sports, like road trips, play guitars, read books, etc. See how best you can add value to all those facets. I find it frustrating that on the occasion of International Women's Day, companies continue to target women as if their only interest is in spas and salons, shoes and bags, clothes and jewellery, or how to look slimmer and younger (for thier husbands, boyfriends, or in preparation of marriage!) 

Formal Coaching /Mentoring Program. Coaching / mentoring as a part of gender diversity programs need to be formalised. Both the coach and the protégé need to understand what is expected of them and by them. These programs must include members of the dominant group (men) as coaches and mentors. Coaching and mentoring helps women articulate and craft careers that best suit them. It helps them navigate corporate lanes to move onto the fast track.

Courtesy www.womenmeanbusiness.com
Women Have To Believe That Careers Are For The Long Term. In India, often women (and their families) see careers as something that women do before marriage, or at worst, till they have a baby. I have often heard women say "I am lucky. My husband / in-laws allow me to work." This tells me two things - that the women themselves see a career as a SOP or that their career is of lesser value than other things. Diversity programs need to help women recognise why they want careers and how they can commit to careers as if it were a marriage - be in it till death do us part. They may even need to involve family members actively. 

Must be Inclusive! And above all, any successful Gender Diversity Program must be inclusive. Accept that most workplaces are dominated by men, and that they are as involved and invested in enabling and empowering women to grow, as women are. Men have to be an integral part of any Gender Diversity Program - in training, in mentoring and coaching, in ensuring that policies start moving from being not just women friendly but employee friendly. For example, inviting and encouraging men to attend women's networking sessions helps women network with the people who can be their sponsors.