indian women at work

For Women at Work, This Is What Works

Being a working woman in India is not easy. Nearly 1 in 5 of us have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. We earn 62% of men’s salary for equal work. We occupy just 3% of legislative, management, and senior official positions. We’re told we can “have it all”—but social institutions and cultural norms restrain our ability to truly balance our professional and personal lives.

No wonder, then, that India has the lowest national female labour force and the worst national pipeline for junior to middle level position women. Moreover, just 39.5% of Indian women between 25 and 54 were economically active in 2010, compared with 82% in China and 72% in Brazil. By failing to nurture and promote women at work, India is limiting its growth potential and missing out on economic development opportunities.

The government is seeking ways to address these challenges, like mandating female representation on corporate boards and in village governments. Some companies are also taking steps to become more “female-friendly,” instituting sexual harassment policies, day-care centers, and late night security vehicles.

These initiatives are all positive signs, but it is going to take time and perseverance for their impact to bear fruit. Meanwhile, 97.2% of women in India aspire to jobs with increased responsibility. While we wait for our institutions to catch up to our needs, is there anything women can do to advance our comfort and success at work?

Prominent voices in pop culture suggest that if women submit to the rules of the male-dominated work culture (no matter how gender-biased these rules may be), we can eventually work our way up and initiate changes that benefit many women in the company. This line of thinking prompts women to “lean in”—keeping up with our male colleagues by imitating them: sitting at the male-dominated table, being assertive, seizing promotions, and negotiating. Proponents believe that leaning in promotes a virtuous circle: “You assume you can juggle work and family, you step forward, you succeed professionally, and then you’re in a better position to ask for what you need and to make changes that could benefit others.”

Critics, however, assert that leaning in hurts women and the movement for gender equality – forcing us to be submissive in order to get ahead. They believe that leaning in does little to advance the dialogue on creating a more progressive workplace, nor does it help support the larger goal of having men and women mutually participate in office and home activities. Leaning in also risks making women feel that we are to blame if we cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have an active family and home life. It may also be a luxury of the wealthy: the average Indian woman struggling with cash flow and kids may not have the time or desire to lean in.

So, realistically, what are some small steps we can each take to enhance our work lives today? The question is not whether or not we should lean in, but how we can best manage our day-to-day lives in order to meet our larger personal and professional goals. The answer will vary across women and cultures, but here are three actions that can help all women as they navigate their careers.

1. Know thyself

In order for women to have greater success at work, we need to know what it is that we actually want in our professional lives. Don’t compare yourself to others, or measure your progress by standards that don’t align to your goals. You may want to become a better writer, make 50 lakhs per year, establish a reputation for getting the job done, make more time for your family, or certify your professional credentials. You’re likely to have several goals, but it’s important to focus on your top three, and pursue them with laser-like focus. Write them in prominent places, where you’re likely to see them often. At the beginning of each day, decide at least one practical thing you will do to help you achieve your goals. At the end of the day, reflect on your progress towards reaching your goals, celebrate it, and think about how you can do a little more the next day.

Some women don’t know what they want, and that’s ok. For these women, it’s helpful to make a list of goals that focuses on meeting new people and trying new things. This way you’ll gain greater exposure, and discover what you’re passionate about along the way.

Other women want to work less, not more. They want to spend more time with family, indulge other interests, or simply have a slower pace of life. These goals are equally as valid and important as the goals we have to step up or do more in the office.

Whatever your goals may be, the important thing is to know thyself. Ensure that you keep your goals, values and boundaries in mind every time you make a decision – such as how to express your perspective in a meeting, whether or not to accept a promotion, or how to handle an aggressive colleague. If you maintain focus and perseverance, you will absolutely start making progress towards your goals, overcoming some of the constraints of your environment.

2. Find and learn from a mentor

Once you know your goals, identify someone who can help you achieve them. Find someone who excels in the skills you want to develop, or has achieved the outcomes you desire. Due to a lack of role models and formal training, women often need extra support in core leadership skills like influencing people, working through problems, and negotiation. Therefore, it’s often helpful (though not 100% necessary) for women to have at least one female mentor who can identify with the challenges we face, and thus be more qualified to help us overcome them.

Your mentor will be your coach and counsel, whether you’re honing a technical skill or a soft skill. This person should be someone who believes in you, both personally and professionally. They should understand your skills, potential and goals, and help you to identify relevant career opportunities. They should help you progress through providing wisdom, knowledge, experience, constructive criticism, connections and resources. They should question your choices and help you think through problems in order to refine your self-awareness and confidence.

So, how do you get yourself one of these mentors? First, you have to decide that you deserve to have a mentor. Many women never get a mentor because they don’t feel that they deserve one, or they don’t have the courage to ask for one. But, as long as we’re committed to making the most of our mentoring relationships, then we are all entitled to them. Once you have identified a potential mentor, explain why you would like them to mentor you, express your admiration for particular qualities they have that you want to hone, and be specific about how much time you’ll need and each of your responsibilities.

The truth is that people feel good when they help others, so your mentor target will probably be happy to work with you. Plus, mentors also benefit from the relationship, nurturing their leadership skills and gaining fresh perspective.

As the relationship develops, let your mentor know who you are. Share your life situation, hopes, fears, ideas and goals openly, even if your mentor has quite a different background or style. Follow through on your mentor’s suggestions, letting her know that you’re serious and value her inputs. And be prepared for your mentoring sessions, coming to the conversation with a good idea of what you would like to focus on during the time together. Together, you and your mentor will enjoy the positive results you see in your career from your ongoing efforts.

3. Nurture your confidence

On an individual level, there are two major elements of professional success: competence and confidence. Across industries and disciplines, women prove to be as competent as men. However, a vast confidence gap separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. Women are more likely to assume the blame when things go wrong, and also more likely to give credit to others for their own success. When a challenge arises, men are more likely to attribute it to an external problem, while women are more likely to assume personal failure. These disparities stem from both nature and nurture.

Confidence, however, is not related to performance. While men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both, their performances do not differ in quality (Source). Female reticence at work, then, holds us back from progress we deserve. In order to advance, we have to start nurturing our confidence and claiming our successes.

Here are a few things you can do to build and exert your confidence at work:

  • Identify your strengths. Make a list of your top ten achievements, and your greatest assets. When an event or situation makes you nervous or hesitant, remember these strengths and successes—and remember how good they felt. Now think about how you can apply those strengths once again to feel the joys of achievement in this new scenario.
  • Kill negative thoughts. Most women have a ton of automatic, negative self-talk that inhibits us from taking confident actions when we need to take. Look for the patterns of thought that take you to a place where you start second-guessing or over-thinking.  What are these thoughts, and when do they arise? List down 10 pieces of evidence that refute these negative theories about yourself, and come up with a positive affirmation to replace the negative thought. Learn to catch yourself every single time you tell yourself that you can’t have, won’t get, or aren’t good enough to get what you want, and repeat the positive affirmations instead.
  • Give yourself a break. You’re not perfect, but then who is? The person who is going to remember your mistakes the most is you. The important thing is to learn from them—and that’s what your boss and colleagues want you to do. The next time you mess up, be brutally honest and ask yourself what you gained from the situation and what you lost out on. Based on this win/lose balance,  come up with an action plan on a different choice you can make next time, and be glad you learned your lesson when you did. Then let it go.

Taking conscious efforts like these to build your self confidence will embolden you to feel good about your achievements. It will put you on a more even playing field with your male colleagues, who tend not to suffer from the same crises of confidence that we do as women. Most important, feeling confident about yourself and your work will help you take even more brazen steps towards your future goals. 

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While these steps alone will not solve all challenges of Indian women at work, Badal Ja! believes in the power of small steps leading to big change. These three steps can help women take control of their happiness and success at work, and contribute to a larger movement to empower female professionals—whatever our individual goals may be.