These leading ladies took on historically old boys’ clubs and how

Afraid of businesses where women are rare? Read on for a booster dose of courage

“‘It must be that time of the month’ – I’m sure someone has said this about me behind my back but I’ve definitely heard the men say it about my co-workers,” reveals Moelis India CEO Manisha Girotra. For the investment banker who spent 25 years to build a reputation as a markets maven, being a tough taskmaster often meant being referred to as just another woman being “dictated by her hormones.” One couldn’t expect anything better in an industry where a woman was a rare species. Girotra adds how often the skewed sex ratio meant that women found themselves restricted to the HR department and back office or often found themselves tasked with not-serious assignments like preparing stock statements.

However, it wasn’t just the financial services sector. Entrepreneurs like Hemalatha Annamalai, who had already proven her mettle while at the helm of four start-ups, also encountered their share of sexism albeit in a non-distinct way. But the computer science graduate, who returned to Coimbatore from a well-settled life in Singapore to build the ‘Tesla Motors of India’, had devised her own fierce way of dealing with it. “When someone asked me, ‘Who is the man at the helm of the office?’ I’d say I am,” she declares in her nonchalant manner. While Annamalai chose ferocity to assert her authority, Guneet Monga, the hidden face behind critically acclaimed films like The Lunchbox, struggled to voice her opinion as a 21-year-old film producer.

“I would often remain silent during meetings and then post that would text my opinion to my male team members,” confesses the co-founder of Sikhya Entertainment, who was one among the only two women to be featured in Variety’s International Women’s Impact Report for 2018. Earning a spot on a list of members invited by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the global film body that organises the Oscars, was relatively easy. But, progressing from location manager to line producer to finally executive producer, was the result of trial and error with amusing tactics. “So, I’ve dyed my hair grey, worn sarees to meetings just to look older, because having an opinion on content or about packaging or releasing a film was discouraged as a young woman producer,” she says.

Don’t forget who you are

Despite being among the few women to represent their gender in industries that were formerly considered as male bastions, the stereotypes didn’t stop. Girotra recalls the times she lost out on business because of the erroneous assumption about a woman’s career longevity. “In my profession, a business transaction would take anywhere between four-nine months to reach completion. Be it when I was to get married or when I was pregnant, people would wonder, “Is she going to quit? That kind of discrimination was there and you’d lose out on business because of that,” she explains.

While Girotra dealt with finding a convincing answer for the repeated questions on career longevity, Annamalai had some pre-conceived notions to dispel when she ventured into the automotive space. “When I started out in Coimbatore, there were already women who would help out their husbands in the family business so it wasn’t particularly shocking to see women work. But, there was this myth that women can’t handle manufacturing,” she says. However, that didn’t stop her from aiming for gender balance at her enterprise, wherein 30% of the workforce comprises women from the industrial town itself.

At a time when the ecosystem they worked in refused to alter their perspective to women in male-dominated industries, these achievers decided to change their own perspective of the problem at hand. Annamalai argues how she was always cognisant of the fact that her vendors and suppliers come from homes where they aren’t used to see the women working or even at the helm of an enterprise. “If you show them that you’re decisive and have a thorough understanding of your business, they gradually come around to seeing you for the position you hold rather than for the gender you belong to,” she avers.

And Moelis’ Girotra believes this is an approach that women at the helm of corporate boards also need to adopt. “If you’ve joined the board as a woman, keep in mind that it’s more awkward for the men who are witnessing this paradigm shift. So, the onus is on us to take our board roles more seriously. Understand the business as it’s different from what you do, read your papers and contribute,” says the woman who serves on the boards of Ashok Leyland, Mindtree and Jio Payments Bank.

While thinking of oneself as a professional first seems to be the cardinal rule put down by these women, Monga believes that there’s nothing wrong with leveraging your instincts as women. “As women, we tend to be more organised and certainly work with more empathy. Qualities that come in handy when you’re managing over 200 people day after day,” says the producer who’s produced 25 films and managed to secure a British Academy of Film and Televisions Awards nomination in 2015.

When push comes to shove

They might have succeeded in disrupting the work environment in male bastions, but their work isn’t done yet. The next goal is empowering more women and the work is on in full force. Monga has a tip for female producers itching to make it big in the movies, “If you’re not from the industry, first find the right production house to work for and the right director, then grow your team and build your network. Be open to possibilities and never say no to a job because you find it beneath you. I did everything that came my way.”

Moving beyond the individual, Annamalai is of the opinion that a change can be driven faster when championed by an organisation – and that’s exactly what she’s doing. “Often the pay parity in most manufacturing units is different. We ensure that women are paid the same remuneration as men for performing the same job. The idea is to train more women to not just become managers, but leaders,” says the CEO with a vision to have an equal representation of women on her shop floor.

And back in the boardroom, Girotra has no complaints about women-friendly corporate policies. While she’s all praise for the flexi-working hours, and offline work allowance and crèche facility at work, she urges the environment to change at home. “Today, the problem isn’t that there are not enough women entering the financial services sector. But rather we aren’t able to retain them. So, I’d say join the profession only if you love because it is tough. Find a partner at home and a mentor at work, who can enable you to stay the course in the long run,” is her piece of advice. This apart from her little advice to organisations that arrange gender diversity workshops. “Make it mandatory for the men to attend. What’s the point of holding a workshop for women who already know what the problem is? The idea is educate men at the entry level itself that certain biases and behavior patterns are just unacceptable.”

So, the next time you hear someone saying that the profession you chose is a male bastion and that may be a disadvantage, you may want to remind yourself that if these women could do it, so can you.

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