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Aparna Jain’s new book, Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do, does not pose as a sugar-coated, ready-reckoner, How-To career guide for the Indian working woman.
The powerful, uninhibitedly shared personal experiences touch on issues so close to my heart, that I needed frequent breaks to process the raw, riveting stories. Read this for an eye-opener on hard truths, for how women just like us effectively deal with it, and succeed in spite of.
The title didn’t ring right initially. It sounded awkward. Why would every ‘working’ woman already reeling under ‘it’, wish to “Own it”? Would I have tried sticking it out if I’d read this before joining a corporate career?
Every chapter in the book first lays out in bare bones heavy, often horrific experiences, and then moves on to the self-help for how you can also own it. The book is a deep read and the beginning of a conversation we haven’t been having in our workplaces and homes.
Accepting the reality is a pre-requisite to owning your growth. And that’s where the title finally started to make sense.
One can’t help but compare it to Lean In. I found Own it the perfect next step to detail the Indian ethos, covering in depth policies, visions, leadership thinking and strategies on inclusion and diversity, how in many workplaces ‘’diversity is just a danda’’.
Close to two hundred women leaders across industries spotlight issues, some typical for women globally and several peculiar to the Indian sphere. I could effortlessly relate to the stories, free as they are of leadership-speak and corporate speak. You hear the women’s voices straight from their hearts, workstations and homes—here is where the book scores big.
Aparna starts with bias; about men needing to ‘woman up’. She helps differentiate between conscious bias, from typical male chauvinists—basically discrimination—and the harder-to-handle silent bias, from men (and women) who think they are forward thinking and open. She recommends the Implicit Association Test (IAT), online tests developed under Project Implicit, where we can all test for the biases we don’t know we have.
Aparna dives deep into this painful, sensitive topic in the second chapter, a perfect prioritization. Sexual harassment rates high among the real reasons women don’t enter, or easily leave the workforce. The content throws a bright light on the shadowy truths about how policies are (or aren’t) implemented, and the complicity one encounters from those trusted to support vulnerable women. The nuanced stories powerfully, yet objectively, highlight shades of grey (sic) coloring the interpretation of sexual harassment, its various guises, and what zero tolerance really adds up to.
The ‘Man and his Mother’ narrates how women effectively, compassionately and firmly handle their mothers-in-law. Take a hard-hitting tour of Indian homes, where individualistic career aspirations clash violently with the family’s group aspirations, and Indian marriages, where husbands are threatened by their wives’ careers. “What drives women to leave work is the lack of validation, the lack of significance attached to their office jobs.”
The book powerfully pinpoints the number one reason many ‘working’ women are unhappy—the home and the husband, not the workplace. Women are tigers in the workplace and lambs at home. Aparna rightly asks, “If you can’t manage your life at home, what hope do you have of managing teams, colleagues and bosses at work?”, but misses the point that Indian women are raised to adjust, not to demand.
The book slightly disappoints in hardly exploring, other than flexi-time and maternity leave policies, solutions to managing dependent care, whether for children, elders, siblings or pets. But there’s always room for this in a sequel!
‘The Women Impedimenta’ presents how women prefer to take the high road, and not engage in ‘dirty’ politics. They need to understand workplace realities, broadcast their accomplishments, or make their demands. Women often assume their inherent disadvantage and do nothing about it. The book opines that you must counter these biases. People will make assumptions about us as women, and then if we allow it, decisions about our careers. It’s time the woman moves away from victim mode, to become that someone taking responsibility for her own future.
The book ends with an excellent reference for difficult conversations and negotiations, from finding a sponsor, starting a mentoring relationship, ’Bragology’ (how to blow your trumpet), the stereotypes we often fall into to sabotage ourselves, such as the Sacrificing Supporter and the Shrinking Violet. The crucial difference between aggression and assertiveness is covered meticulously, as is visibility.
Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do
“The ceiling isn’t glass. It’s a very dense layer of men.” While the best quote in the book stayed with me throughout, the book fell short for me in squarely exhorting the women, not the men, to own it. Sheryl Sandberg said it, and Aparna says it too. Women need to support women as mentors, policy makers and leaders.
The truth is, for most Indian women, stepping out of their homes and into office is such a biggie, that the numerous barriers to our career growth often make us return vanquished to home and hearth. How many of us will fight back and soldier on? When the patriarchy created it, how about men and women dismantle it together?
It’s still only a women’s problem—80% of the men the author contacted, neither wrote back nor acknowledged her mail. 94% of the women did. It’s heartening that the narratives end in the thriving go-getter women fighting back, excelling anyhow and making a change at whatever level possible. It does not tune much into the surviving women who have to climb mountains just to enter and stay put.
Work with the reality or try to change it? Own It talks about some of the solutions. That we’re just finding our voices is crystal clear with the request for confidentiality from most women featured in the book. But we’re beginning to talk, write and read about it. The conversation must continue.
You may buy a copy of Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do here, from Flipkart, Amazon India, or Amazon US.
Image source: woman at the office by Shutterstock.
I'm currently a communications specialist in the corporate world, and mom to a teen
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