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Why is career growth for working women in India still so difficult? Here are 7 sins women at work need to commit for career growth.
By Unmana Datta
Indian women are brought up to be virtuous, but many of the virtues we are trained to possess don’t serve us very well in professional life. Here are the seven sins working women in India need to embrace to be a successful professional.
Both at home and at school, we are taught to obey our elders. “Because I say so” is deemed to be enough reason for us to do something an authority-figure, someone older and/or with more power, tells us to do.
But it’s the absolutely wrong trait for real life, especially for professional life. Sure, you won’t always get your own way, but it’s your responsibility as an employee to question why things are done a certain way and how you can do better. Keeping your head down and doing what you’re told may be okay in an entry-level job, but it won’t help to get you more responsibilities and promotions.
In my very first project at my first real job, I earned the attention (and respect) of my boss and the other members of the team, all more experienced than me, by questioning why we were doing things a certain way and pointing out flaws in their reasoning. On showing that I had something to add to the team and wasn’t just someone who would do what she was told, I was given more interesting, involved work to do. And it factored into my performance appraisal, where my boss praised my initiative. In fact, she told me later that that one meeting had made her sit up and take notice of me.
“Children should be seen, not heard.” I don’t know about you, but at home and at school, I was encouraged to be quiet and just listen. But at work, you have to make yourself heard. Especially if you are – or want to be – the boss.
A recent study revealed that women speak less in meetings where more men are present. “The research indicates that women, in any number of settings requiring deliberation, are not necessarily being heard — even if they’re present.”
Speak up. Make yourself heard.
In school, we’re taught to blend in, to conform, to not make waves. At work, you still have to fit in with office culture, but having a unique perspective is usually an asset. You need to think independently, to demonstrate your unique value, to get ahead.
Take prominent feminist Gloria Steinem’s advice: “Eliminate caution.”
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Girls are taught to be demure and polite — who cares what we really think?
But at work, it’s not enough to just think differently from anyone else – you need to present your opinion in a memorable way, to speak so that you make an impact. Women are socialized to couch their thoughts in polite words, to add disclaimers like “just what I think” or “in my opinion”, or to present opinions as questions, “Don’t you think it might be better if we…?”
But talking this way makes you seem less sure of yourself – and if you don’t seem to believe what you’re saying, why should anyone else? Being direct, even blunt, will earn women at work the respect of their peers and superiors.
Indian women are taught to efface ourselves, to think of others first. But if you don’t look out for yourself, who’s going to?
In her much-acclaimed TED talk, Sheryl Sandberg shared an anecdote about a meeting with a senior government official (male) and two women, also senior officials, who had come with him. Sandberg invited the women to sit at the table, but they sat at the side of the room. That’s the anecdote Sandberg used to tell women to unapologetically take a seat at the table. As Sandberg says, “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table.”
Raise your hand if you were taught not to tout your own horn. That works well enough in a social setting – who wants to sit next to the braggart at the party? But when it’s appraisal time at work, you have to present your own accomplishments and demand your just rewards.
Heidi Miller, the former head of J.P. Morgan’s international business line, said, “Women need to make sure they get credit for their work.” Miller also said: “Women short-change themselves in terms of competency to do a good job.”
Sheryl Sandberg again: “Women systematically underestimate their own abilities… Women do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce… And most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves and women to other external factors.”
If you have asked once for permission to go out and play (or for a promotion), you’re to wait politely till they notice you… but good luck trying that in the real world!
You have to keep following up, whether it’s to get another department to give you the information you need for your project, or to get your manager to meet you to discuss your performance. As you learn to be selfish and take ownership of your career, you also learn to be persistent when you are sure you are right. In business-speak, that’s called being a good salesperson.
Am I saying you should be arrogant and rude? No. Some of the behavioural traits you learnt as a girl hold true – be polite, be considerate of others, be fair. But learning to think for yourself and to speak up for yourself are essential for working women in India to achieve professional success. Act like you are in charge, and soon you might be.
*Photo credit: Victor1558 (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)
Unmana is interested in gender, literature and relationships, and writes about everything she's interested
I know its a rat race… bit to be very honest Unmana, i don’t think it can be applied in our government organsiations… i have earned the ire of a lot of people asking a few questions!
In the present world it’s a need, I strongly agree, but gut is required for this ice breaking!!!!
I have faced a situation where I was asked to leave midway during a training session which I was asked to attend through a mail where top management was present. I replied stating my dissatisfaction and that I was barred from learning but was instead reprimanded by the HR that they will take strict disciplinary action against me if I again forward such mails. That’s Corporate India Maam!! What’s your take on this?
This article is spot on. I agree that most women tend to be hesitant about voicing their opinions in meetings and get sidelined in the process. And it is difficult to break out of years of training to be moderate and soft spoken. Every sin you mention is really necessary i think.
Gitima: Rat race? I hope you didn’t infer that from my article! 🙂 And yeah, I have no idea how government organizations work, but if it’s like you say, I’m sorry.
Subhalaxmi: Quoting Gloria Steinem again: ““Eliminate caution.”
Jhimli: I don’t understand from your comment exactly what happened, but I have no doubt that there are many such organizations, where you are expected to just do what you’re told and shut up.
I still don’t think that’s the way to success, though.
Priyadarshini: Thank you, I’m glad you agree! And yes, it’s difficult to break out of the years of training. I’m still trying to let go of some of my issues and be the professional I want to!
Very good read Unmana! All the points are relevant in corporate and government offices of India and abroad. Unfortunately very few women want to speak up, speak loud and feel confident about that. We need to learn this!
I completely agree with what you’ve said. It takes guts and confidence literally spilling out from you to intimidate the opposite sex. Not that intimidation is a must, but in a male dominated society like ours, it is sometimes required. Otherwise women are just expected to hush and take it all.
Loved it. Very timely too. Clearing my.throat to speak up loud and clear. Another thing we’re taught is to be responsible for everyone else’s feelings…except ours.
Loved this! You are spot on Unmana! The reality might be different for a few people as some of the commenters pointed out above, but these “sins” do need to be committed again and again. I learned the hard way that not touting my own horn will cost me acknowledgement for my accomplishments. I got a pleasant surprise to find out that my current bosses really noticed and appreciated my speaking up at meetings. That was a real confidence booster.
Another lesson I recently learned is even if you are not sure you’d get what you ask for, you HAVE to ask. You just might get it! Sometimes we limit ourselves thinking “Oh I am sure I wouldn’t get *this* if I asked for it”. “It” could be anything – a raise, a new responsibility, a perk, training. I asked my boss if I could take 6 days off as “training days” for my college-trip to China which was part of my MBA program. He wasn’t sure so he asked the HR and was told that it was his decision. In the end I got the 6 days off without having to dip into my paid vacation time! I once asked my boss to hand over a few of his responsibilities because he was extremely busy and was stretched thin. To my surprise he did hand over those responsibilities and at the end of the project, those very responsibilities became crucial in getting me a promotion and a raise.
One important lesson I learnt in my first job was perception management. It was the art of showing that you are working in a way that others take notice. When I focused only on doing my work, no one noticed and instead gave me a low rating. A senior mentor gave me this advice and it actually worked. e.g The same calls that I would make in my cubicle I started making when my boss was within earshot and suddenly I was doing good work. I would say it is a necessary evil and since it wasn’t in my psyche to do this, suddenly perception management started to seem like hard work.
I always flew high in life and fast…Did my first business for 7 years and this second business almost close to 5 years but one wisdom competition I’m so small all alone what was said to me at my final business plan and dream presentation….at the Goldman Sachs 10000 Women Entrepreneur program at ISB Hyderabad cant say a thing well I took this program last year and yes competition I agree and my business is in legal Financial Manpower and varied crisis issues this year closing down wonder weather I gained or lost. In double minds if I now take up a Job somewhere AND USE THIS SCHOLARSHIP TAG TO GET IT SOONER or should I start a new company a new business well life’s so complex gets even more complex in every present even more than the past but cant stop irony…
Don’t even know how to close these complications and company except by spending all i earned or more than that.
Wish i had real power of assistance and real support form somewhere to grow faster
So Good, completely agreed.
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