Social and other biases continue to hobble women at the workplace. Setting goals, building networks and seeking out mentors and sponsors can help

At the 2015 World Economic Forum in January in Switzerland, Alibaba founder Jack Ma attributed the Chinese e-commerce company’s success to the relatively large presence of women in its workforce. Women hold 47% of all jobs and 33% of senior positions at Alibaba. “Women think about others more than themselves, which is the key to our ability to serve users,” he said.

Studies show that women corporate directors are more likely to make decisions through consensus-building and collaboration, incorporating the interests of multiple stakeholders, in turn boosting company performance. A 2007 report by the US-headquartered non-profit Catalyst, for instance, showed that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on boards had reported a significantly better financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest.

According to “First Step: India Overview”, a 2013 report by Catalyst, India’s gross domestic product could potentially jump by 4% if women had more opportunities in the workforce.

Yet globally, full-time working women earn 77% of what their male counterparts do, according to a 2014 survey by the US-based Pew Research Center. According to a 2015 Catalyst report, a meagre 4.6% of the Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 chief executive officers (CEOs) are women.

Many a time, the blame cannot be laid at the door of organizations. Women themselves end up prioritizing duties such as childbearing, child-rearing and elderly care over a career. Catalyst reports that over 80% of Indians believe that “changing diapers, giving kids a bath, and feeding kids are the mother’s responsibility”.

Social biases

“While it is difficult to generalize as each individual operates from a unique circumstance in terms of attitude, ambition, priorities and socio-economic background, one won’t be off the mark to say that the path for women to meet their professional aspirations is laden with a heady cocktail of issues like family responsibilities, gender biases and a shortage of role models that can prematurely knock women off the workforce, or have them settle for less challenging or dead-wood jobs,” says Mumbai-based Mini Menon, executive editor of news channel Bloomberg TV India, and regional chairperson of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Indian Women Network.

Society imposes its own expectations. So women are sometimes forced to back off from certain kinds of jobs, owing to concerns about travelling alone or working night shifts, or forgo career-enhancing opportunities such as relocation.

“Our social norms define a man by his career, and by giving him the tag of the primary bread earner, drive him towards a steadfast and unmitigated focus on career. Women tend to perceive careers and economic independence as a means to an end, and not an end, unlike men. Therefore, women can sometimes afford to work out of choice, experiment with alternative careers and be more multidimensional,” says Mumbai-based Vikas Goswami, head of Good & Green, the corporate social responsibility division of Godrej Industries Ltd and Associate Companies.

Workplace biases

Women, it would seem, just can’t escape stereotyping. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2010, married women with children fall prey to the unconscious bias of being perceived as less flexible, less available, less committed and, hence, not leadership material. Senior unmarried women are looked upon as “different” or even threatening and, therefore, are less likely to be supported. Pregnant women are perceived as less authoritative and more irrational, regardless of their performance.

Whatever their personal choices, women tend to lose out.

In a 2010 interview to Forbes magazine, Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t, said success isn’t based on performance alone. It is just as much an outcome of a supportive ecosystem, comprising mentors, sponsors and bosses, that facilitates visibility, an understanding of organizational culture, access to opportunities and navigation through the labyrinth of political dynamics in an organization.

Goswami points out that building relationships takes not just skill and effort, but also time—something women may not be able to spare. Isolated from informal networks and the proverbial old boys’ clubs, they tend to be less current with organizational dynamics, and disadvantaged in forging relationships and building bridges. Mumbai-based Savita Mathai, senior vice-president of human resources at advertising agency FCB Ulka, says it is time constraints, not a lack of skill or competency, that stop women from proactively building and managing their networks.

“Men are more at ease with the idea of having a mentor or sponsor, who most often are senior male bosses. Many women are uncomfortable with this as it could involve a lot of one-on-one time with these sponsors, and they are sometimes wary of how this might be construed. As a result, women miss out on a very important aspect of mentorship,” says Menon.

The solution

In a candid work-life balance discussion at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival, a global forum for leaders, soft drink brand PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi famously proclaimed that “women can’t have it all”. Several times a day, she said, one is called upon to decide whether one should play mother, wife or daughter. It is important, therefore, to set goals, prioritize and shun perfection in all the multiple hats that one dons.

So, first, set your goals, prioritize, and then hold yourself to it. Second, seek role models and organizations with more women-centric policies. Third, shun perfection. Don’t strive for the impossible—perfect mother, wife, professional—and save yourself the guilt pangs and dismal sense of underachievement. Fourth, seek help. Garner support from family, friends, neighbours and co-workers, and outsource wherever it makes sense. Fifth, communicate effectively. Showcase and promote your work and achievements, by making it relevant and useful for the audience. Sixth, place networking and relationship-building rather high on your to-do list. Make time for connecting with people and building bridges. Seventh, seek out mentors and sponsors.

As Nooyi put it, “You have to co-opt a lot of people to help you.”