Down To Earth

Af­ter 13 years as a mem­oirist, El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert of Eat, Pray, Love fame re­turns to fic­tion with a big old- fash­ioned novel.

India Today - - CONTENTS -

In the cor­po­rate world we worry a lot about cur­rent ac­count deficit, in­fla­tion and the fall­ing ru­pee, but if there is one thing that is go­ing to kill In­dia in the long term it is the way in which we treat our women,” says De­b­jani Ghosh, Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor Sales and Mar­ket­ing of In­tel South Asia. It is the late Au­gust and the news is awash with head­lines about the Mum­bai gang rape. In a few days the high court will pro­nounce the four ac­cused in the Delhi gang rape case guilty and sen­tence them to death. Though worlds away from the gen­teel en­vi­rons of this south Delhi five star ho­tel, with its el­e­va­tor muzak and soft- soled wait­ers, th­ese two events seem to cast a long shadow over the in­ter­view and clearly have oc­cu­pied Ghosh’s mindspace for quite some time. One of the most pow­er­ful busi­ness women in In­dia holds court sur­rounded by a posse of me­dia man­agers and one waits for the in­evitable on­slaught of man­age­ment jar­gon to be­gin. But Ghosh is re­fresh­ingly forth­right, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to speak­ing about her ca­reer and what it means to be a woman and a se­nior cor­po­rate leader in In­dia to­day. Ex­cerpts:


I do not be­lieve a coun­try can progress if half its pop­u­la­tion doesn’t have a voice or is not treated as equal. It just does not make any sense. If peo­ple are the most im­por­tant re­source a coun­try has we are ba­si­cally un­der­min­ing 50 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. The coun­try is run based on what one half of it wants, by op­press­ing the other half. Name me one com­pany where one half of the tal­ent pool or labour is not func­tion­ing and you can still be con­sid­ered suc­cess­ful. As a na­tion we are in­cred­i­bly fool­ish. The big­gest prob­lem in In­dia to­day is that we don’t see women as hu­man be­ings. Chil­dren are also con­di­tioned by what they see hap­pen­ing around them. Grow­ing up ev­ery time you open the news­pa­per or see a Bol­ly­wood movie or watch a TV se­rial you will learn that the ul­ti­mate goal of a woman’s life is to get mar­ried and pro­duce a lot of chil­dren. While a man’s goal is to be­come very suc­cess­ful in his busi­ness or ca­reer. I think War­ren Buf­fet said this but I’m go­ing to para­phrase: The mo­ment a boy grows up, his sis­ter’s ceil­ing ( of achieve­ment) be­comes his floor. This is the sad re­al­ity of In­dia to­day.


I come from a large close- knit fam­ily and grew up with an army of brothers with 12 male cousins. It was a peri­patetic childhood spent liv­ing across Africa and Europe; I at­tended a to­tal of seven schools. It was only later in life that I re­alised it was a bless­ing in dis­guise. When you move around so much as a child you don’t have the chance to be a pro­tected, shy kid. Be­ing the new kid in school means that you walk in a stranger and an out­sider and you have to make friends. You have to break into ex­ist­ing sys­tems and groups. To have to do that so many times early on in life def­i­nitely makes you more con­fi­dent I think. It gives you the con­fi­dence to go out and ap­proach peo­ple. The other thing is that it makes you more keenly aware of all the dif­fer­ences among peo­ple— The diver­sity of cul­ture and food and tra­di­tions. And you be­come much more tol­er­ant about ac­cept­ing peo­ple as they are and ac­cept­ing the dif­fer­ences that you see around you. So change is good. Now I’m sort of ad­dicted to it.


I lived a large part of my life out­side In­dia. And sadly that did help to con­trib­ute in a big way to where and who I am to­day. I had par­ents who lived a large part of their grow­ing up years abroad and I was for­tu­nate that they be­lieved I could do any­thing I put my mind to. Of course there are many women in In­dia who are suc­cess­ful but they are still the mi­nor­ity, the mi­nus ten per cent.


We don’t have a huge num­ber of women- cen­tric ini­tia­tives at In­tel. As a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor I’m not wor­ried about women’s rights per se. I’m more con­cerned about women be­ing treated as equals. They day we are, we can kick ass. It’s not about “engineering” women’s suc­cess, what we have to engi­neer is an en­vi­ron­ment where they get the same op­por­tu­ni­ties as ev­ery­one else.


The rea­son In­tel is a great com­pany is that gen­der has no role to play. I joined the com­pany 18 years ago. Af­ter I fin­ished my MBA and had worked at an ad agency for a lit­tle while I in­ter­viewed with two or three blue chip com­pa­nies but fi­nally de­cided to join In­tel, which no one had heard of at that time in In­dia in 1996. Ev­ery­one was shocked. What de­cided the mat­ter for me was the fact In­tel was the only firm


where I was in­ter­viewed by a woman, De­bra Conrad, who was just amaz­ing and is to­day our chief of mar­ket­ing. It was the only in­ter­view in which I was not asked about my mar­riage plans and whether I planned to have chil­dren. All I was asked was” What are your dreams? And what are you go­ing to do about them?” And that’s when I knew this was the com­pany for me.


Our fo­cus starts with hir­ing. Once you are in the sys­tem, there are sev­eral pro­cesses to help build the con­fi­dence of fe­male em­ploy­ees and to make them ac­cept the fact that they are an equal. Be­cause a lot of the time women ( es­pe­cially In In­dia) back off be­cause they have grown up be­liev­ing they are not equal to men. And then all of a sud­den they find them­selves in the cor­po­rate world where they are told: oh you are an equal, so it can get very in­tim­i­dat- ing. So we have to work ex­tra hard to build their con­fi­dence. But most em­ploy­ers don’t have the time to re­ally men­tor fe­male em­ploy­ees. It doesn’t hap­pen through classes but through day- to- day in­ter­ac­tions and of course men­tor­ships, bud­dies, net­works, suc­cess sto­ries. I don’t think a train­ing class can solve con­fi­dence is­sues. But their be­hav­iour does change lit­tle by lit­tle through ev­ery day pos­i­tive re­in­force­ments. Our next big chal­lenge is help­ing women make the tran­si­tion from mid to se­nior man­age­ment. Many sim­ply choose to hide out.


If you look at my ca­reer at In­tel, it re­sem­bles a maze. When I was just start­ing out one of my men­tors told me “You’re young, you have noth­ing to lose so try ev­ery­thing.” And so I did. I jumped from sales to mar­ket­ing and just went crazy do­ing a whole lot of dif­fer­ent things. It was one of the best pieces of ad­vice I ever got. Be­cause it gives you a 360 de­gree un­der­stand­ing of the busi­ness and you also build net­works along the way in all the dif­fer­ent ver­ti­cals. When I go to B- schools and IIMs to talk, I find it amus­ing that ev­ery stu­dent thinks a ca­reer graph pro­gresses in a lin­ear fash­ion but if you ex­am­ine the ca­reer graphs of most suc­cess­ful peo­ple it’s al­ways been a zigzag pat­tern. That has been a huge learn­ing for me as well. Just the free­dom to go out and try dif­fer­ent things was a huge op­por­tu­nity for me at In­tel. Also the other thing that worked in my favour was the will­ing­ness to seize an op­por­tu­nity when it came up. Op­por­tu­ni­ties come with­out warn­ing. Noth­ing in life is planned and it’s up to you to de­cide whether you want to seize the chance or let it pass with­out do­ing too much of the maths of pros and cons.


My chal­lenges at the cor­po­rate work­place have been more ex­ter­nal than in­ter­nal. I’ve never felt in­se­cure but com­ing back to In­dia af­ter so many

years was a bit of a shock be­cause I re­alised how lit­tle had changed. You walk into a meet­ing even to­day or an in­dus­try fo­rum ( Basu heads the Ficci IT chair) and it’s ba­si­cally a room full of men. I’m usu­ally the only woman in the room or if I’m lucky there’s another one or two women. But I don’t con­sider my­self the “to­ken” woman be­cause I do add value to whichever ta­ble I’m at. For the first five min­utes it’s a lit­tle amus­ing as I’m the only woman in the room but that’s only till you start talk­ing and then you can see the per­cep­tions chang­ing around you. And then they start treat­ing you as an equal and may even start look­ing up to you. I call it the five minute chal­lenge. It’s great fun to watch a room change. Plus now I have grey hair, which is a bonus. EV­ERY­ONE WAITS AND WATCHES FE­MALE BOSSES Whether you are a woman boss or em­ployee you just have to be will­ing to prove your­self and work just a lit­tle bit harder. It’s al­most taken for granted that men can lead teams. But women need a plat­form to prove them­selves. Ev­ery­one waits to see what they are ca­pa­ble of be­fore they de­cide whether or not to be­lieve in you and fol­low you. Once you’ve proved your­self as leader things work out. I’ve sort of ac­cepted this as a fact. When­ever I have a new chal­lenge in front of me I know that I will have to prove my­self once again. There are things you fight and things you don’t. Ear­lier it used to ir­ri­tate me tremen­dously but now I just find it amus­ing.

DON’T GEN­ER­ALISE The big­gest mis­take we make is gen­er­al­is­ing too much. We think a woman has to be soft and sen­si­tive but the fact is that when it comes to ag­gres­sion I can be a hun­dred times more ag­gres­sive than any man out there. And I’m proud of it. Some of my male col­leagues are way more sen­si­tive than I am and there’s noth­ing wrong with that at all. You don’t have to be­have in a cer­tain way just be­cause you carry the X chro­mo­some or the Y chro­mo­some. WOMEN ARE CALMER UN­DER PRES­SURE Be­cause of the way we are made women have to live up to so many roles— moth­ers and daugh­ters and wives and daugh­ter- in- laws and so we learn to han­dle am­bi­gu­ity a bit bet­ter. We han­dle pres­sure bet­ter and I’ve seen this across board in most women. When it comes to a pres­sure sit­u­a­tion women are a lot calmer than men and we are not so flum­moxed by change. I’ve of­ten won­dered why and have come to the con­clu­sion that it’s in our DNA. It’s just how women are made. I’M RE­LI­GIOUS ABOUT MY WEEK­ENDS My weekend starts on Satur­day and con­sists of do­ing the stuff I love— spend­ing time with fam­ily and friends, read­ing, trav­el­ling across In­dia, hang­ing out with my friends. My week­ends of­ten go faster than my week­days. I would die if I was a worka­holic. I can­not be one di­men­sional. My work means a lot to me but there is so much more to life. And I need to strike a bal­ance. That said, if there is a dead­line I will work twenty hours at a stretch to achieve it. But will I do that ev­ery day? No I won’t. FACT: WE DON’T EARN AS MUCH AS OUR MALE COUN­TER­PARTS At some level suc­cess­ful women are re­spected and ad­mired but also come un­der ex­treme scru­tiny. Noth­ing comes easy for us, that’s a fact. Be­sides this even if we do suc­ceed we don’t earn as much as our male coun­ter­parts. And this stands true around the world with enough data to prove it. All the top global women CEO’s earn 17 per cent less than their male coun­ter­parts whereas many fe­male em­ploy­ees earn 40 per cent less than their male col­leagues. Will this change? Maybe when you have more women at the top. IN­DIA IS AN UN­TAPPED GOLD­MINE The tech­nol­ogy us­age in In­dia is so pa­thet­i­cally low that any­thing is an “up” for you. Its good In­dia is go­ing through this churn ( ref bad mar­kets). It will cleanse it­self and I’m hop­ing it rein­vents it­self be­cause it can’t get worse than this. Things have to get bet­ter be it ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, pro­duc­tiv­ity and tech­nol­ogy plays a crit­i­cal role in all th­ese spheres. It’s the foun­da­tion that is needed if you want to drive growth in In­dia.


IN­DIA IS A CRAZY COUN­TRY I plan to be at In­tel In­dia for the fore­see­able fu­ture. In­dia is a crazy coun­try but I love its warmth and peo­ple. I think the po­ten­tial to make a dif­fer­ence in In­dia and the need for tech­nol­ogy in In­dia is tremen­dously high. BE­CAUSE I CAN Very early in life my fa­ther taught me I could do what­ever I wanted. The only ques­tion I needed to ask my­self was whether I wanted to or not. It was very good ad­vice be­cause it in­formed all the de­ci­sions I later made as an adult. I’M CHILD­LESS BY CHOICE I be­long to a very large close- knit fam­ily and have tonnes of neph­ews and nieces whom I ab­so­lutely adore. So I’ve never felt the need to go out and pro­duce kids of my own. But I am some­times judged for mak­ing this choice. Some peo­ple think I’m very am­bi­tious and that’s the rea­son I don’t have time to get mar­ried or have chil­dren. What most peo­ple don’t re­alise is just be­cause you’re not mar­ried doesn’t mean you don’t have a fam­ily. I spend as much time, if not more, with my fam­ily than many mar­ried peo­ple do. I DON’T LOSE SLEEP OVER PEO­PLE’S OPIN­IONS The worst thing peo­ple have said to me is that I am very am­bi­tious but I don’t pay much at­ten­tion to what peo­ple say. It’s a few peo­ple in your life who mat­ter and whose opin­ions count. The rest are good to know and nice to have around but if you spend too much time wor­ry­ing about what they think or say you are go­ing to lose your peace of mind and a good night’s sleep. THERE IS A STIGMA AT­TACHED TO BE­ING A SUC­CESS­FUL WOMAN Suc­cess for women is re­ally all about hard work, com­mit­ment and sin­gle- minded fo­cus. But there is a stigma at­tached to a woman who is am­bi­tious. Peo­ple think she is a bad per­son whereas it’s con­sid­ered per­fectly okay for a man to want to suc­ceed. It’s com­pletely un­fair that it’s seen as a neg­a­tive trait in a woman but a pos­i­tive trait in a man. A man who does not want to suc­ceed is con­sid­ered a wimp. So he has to want to suc­ceed. It’s per­fectly okay for women to want to be the best, but only as long as she wants to be the best mother, not pro­fes­sional. If there is one thing I wish would change it would be this per­cep­tion. Am­bi­tion is not a bad word.

CHANDRADEEP KU­MAR/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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