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.
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:
THE WAY WOMEN ARE TREATED IN INDIA IS TERRIBLE
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.
CHANGE IS GOOD
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.
GROWING UP OUTSIDE INDIA HELPED
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.
CREATING THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT
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
I ALWAYS TELL MY EMPLOYEES THAT THE MOST IMPORTANT CAREER DECISION YOU EVER MAKE IS WHO YOU MARRY.
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.
‘ YOU ARE AN EQUAL’
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.
NOTHING IS LINEAR
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.
THE FIVE MINUTE CHALLENGE
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.
I F YOU SPEND TOO MUCH TIME WORRYING ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE THINK OR SAY YOU ARE GOING TO LOSE YOUR PEACE OF MIND.
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.