Women’s Leadership Forum discusses Pathways to Resilient Leadership
From facing challenging times and dealing with them, to gender neutral practices, to encouraging diversity at the workplace and more, the conversations that took place at the Women’s Leadership Forum hosted by GIM touched upon the many issues individuals and society are faced with when it comes to women taking on leadership roles
When five extremely talented women leaders from diverse fields, spanning three generations, get together for a conversation on resilient leadership, the discussions and deliberations are bound to be insightful and interesting in every way. That’s precisely what happened at the forum organised by Goa Institute of Management (GIM), which had personalities who have been trailblazers in their own distinct way.
From facing challenging times and dealing with them, to gender neutral practices, to encouraging diversity at the workplace and more, the conversations touched upon the many issues individuals and society are faced with when it comes to women taking on leadership roles. The panelists included Meera Shankar, retired civil servant and former Indian Ambassador to USA and Germany; Brinda Somaya, architect and urban conservationist and Founder of SNK India; Dr Maria Aurora Couto, writer, historian and educationalist; Kshama Fernandes, MD and CEO, Northern Arc; and Miti Desai, classical dancer, designer and Founder of Miti Design Lab. The discussion was moderated by Sarita D’Souza, visiting faculty member at GIM. Governor of Goa Mridula Sinha, who was the Chief Guest, said in her address, “Women are natural leaders. Empathy is a quality that is the hallmark of every great leader and one that women possess in plenty. I am in the esteemed presence of women leaders spanning three generations; different times call for different leadership qualities.”
Herald Café had an insightful Q & A with panelists Meera Shankar, Brinda Somaya, Dr Maria Aurora Couto, Kshama Fernandes and Miti Desai. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Herald Café: When confronted with something that is not the way you would like it to be, how do you process it? What thoughts run through your mind between stimuli and response?
Maria Aurora Couto: When I was interviewed way back in around 1965 in Delhi, the board of directors spent half an hour asking me questions not about my literature background but rather what I would do if my husband gets transferred. And that is the problem I have encountered often. And that’s why I emphasise that I always wanted to keep my mind alive. That was a priority. So, the response has always been around the point of how do I keep my mind alert and alive. I must say that I always had the support from my family and close friends who kept insisting that I shouldn’t quit my job when faced with challenges. I really believe that what I am today is really due to all the help and support that I received from family and well-wishers.
Brinda Somaya: I think resilience comes from inner strength and challenges that we face at a very young age, in combination with support, maybe from family or spouse. When I came back to India as an architect and was in my 20s, I had to face a lot of physical challenges because there were very few women who were actually running an architectural firm. I also give importance to the values, integrity and honesty within the profession. I had once confronted a person with questionable value systems in a meeting room, knowing very well that I would risk being taken down from the project. But you have to face all these challenges and be true to your values. Furthermore, you must love whatever you do. That has to be the priority.
Miti Desai: I was 20 years old when I graduated in Design and joined an ad agency as my first job. On my first working day ever, I had this intense feeling of discomfort, which was almost unbearable. As I was working at my desk, I realised that this whole work process was more of a financial transaction, which wasn’t my calling at all. I didn’t want my life to revolve around financial profits. That realisation made me quit my job within 6 days of joining work and I have never once looked back. So I say, the response I gave was to recognise what I really wanted to do and act upon it and that’s when my journey began.
Meera Shankar: To deal with uncomfortable situations, you need the ability to work around it, confront it, roll with the punches and learn from your failure. You need to take both, success and failure in your stride, don’t get bogged down and a can-do attitude can certainly help. During my early days of working with the Prime Minister’s Office, I was once faced with a very challenging situation that none of the other External Affairs ministers at the time were willing to take up. I was given the task to work on a project on apartheid in South Africa. I had the option to either be overwhelmed with the kind of responsibility that was given to me or roll up my sleeves, stay up late and get it done. Which is what I did. But while on it, it was equally important to take at least some time out for my family so that a sense of security is instilled in my kids that I am available whenever they need me.
Kshama Fernandes: To give an honest opinion of what happens between the stimulus and the response, I think the first response is to run away. Many a time, certain circumstances happen where you as a leader have absolutely no control over a situation. I say, deal with it, get out of it and move on. If you think that that’s the end of it, it’s not. You will be faced with many similar situations. So in short, things don’t happen the way we would like them to happen. You can’t cry about it, so deal with it and move on.
HC: What changes do you see in the generation of women leaders spanning the last few decades?
Maria Aroura Couto: I see that very few of today’s generation take up teaching as a profession. The professional streams today are far more complex than what it used to be during my days. It’s not that challenges happen to be on their path; rather, women today consciously take up challenges. The tasks today that our young generation takes up is challenging in every aspect, be it mentally, physically or emotionally. Back in my days, we had a lot of help and support on the domestic front so we didn’t feel as stressed. The picture today is quite different. But somewhere, I do feel that the sacrifices being made by women today are enormous.
HC: Many girls who graduate as architects slowly take up interior design. What is your take on it?
Brinda Somaya: I have always wanted to build and do nothing else. But I have faced this in my career, where I would introduce myself as an architect, but two minutes later, I would be introduced as an interior designer. Many didn’t really expect a young woman to be an architect back then. But today the times have changed. Today, design is a completely different and very diverse world in itself. It has earned respect as a profession. But eventually you need to do what you really love. No profession is lesser than the other.
HC: We see that women somewhere have made peace with having to sacrifice and adjust. Shouldn’t we as a society teach girls from a young age to adapt and not adjust?
Miti Desai: Not just the girls, we should teach this to every young boy out there as well that women are not meant to always adjust with situations.
Meera Shankar: In our societies, gender stereotyping takes place at a young age. We should consciously try and avoid gender stereotyping. Society will change only if change is brought in every aspect of it. Adjustments need to be made from both the sides. Society needs to redefine the roles that have been assigned to men and women.
HC: How did you manage to break through the glass ceiling that often exists? Have you face any professional politics?
Kshama Fernandes: I didn’t quiet experience the glass ceiling. This could be because I believed that it doesn’t exist, at least I liked to believe so. And a lot of men whom I met in my career were my mentors. I have, however, faced a lot of challenges at work. Simple things like smoking as a stress-buster or going out for a drink is something women are not comfortable doing. I think that’s where women tend to get left behind in the race.
Meera Shankar: There are smaller challenges that were faced. Like the air conditioner of a conference room would generally be ideally suited for a man’s clothing comfort, though such low temperatures are not very comfortable for women. But these things are not even considered.
Mita Desai: On one hand you have the support but on the other, there is a glass ceiling of ‘how will you do it all alone?’ I don’t think it’s necessary to have a partner for literally everything. Many single women do it alone and do it very well.
HC: Do you think the government needs to come forward to support women empowerment?
Meera Shankar: Yes. Today we do have certain policies and reservations for women due to which we may see more women representation on the boards of companies and at the local governance level. Diversity helps the board too. For example, if the target audience is consumers, which include women as well, women will have a different perspective of thinking and hence a different and new angle of an idea that can be considered. Companies also need to have women-friendly rules, such as sufficient maternity leaves and the like, which could possibly reduce the number of resignations. But the level of women involvement in politics is not increasing. There is an urgent need to get more women into the political framework.
HC: Is there a point where you would draw a line on working with an individual or company?
Kshama Fernandes: My principle is to know what my never-changing core is, personally and professionally. Once you have that sorted, everything else can be moved around. For instance, I am always against the practice of bribery. When I was demanded a bribe to get some of my legal work done, I was consistent about my values, and after a year of resilience, I finally got my work done without paying any bribe. That’s what I am talking about.
HC: I see that many-a-time, women themselves pull other women down. What do you have to say about it?
Meera Shankar: If society needs to change, all elements of it need to be changed. Women certainly need to change their attitude towards other women for the better. We must also learn not to be confined and bound by society’s way of thinking.
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