Thursday, January 19, 2012

Women Power - Breaking invisible barriers to realize dormant potential

Amongst the numerous things that fascinated me a month back in Udaipur, the historic capital of the Mewar Dynasty (I had made a quick visit to the astounding City Palace - built by Maharana Udai Singh - sitting in all its majesty on a hilltop overlooking the marvelous Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace), the ones that caught my attention the most were the Zanana Chambers (segregated chambers built for women) and the various paintings showing women behind screens and inside chambers. They stood in stark contrast to the celebration of the strength, might and power that the 'men' stood for. I came into the airport a few hours later and came across an article in Forbes India that listed the 100 most powerful women this year. Couldn't help my mind drifting into thoughts around how the role played by women in society has evolved over the centuries and more significantly, what it would take to tap into this huge reservoir of unrealised potential.

Over a period of time, my perception of women and their role in society has changed quite dramatically. There were times at school when boys and girls used to engage in the 'battle of the sexes' trying to prove the futility of the existence of the other sex to eachother (now, how cruel could that be!). There were times a decade later when the 'feminist' movement became stronger in cities like Delhi demanding 'equal rights' and equality in treatment. In the years to come, I have seen them play that 'complementary' as well as 'independent' role in every walk of life (family, society, corporate, politics, academics) - providing leadership where necessary and providing that critical balance in family for men to operate at other times.
I am writing this note as I realize with every interaction that this immense potential in a large percentage of women today still remains dormant and slowly fades away without being realized. Let me start with what I have learnt from the various kinds of women I have seen, interacted and heard about.

1) Working closely the last few years with the players in the Microfinance industry, I understood partially the basis of this enormous strength in the Microfinance model - women. While the industry itself may be in doldrums today, there are a lot of learnings that can be taken away. There are 30 million borrowers today in the country availing Microfinance loans and more than 95% of these borrowers are women. All Microfinance Institutions in India and most of them globally (with the exception of a few who also have men) as a rule work almost solely with women. The model is so well understood and appreciated today that none of the new institutions even spend time questioning this rationale. Having spent time in various villages interacting with numerous rural women (old and young) who are part of Self Help Groups and Joint Liability Groups, and looking at their male counterparts, I realize why.

2) My own experience with women labour at home - be it the maid, the cook or the nanny. To me, they characterize what people with single-minded dedication can achieve. Most of these women are those who are willing to work all kinds of extended hours and stretch themselves to the hilt to make sure that their children can go to school and do not suffer ignominiously like their parents. Mind you, it is not making the two ends meet that they are most concerned about. The ability to fight against all kinds of odds with unparalleled grit and determination comes from this single-minded focus on the goal of educating their children and making them successful. Whenever I find youngsters today immersed excessively in various kinds of distractions with easy access to money, I remind myself the virtue of setting goals and working towards them. While your maid or cook could be examples, there are scores of women out there who exemplify what men and women are capable of achieving when one is working towards a goal, how priorities automatically get assigned in one's life, how you start looking for those distractions that help you achieve your goals.

3) My wife, and mothers - seeing within close quarters what it is like to be a mother and take up the full-time responsibility of raising a child. I have seen other women who have otherwise been perceived as nonproductive and wasteful become more efficient and productive naturally and purely by virtue of this transformation in role. Not only does one begin to manage one's time better, but one tends to become more assertive and oriented towards results and outcomes rather than the process. It is a fabulous management lesson on how a person transforms as soon as they take up a larger role with ownership, responsibility and accountability coming naturally to them. In short, they end up imbibing all the qualities that would be considered fantastic to have in the typical corporate world.

4) My experience with women in the Corporate world.

Entire Corporate World is full of examples of women who have made it big notwithstanding the numerous challenges of motherhood, gender bias

5) Women in politics and activism: While there are numerous examples of women who have held positions of power, the three women musketeers today of Indian State politics (the leaders of UP, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) are fantastic examples of the immense power and influence that women can wield.


Vidhyashankar K said...

Great post Atreya. Its a topic and belief that I constantly live by when I see women around me juggling so many tasks and accepting more responsibility with the same open arms.

The very fact that there is less corruption with women superiors forces one to think of the way we are made. No shortcuts taken. Women bend the rules better than men to accommodate the necessary. This is called maneuvering.

But there is some truth when we see that men today are way more forthcoming and down to earth than sitting on their high horses refusing to take up certain tasks. But there is still a long way to go as women are genetically better at multitasking which gives them an advantage in today's fast moving environment. The gap is widening and evolution will continue to play the role of judge as men play catch up.

Alka Singh said...

Very well written post !! Finally, we have women emerging at their best everywhere, and men acknowledging and appreciating the true potential, hardwork and power of women in what ever they do !!