Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Exec Branding - It's different for Women ( I think)

This Women’s Day was all the more memorable in India because the Women’s Reservation Bill which tried to hold 33% of seats in parliament for women didn’t go through. A lot of people hate reservation. Gender-neutrality would of course be the ideal thing, but unfortunately that is harder to enforce than affirmative action.

In my corporate life I took a keen interest in Diversity issues, and gender-neutral hiring is always something that comes up. Unlike, say, the US, in India it is perfectly ok and legal to ask if a candidate is married, has kids, lives in a joint family etc While the questions can be addressed to both genders, the answers tend to be viewed differently. It is assumed that if the family has small children the mother will be the primary caregiver and therefore less flexible in her work timings. If the husband has a transferrable job, it is assumed that the wife will quit to follow him. And so on. Until Corporate India is mandated to observe gender-neutral hiring practices, this subtle positioning of women will continue.

But even after the hiring stage, in my opinion - and don’t eat me - women tend to make life more difficult for themselves than it need be. They project an image that is not designed to minimize gender bias. Or worse, they don't work on their image and allow it to be defined by others. So here are some steps that working women can take to control their brand and project a better image.

  1. Do not drag your family to work. No family photos, no screensavers, no drawings. Yes, yes, I know men have all of these, but who said life is fair. The same boss who praises the picture of your cute toddler will make a mental note that you are unlikely to be able to travel on work.
  2. Do not volunteer information about your personal life or plans. Women tend to think they should let their employers know as early as possible about things like pregnancy or marriage. Nope. Maternity leave is a right in India and you don’t have to pipe up about your progress at the interview stage or when being considered for promotion. Give sufficient notice, but not undue visibility.
  3. No discussion on “feminine” problems. If you’re ill, just say you’re ill - do not elaborate. It will just position you as a weakling and make your supervisor - of either gender - uncomfortable.
  4. Do not make your family’s problems or commitments a reason for taking time off. As long as you are entitled to the vacation time cite “personal reasons”. Saying that you have to take care of a sick child or go to a PTA meeting just reinforces the stereotype that women aren’t committed to their jobs.
  5. Make the effort to network. Become a member of a professional body or a company club. Attend the occasional meeting and make your presence visible. Women tend to be invisible at these forums, even when they attend.
  6. Build your presence online. Even if you have logistical constraints that limit your ability to network physically after office hours, you should be able to find the time to manage your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter presence. An hour a day is all it takes for a bright professional woman to keep this going.
  7. If there is a successful woman in the company, see if she is willing to mentor you. Be careful in your approach - not all women take easily to the “sisterhood’ concept. But a little flattery is never misplaced :)
  8. Take care of your appearance and grooming. Yes, it does seem to matter more for women than for men. Create a “look” for yourself. It doesn’t have to be expensive - even jeans+kurtas+chappals can be a great trademark look if done stylishly.

And I am sorry if this post seems unpalatable to some. But I think if more of us followed these guidelines, our daughters might have a more level playing field. Of course there is lots of stuff that both genders must do for their brands beyond this - but that's the subject of another post!


zeno said...

Hope they will listen to your words of wisdom :)

Preetham V V said...

Nodding my head, but, no ready reckoner. Have encountered different types of behavior (depending on the nature of job) as similar to Men. Also have observed that most women (I have worked with that is) are conditioned to portray a dual persona (home/work) which sometimes brings the issue to the fore. Isn't' networking and on-line presence equally applicable to both genders ?

Pooja Kumar said...

I agree with some points (last 4 especially) but disagree with some here! Sure, life is unfair and maybe you need to accept that & therefore follow some of the suggestions - but till when? I'm not a fan of bringing family to work or discussing personal life & plans & you said "until Corporate India is mandated to observe gender neutral hiring practices" it's probably a good idea not to. But that's just reinforcing stereotypes & letting everyone continue to draw the conclusion - "picture of toddler, won't travel". Unless you're suggesting that these indicators are actually accurate in most cases?
Maybe it's an idealistic look at the situation - in the long term I believe we need to work towards dissociating these stereotypes from the collective mindset. I don't think mandates or policies are the solution because in my opinion, it the subtle positioning that you speak of which needs to be corrected.

Vibha said...

I completely agree with you. I just wrote yesterday in my blog that we have to take ourselves seriously before others can. Projecting ourselves professional is very essential. Good points Jessie.

Jessie paul said...

@Pooja Kumar - we are in a period of transition. Reality is that many women ARE constrained by gender stereotypes, or trapped in unequal marriages where they carry the entire responsibility for keeping the home fires going. so it helps to clearly separate yourself from them if you are different

Az said...

Couldn’t agree with you more especially on points 1, 2, 3 & 8. My take is, women expect too many lee-ways simply because they belong to the fair gender. “Women-friendly” policies are great to have (and politically correct  ). Only, in today’s age and times when men are chipping in more and more on the home front, it just does not seem fair for women to be claiming all the special rights. Men do as much - attending PTA and cook dinner, and go to the bank and baby-sit.
I am happy about the Women’s Bill that has been passed. Politics and governance in a country like India require a different approach. Tough measures are required to bring in a sense of balance. But it is not required for Corporate India to follow suit. The corporate world is all about performance and delivering results. You get what you deliver. To the simple and practical steps that Jessie has listed, I would like to add some more:
a) Focus on delivering results for whatever you are responsible for. When you deliver, you can’t escape recognition.
b) Leave your fair sex image at home. At office, you are simply an employee – gender neutral !.
c) By way of make-up, titillating clothes, fancy footwear, jewelry and doing the catwalk in corporate corridors, you are sending off wrong signals. Not required. Be smart. Dress well. Not to attract, but to evoke respect.
d) You don’t always have to move in girl-gangs during lunch/free time and exchange recipes. Have healthy, robust discussions with your male colleagues. Partner with them on new initiatives.
e) Why is it that a lot of women don’t discuss current affairs, soccer, cricket, golf, tennis, Formula One, global economy or the stock market? Keep yourselves updated and have intelligent conversations with your colleagues. It will add to your brand image.
f) And finally, women are special. But NEVER expect special treatment, just because you are a woman. Earn it.

Pooja Kumar said...

@Jessie Paul - what you're saying is true.In my opinion that is general advice for women to be successful without questioning the environment or culture in which your points hold true.
Gender stereotypes might be the reality for many women still, but why should the behaviour of those for whom it doesn't also be judged based on these assumptions.
I was hoping you, as a very successful woman in corporate India and a role model for many, would encourage us to work towards proving those assumptions wrong instead of saying that each of us individually simply separate ourselves from them!

Vanitha said...

Nice note Jessie! I truly believe if one is professional and no-nonsensical then there is nothing to fear! women must note that they need to be treated professionaly too at thier workplaces and should no way compromise on thier work life balance. Moreover Women hold a lot more responsibility more than men in thier personal lives and I would say Hats off to the Multi Tasking & Mature nature that all of us are blessed with! proud to be a woman! cheers

Samba said...

Well....that's quite a bunch of brilliant advices to women. It's a tragedy that women are discriminated against for reasons that may or may not have much to do with their work! Nonetheless, women who are ambitious in their careers have always fulfilled their ambition, no matter how hard it has been. But some aren't just serious enough. You mentioned pregnancy, child birth etc. Is that limited to women? These have their effects on men's careers too. If men don't think it makes sense to mention these in the interview, neither should women. Are pregnancy and child birth decisions taken unilaterally by men? They are not supposed to be. If they are, then women should be fighting against it first. If these are decisions made by a couple and probably other stakeholders (there are too many in India) then women, just like men will need to rejig either their careers or their family priorities depending on what they value more. And if they are willing to, it makes all the more sense to advertise the fact.

You Know Me Very Well said...

It surely brings out some very interesting points which are unfair but true. Being a HR person, we do tend to look at the work-life balance part of it when we hire.. but we dont tend to give any advantage or special treatment for women... for sloppy work, or absence from work or special benefits...ultimately, as you rightly pointed out, the corporate world definately tend to look at women differently and the glass ceiling does exist...and I have to admit that all your points would surely make me think twice and from both the sides...

LikeItSpicy said...

Jessie - I think we need to distinguish between being professional and morphing ourselves for fear of being stereotyped.

While it is very important for me to have the level playing field, I also wouldn't want to be working in a place where I have to worry about my job and career growth just because I put up a crayon drawing on my wall.

I for one never start professional conversations (whether with male or female colleagues) with details of my child's latest exploits - but I am very candid about taking time off to take care of a her if need be. As a working mother who also struggles to be a hands on parent - I feel it is absolutely OK to lay some ground rules about work life balance as long as I make the investment to establish trust, and ensure that my responsiveness, productivity, delivery etc. are never called into question.

LOL about discussions on feminine problems!

Anonymous said...

Interesting though sterotyping on the other end, affirmative action is important in society but this also needs to take into accont that it should not cause reverse discrimination. I have seen this happening in certain skills area i.e. HR & recruitment the hiring tends to favor women because women have finer soft skills etc. The point that I am making out here the best person for the job has been the criteron and this needs to be communicated in the right prospective.

Interesting none of the comment have come from "Men" in this posting till now.

Dilip Vamanan said...

Times are changing, thats true. Imagine, the Women Reservation Bill had passed, by the time it gets implemented the reservations wouldn't be needed :). The whole lot of process is taking hell lotta time in India. Yes the education and networking is going to drive lot of youngsters (no gender specific) in to the politics. This will be driving India from 2020, thats for sure!!

ani_aset said...

nice tips there..would like to know from women who use it as to how it was for them :)

Jessie Paul said...

Specifically for those who argue that we must change the stereotypes - here's my response:
1. yes, but it is a long journey and needs to be separated from immediate success of career women
2. these issues impact a very narrow base of women in India - the others are dealing with problems of the life and death variety and until that changes, society and stereotypes cannot either.

On the work-life balance etc, i belong to the school of thought that businesses exist to create money and they don't do altruistic stuff unless compelled to by law or market-forces (with some enlightened exceptions). And usually laws become more "employee friendly" as the country becomes richer and competition for jobs is less intense.

scribe said...

Big debate as usual,Jessie. My responses are based on 30 year work experience as a woman and watching women professionals at work. I agree with some of what you say - here are the ‘buts’:
1. Why shouldn’t immediate goals take long term vision into account however idealistic? Isn’t the ideal what we eventually work towards? Which is probably why I don’t think I really support the Women’s Reservation bill. My grandmom didn’t fight a feminist battle to be placated by quotas set aside for women regardless of merit or professionalism. She worked for the level playing field – so did my mom – so do I. No one said it was going to be easy. Yes, the Indian scenario is different and the corporate world has its prejudices and cards stacked against women a lot of the times, and yes, we women make it tough on ourselves too – but hey, why are we buying into this IF we are good at what we do?
2. Don’t think gender-neutral hiring (as in the US where too I don’t believe it exists as ideally as the policies make it out to be) should discount the varied responsibilities men and women have to handle in our lives. It is not just assumed – it is in fact true that most women in India do change their locations/ jobs when their husbands move, they are the primary caregivers, they birth children – men don’t. Yet, many of them are also really good professionals and a great talent source. I think corporates need to start taking this into account and finding ways of retaining the talent – many of them are doing that.
3. Given the kind of time we spend at work these days, both men and women need to take that call from the kids, attend a PTA, put up a photograph, know about their colleagues’ personal lives. We’re human and have families – why are we running away from that – towards what success? And, the best company policies today recognize this. You have one life, woman!
4. Why do we have to be ‘one of the boys’? Yes, I agree – we need to be professional in our appearance, we need to network – online and offline, and personal and family problems / conversations don’t need to intrude into our professional world constantly. But this is true of man or woman. Aren’t you tough on male colleagues or juniors who dress badly, cannot communicate or aren’t well-networked or bring in their personal problems? Are they successful? No. How does this become a woman thing? Because perception says so. Well, lets not make it more of a woman thing. Let’s make it more of a professional thing. When I’m working I’m not ‘brand woman’ – I’m a professional (with a whole life and everything it brings with it).
oh, and
@AZ, how come intelligent conversations revolve around soccer, golf, cricket, tennis, formula one (&economy and current affairs) - why not around art, theatre, history, philosophy, music, cinema, environment (& economy and current affairs)? Falling victim to perceived stereotypes aren't you?

Azra said...

@Scribe: Yes you can add - history, cinema, art, philosophy, environment, theater and music - to the list.

SS said...

C'mon! Why can' we just be our natural selves! Its the organizations that need to change to understand that not all their employees are male now. Not the women.

Akila said...

Although I can see from where you are coming I don't agree with you. Going all out to make people forget you are a woman can't be the only way to sure shot sucsess. I am just starting my career and I really hope thats not the case.

Heres a link which could be of interest to you.


@lankr1ta said...

Ms Paul, exec branding is different for women because no one, specially givers of advice like yourself chooses to tell them to brand it differently. Basically what you said is not female specific, yet you chose to address it to women alone. Men are as guilty of all the transgressions mentioned, yet you do not address it. The women I have known and worked with are extremely professional and if I may add better groomed than the men I have known at work. Why perpetuate the stereotype. Women do not need this advice- they instead need advice on how not to be doormats at the workplace.

Jessie Paul said...

@scribe - women tend to trail their spouses sometimes because it is the social norm, but often because the are the lesser earning member. and they are often the lesser earning member because they are working part-time, flexi-time or just take simpler jobs to be more available to the family. a kind of vicious circle.

change in perception is not just political - it can also be economic. a woman of any income level or work status who has her own bank account, driving license and her name on the house documents is more confident than one dependent on her spouse for all of these things. she is more likely to insist on education for her girl-child.

mark said...

very very informative article thanks for shearing


Anonymous said...

Why not feminine problems - does being a professional mean I have to deny the three days that I writhe in pain with cramps or nearly faint due to heavy bleeding especially now that Im menopausal?

I believe that the truly professional HR would grant a discretionary day off to all women employees... and I see that will happen in a truly women oriented organization

Here's what I would invite you to imagine - a true professional who does not need to bob her hair into a supermodel a la vogue look, nor wear blazers and pants, and looks presentable in whatever outfit she is traditionally conditioned or comfortable in- that would include large bindis, and jhumkas...and sarees...and can conduct herself with the power and wisdom of one who CAN do, be and lead.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is different for women. 'Cos we are battling the "conditioned" outlook of women in a world dominated by women.

The corporate world has to mature to understand and accept women as they are with all their nicessities, elegance and grace, including the emotional entanglement. Currently you are expecting women to become and think like men.

I still believe that women are battling on two fronts their own wish of having their own career and being the perfect homemaker. Some of us are cut out to be better homemakers and others are more interested about their careers. Do we let them be as they are?

It is the conditioned approach that creates the conflict for all.

What if a man wished to take care of the home rather than slog at office? Is he allowed, don't you tell he is sloppy at work?

What if the man wished to take few days off to take care of his sick parents? Will the corporate India consider that or rather have the woman take care of her inlaws?

The women's reservation bill is just to ensure that there is some space and scope for women and get a stronger foothold.

Maybe similar reservation bill needs to be created for a man in his home!