Understanding the challenges faced by women internationally is a wonderful opportunity to gain richer insight and appreciation for women’s leadership on a global scale. Australian women reaching out to each other and to women in countries with different challenges, is critical to help build the momentum towards valuing all types of leaders and creating an international dialogue for change. On this note, in April I am heading to India for a second time to help Indian businesswomen to lead despite the cultural disadvantages many of them face.
India is a country where women comprise only 20% of the corporate workforce and occupy less than 3% of senior roles. Discrimination is faced by women at entry levels, even before their career has begun. Despite this, Indian women report similarly high levels of career interest and ambition as men, however according to Catalyst research from 2013, they also report significantly more challenges managing work and personal life. Our experience working with Indian women certainly highlights how social, cultural and religious expectations are amplified.
Given this context, it is wonderful to see the work that some Indian organisations are doing to make positive change. One group that is doing powerful work to encourage both the private and public sectors in India to promote women leaders is the World Women’s Leadership Congress. (Indeed I was delighted to be recognised by them for my leadership research and program work over there. This recognition came as a lovely surprise but what is far more powerful is their intention to make a difference to the landscape of leadership for women in India and to recognize and honour the potential of women’s leadership. The concept of honouring women’s leadership potential in a country that in some areas struggles to honour women at all is a worthy cause).
Working with businesswomen in India highlighted that the findings of my research, supported by The Institute of Coaching at the McLean Hospital at Harvard University, also applied to the dilemma faced by many Indian businesswomen. If individuals are unable to ground their professional identity in their leadership role (that is, if they don’t see themselves as a leader), then they may be missing a critical requirement for leadership development. In essence the research highlighted the question: “How does one develop as a leader if being a leader is not a part of how they view themselves?”
Our work in India has given new insight into the challenges Indian women in management face, and perhaps a fresh perspective on Australia’s challenges. This is not to downplay the very real challenges that remain in leadership ranks in Australia, but rather to recognise the positive changes that have already been made. This is where the richness in an international dialogue really comes to life as we can each learn from each other and share our respective wins and challenges along the way. Having said that, what is interesting about our work in both countries has been the commonality of experience for women managers both here and overseas who struggle with recognising their own innate leadership contribution. And this is a mindset we cannot ignore. Whether it is due to the limiting beliefs in our respective corporate cultures or the wider societal expectations, developing better dialogue around this unspoken issue, and finding more inclusive ways of defining leadership is so important.
This work in India would not be happening without our collaboration with Delhi-based Sheba Maini and this partnership itself has been a wonderful learning opportunity. As Sheba has pointed out, “focusing on women in leadership is critical- highlighting the need for women to refine and reclaim their leadership identities, being validated for who they are and what they bring as unique strengths to their workspace and actually practicing these new behaviours is so needed here in India. Also, creating a space for building themselves up as role models and acquiring comfort with that as well as creating networks of support is another area that we are working towards.”
Like in Australia, positive change is happening. Notably, in the Indian IT industry, women account for close to 45% of the total workforce. According to Gartner this emergence of women in IT is among the key converging factors that will change the workforce and address the gender imbalance. Similarly there is emerging awareness of the importance of diversity in leadership amongst the multinational brands and large organisations in India which bodes well for the future. Having women reach out to each other and share their stories cross culturally, is another avenue available for women to help each other too.