“Whenever they have allies and a strong support system, women flourish” – Aarti Kelshikar

In her new book, corporate coach Aarti Kelshikar uses her pan-Asian experience along with interviews of women leaders, entrepreneurs and professionals to paint an insightful picture of “how women work” in Asia.

Women in the workforce in Asia have a unique set of challenges. Deeply embedded patriarchy is a substantial barrier to equitable opportunities. Further, the culture of age-related hierarchy that is prevalent in most Asian societies also impacts workplaces and the female experience.

In her new book, How Women Work: Fitting In and Standing Out in Asia (HarperCollins India, Rs 299), author Aarti Kelshikar studies women leaders through a pan-Asian lens. An intercultural consultant and coach, Kelshikar uses her experience in India, Singapore and the Philippines along with interviews of corporate leaders, entrepreneurs and professionals across Asia to paint an insightful picture of “how women work” in Asia.

The title links to her first book How India Works: Making Sense of a Complex Corporate Culture (2018), which she wrote as a guide about “the cultural nuances and complexities of working in India”.

Several case studies and anecdotes in this new book expose the pervasiveness of the glass ceiling – in fact, Kelshikar writes, “as per a glass-ceiling index compiled by the Economist, which ranks 29 countries on 10 indicators, East Asian women face a ceiling that appears to be made of ‘bulletproof glass’.”

At the same time, the book affirms the grit, determination and perseverance of Asian women to succeed despite all the barriers and odds. Using creativity, innovation and compromise, they develop talents, skills and a support system to help them navigate sexist terrains in society and workplaces.

eShe caught up with Kelshikar about her book.

What is the impact of the implicit patriarchy in most South Asian societies for women who wish to rise to the top of their corporate careers?

Hierarchy and patriarchy impact the ways in which women work and succeed. This is true universally but in South Asia, it is often accentuated. Patriarchy hampers women from speaking up, it makes women seek approval and stops women from being spontaneous. These factors don’t aid or add up to their success.

Cultural biases influence how women are perceived when it comes to their performance, their capability and in the way they communicate. For example, women are often scrutinised more when it comes to be being considered for promotions. Their readiness is determined by asking women candidates about their matrimonial status and family members including children.

In the book, I have quoted Shiv Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Aditya Birla Group, who shared an anecdote from his stint as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo South Asia:

“When we were revisiting gender diversity and inclusion, we realised that the hiring managers would ask female candidates questions like, ‘When do you plan to get married? When do you plan to have a kid?’ Interestingly, these questions were never asked of the male candidates!

“We realised that we had to actually educate men in terms of how to talk to women during the interview process. We had to train them not to ask such questions. We communicated zero tolerance on these aspects and sensitised people about this. And this was effective. Over time, as a result of these interventions, we saw much better traction of women wanting to join the company.”

How do women leaders in South Asia navigate the demands of home and family that are often expected to be their ‘first job’ despite their workplace achievements?

In general, women play more roles in Asia as compared to women anywhere else in the world. Often times, women navigate the multiple responsibilities they shoulder almost seamlessly. In playing these roles, they look for allies and support systems. Whenever they have allies and a strong support system, women flourish. Organisations today have flexible policies which should, ideally, enable women to do better at work.

Aarti Kelshikar

You have met Asian women entrepreneurs who have created or inherited large family businesses and have managed them successfully despite cultural stereotyping. Please share your insights on the unique strengths of such women leaders.

In my conversations with women leaders, I found that one common thread across these women leaders was that they did not dwell much on the external factors. They took them in their stride, and managed to strike a balance between the external dynamics and their personal aspirations. 

Women who do well find a way to forge ahead focusing on how they can contribute and how they can excel. That said, many of them were fortunate to have a mentor in the family or at the workplace. But they were innately driven, worked hard and persistently built their expertise. As they went up the corporate ladder, they developed an antenna for how to influence stakeholders, collaborate strategically and build resilience, qualities that sustained their success.

Can women “have it all” – career, family, personal fulfilment?

This is a commonly debated topic. In my opinion, thinking of it in this manner is self-limiting. Who decides the ‘all’ and why should one think of it this way? Each journey is unique and should be played that way. Every choice and decision involve some trade-offs. It’s important to decide what are your goals, what would make you happy and then go after them with everything you have. But you have to focus on some areas knowing your capabilities and limitations and not try to be perfect at everything.

What are the main areas or fields where women excel in the corporate world, and how does India compare with others in Asia in this regard?

Women have done very well in HR, in accounting, in public relations and media, in advertising and in hospitality. There are more women pilots in India as a percentage than anywhere else in the world; this industry is a good example of success.

There is an increasing number of women in Southeast Asia in CFO roles. In India too, many women have reached the top echelons of the banking and finance sector. On the flipside, in functions such as sales, there are fewer women across industries in India / South Asia when compared to Thailand, Philippines and Singapore.

Does a country’s level of economic development translate to better representation of women in leadership?

It should, but it doesn’t always. For instance, advanced economies like Japan and South Korea perform poorly on metrics such as women in senior management, women on boards, remuneration and political empowerment.

In 2022, Japan ranked 116th amongst 146 countries in the gender gap rankings index of the World Economic Forum, taking the last spot amongst the G-7 industrialised nations.

On a related note, North Europe is a good example of how companies with higher women representation on boards and in senior management tend to do better on all financial measures.

Have things improved for women in the workforce with India’s growing economic prosperity and greater global opportunities? What is your forecast for the next generation?

I think we should look at the question in quantitative and qualitative terms. In quantitative terms the numbers are better; there are increasing numbers of women as startup founders, as entrepreneurs and in the corporate world. However, in terms of the softer aspects, I think we have some distance to cover.

The younger generation seems to aspire for that sweet spot amidst freedom and flexibility and meaning in their work. Younger woman leaders have a greater sense of individual identity; they are doing very well and the growing awareness about their success helps. Take the women’s IPL as an example, it is a catalyst for women aspiring to push the boundaries and succeed on their terms.

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