Over the last three decades, we have seen some wonderful instances of women entrepreneurs making their mark in Indian public life. Working with quiet assurance and confidence, they have exploded stereotypes about the docile, homebound India woman who has to set aside all aspirations in the seva of family and God.
But let’s not assume that we have achieved a level playing field for women. Though there’s better awareness of the neglected girl child, we remain a largely patriarchal society. Equality between genders still remains a distant ideal.
However, the battles educated, urban women have to fight are substantially internal—they are constantly limited by the messages given to them at homes and in society. These messages are internalised at an early age and continue to hinder women from realising their potential.
Let me illustrate with my own experience. I grew up in an upper middle-class home; my father had his own business. My two brothers were expected to join the family business. Compared to my brothers I did better at studies, and yet was never encouraged to join the enterprise. A constant message was drilled into me—I was to prepare for marriage and settle down to a family life.
By training, I am a social worker. But destiny took me to the corporate world. In the 1980s, my husband, Rohinton, suffered a massive heart attack. Friends and well-wishers suggested that, to help Rohinton, I take interest in our company—a private limited entity. I joined the HR division. After the death of my husband in 1996, the board appointed me executive chairperson. Male colleagues approved of this decision. I guess they felt comfortable; they had known me all along and thought they could get their way around me, little realising how tough I could be!
As chairperson, I was troubled by all kinds of insecurities. I compared myself with my illustrious husband and felt inadequate. To add to my difficulties, the Indian economy was going through a downturn and this affected my company’s performance. After several agonising quarters, I decided to seek help and called in a consulting company to help us turn around. Though my male senior managers stood by me through this crisis, I remember their reluctance in asking for external help. Maybe their macho self-images didn’t allow that.
Within my own company and with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), where I was the western region chairperson, my male colleagues have gone out of their way to support me. I haven’t really experienced a single man coming in the way of my personal growth. Of course, my experience cannot be generalised; possibly, I started from a different context.
However, my discomfort could be experienced by other women too. I had tremendous self-doubts about my capabilities. The Vipassana meditation session that I attended shortly after my husband’s death helped me deal with my inner turmoil. I realised I have to accept me for what I am, make use of my strengths and, when in need, turn to people willing to help and guide.
The messages internalised by our women make them cautious and naturally they wouldn’t dare take risks. Successful work life, especially entrepreneurship, is all about taking risks, which means believing in possibilities and not getting fixated by limitations. So, it is important for us to reflect on our growing up and once we do that it is possible to rewrite the old script.
Though there is change, I am aware that family businesses in India are still considered the preserve of men. I remember my husband and I never discriminated between our daughter and son, nor pressured them to join the business. Openness of choice is a legacy family enterprises can offer their women members.
Whether from a business family or a first-generation entrepreneur, once the decision to venture out into the unchartered area of entrepreneurship is taken, I feel the most pertinent question to be asked is—can we remove the glass ceiling which we have set up within ourselves, before we expect the world to lift its glass ceilings at the workplace?
(The author was chairperson of engineering firm Thermax Ltd)