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To Have Or Not To Have A Career: A Woman's Dilemma

Organizational leaders need to play the role of mentor to women in early and mid careers to facilitate their continuity in the leadership pipeline and help them realize their true potential

Photo Credit : glassceiling.com,

As India marches towards an elevated status of being an economic superpower, there is a pressing need for a more nuanced understanding of the factors that impact the development of new generation women leaders. Recent reports indicate that the percentage of women sitting on corporate boards and executive committees in Indian companies is strikingly low compared to the Western countries. A study published by CTI in the Forbes India magazine said that women make up 24 percent of the workforce in India out of which only 5 percent reach the top management levels, compared to a global average of 20 percent. This glaring paradox of the shrinking women leadership pipeline is of grave concern if one wishes to harness the full potential of the Indian workforce.

Research among mid-level women managers across several organizations suggests that self-confidence and professional ambitions are strong intrinsic factors that drive individual efforts of women managers towards career success. The qualified working women describe financial independence, finding time for their families, and pursuing new learning as various dimensions of career success which however pull them in opposing directions most of the times. The dilemma between family identity and career identity faced by women managers specially during child bearing phase of their lives is also evident of the patriarchal social structure that still pervades the social milieu. Men take charge while women take care. Worse still, for a woman who succumbs to the conflicting demands and buys time with family at the cost of her career, the bigger setback comes when she wants to return to work. In a fast moving world, keeping pace with the changes in technologies, addition of skill sets, do become difficult and this leads to dwindling self-confidence. Often Companies see returning women as less credible career aspirants. Thus a career break may break a career forever.

More often than not, women often experience organizational culture as stereotypical attitudes that question women's abilities to be effective decision-makers particularly in context of risk-taking. Judgements about whether they should be promoted to managerial positions are based on adherence to masculine stereotypes. The women managers interviewed, considered that these judgments stem from dominant national cultural values, that uphold patriarchal attitudes that strongly emphasize the role of women in domestic arenas. Such attiudes also pervade the norms and beliefs prevalent in organizations which in turn adversely influence the career advancement of women.

Despite these attitudinal and structural barriers, women are increasingly demonstrating strong career aspirations and commitment to pursue and achieve success in their careers. Equipped with strong educational backgrounds, years of experience, strong aspirations for growth, women are reportedly navigating their careers through hard work, persistence and determination. Very often, the women managers felt the need to prove themselves and their suitability for management positions through excellent performance and long hours of work. They also feel the need to take on challenges, which are typically posed to their male colleagues to crack the glass ceiling and realize their potential. Desire for autonomy and financial independence are significant motivators for career advancement. This reflects the economic aspirations of the urban Indian middle class.

By transitioning to a market-oriented economy, contemporary India has brought new opportunities for women on one hand, but also created intra-personal as well as interpersonal conflicts in the backdrop of traditional Indian cultural values. With higher performance pressures and severe war for talent as top challenges in organizational management, there is a dire need for strengthening the women leadership pipeline in corporate India. Organizations need to work harder to address barriers to women's advancement to top management. The provision of family support by organizations e.g. flexible scheduling, working from home, Company provided housing, child and elder care assistance make it easier for women with family responsibilities to continue in managerial positions successfully. This would probably  increase the proportion of in-career women who are interested in securing top management positions.

Interventions that can help women professionals in developing self-esteem and empowering them in navigating the complex social environment to create their own leadership identities will go a long way in supporting them in career success. Organizational leaders need to play the role of mentor to women in early and mid careers to facilitate their continuity in the leadership pipeline and help them realize their true potential. It would seem that the onus is therefore largely on organizations to design and implement human resource practices which will allow the space and time for creating a committed, gender diverse workforce. How many really have the vision, leadership intent and willingness to do so?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Dr. Sumita Datta

Dr. Sumita Datta is Head - Women Leadership Program and Associate Professor of Organization Behavior & HRM at SPJIMR (S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research), Mumbai. A Post Graduate in Personnel Management & Industrial Relations from XLRI Jamshedpur (1992) with academic Concentration in Organization Behavior, she received her PhD. from IIT Bombay in 2010. Prior to joining academics in 2009, Dr. Datta has had full time corporate experience of more than 15 years since 1992 in companies such as Eveready Industries, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. and Siemens. Since 2005, she has been actively engaged in consulting medium and large sized organizations primarily in the areas of organizational change and development, performance management, corporate restructuring, talent management, learning & leadership development. She was a part of the core team to conceptualise and start a full time Management Programme at SPJIMR for returning women. In her academic role at SPJIMR, apart from teaching Organization Behavior, Dr. Datta has been actively engaged in teaching organizational and leadership processes in the Family Managed Business program for their continuity and growth. With special interest in enriching the role of women in the workplace, she is engaged in building learning platforms for women to enable their leadership development. Dr. Datta has published several scholarly articles in refereed journals as well as International Conference Proceedings. Her research paper on Talent Development Climate, got acclaimed in the Best Paper Award (2012) category by the Academy of Management, Boston USA.

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