Seize your Career – Archana Venkat

Swapna Narayanan 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom we lost recently, said – Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. 

However the reality is, once we get a chance to make some decisions, specifically professional (that do impact the personal), we realise that it is not an easy task! The decision making process is so tough for a woman with her entire ecosystem (mother, father, siblings, husband, children, friends etc.) bearing her down with so much expectations.

Some women brave all this; some try and stop mid way; some get so daunted that they just do not attempt it. Yet, no woman makes it without loads of sacrifices, abundant guilt, and constant self questioning. 

I recently chanced upon a book Seize Your Career by Archana Venkat, and on reading it, a couple of flashback moments from my career (and those of some friends, cousins, colleagues) of the last 20+ years came tumbling to the fore. I have lived through  such deep predicaments, and seen many around me live through it too, that turn up in the life of working women who choose both motherhood and profession.  

I caught up with Archana to talk about the book and the thought process behind it. 

Swapna: You have let the cat out of the bag, Archana, and how! Each of your characters resonated with me, and I admire your vision to bring it out threadbare. Tell us how this book came by.

Archana: This book is an outcome of my interactions with close to 200 women professionals in the last three years. In March 2017, I started a women’s professional networking group called Women Leaders of Sarjapur Road, affiliated to the Lean In Bangalore chapter. The group aims to equip women with the skills and confidence necessary to aspire for leadership roles. The average work experience of our members is around ten years and most of them believe they can do a lot more in their careers. Many of these women (like everyone else) face challenges at work and need a support group / sounding board to discuss how to address those challenges. Unlike a corporate group, this group provides a safe space for women to discuss their concerns. Since most members are not work colleagues, there is no fear of any repercussions at work. 

Helping members address their challenges gave me insights into their professional journeys, their fears and aspirations. Over time, I saw some common themes emerge through these discussions and felt I should document them so the message could be taken to women beyond this group. 

I wanted women in professional roles to know that they were not alone in their career journey and could learn from the journeys of others. I also wanted to let women know that a career is something you choose for yourself and drive, and not something that an organisation (or your manager) can chart for you. As women, we need to seize our careers and shape them in a manner that satisfies our ambitions. 

Swapna: A mother is a rock solid support in her child’s eyes. However, the crude reality which I have seen many a times, and which many still find difficult to grasp, is invariably it is the mother who does not stand up for the daughter and support her. Or rather tells her daughter to take the path in a way that appeals to her – the mother. But then, every third working women in our world is either an Abhaya or a Janani. What are your thoughts? How should mothers help in the career of their daughters? 

Archana: You are right in your observation. Many women prefer not to challenge (or overcome) social conditioning and consequently keep their expectations from the workplace very low. Managing a home itself is seen as a full time job. If a woman were to seek a career in addition to her home responsibilities, she would be stretched thin and would need to rely on family and a support system for a semblance of balance. Too often, many women rely on their mothers to run their homes, while they seek a career. This not only burdens the mother (who is elderly) but is also unfair because she may not have wanted to support her child through physical work – whether babysitting or cooking or overseeing the domestic help. Instead of directly refusing to provide this support, many mothers tend to covertly encourage their daughters to reduce workload at office and take a break so they can attend to the chores at home. I have rarely seen a middle class mother who encourages the daughter to co-opt the son-in-law into sharing the load on the home front or hiring extensive help to take care of the home front.

For mothers to help their daughters in their careers, there needs to be a recognition that a career can be a genuine source of confidence, joy and motivation for a woman, whether or not the mother personally relates to that. By developing trust with the daughter, a mother can direct her to seek the right support that she isn’t able to provide – whether domestic or professional. I believe mothers are very resourceful but under leveraged. Through their social networks, they can connect people for a range of professional pursuits. A mother can also push her daughter to excel at work and be a sounding board for professional issues (considering she may have done this when the daughter was still in school). 

Swapna: Is babysitting or rearing the grand child the only way a mother can support her working daughter?

Archana: Of course not. A mother can help her daughter by checking with her regularly on her work performance. Simple words like – Are you enjoying your work? Where do you want to go from here? What help do you need professionally? – can help the daughter think of career longevity. 

If the mother has herself been employed and has had a reasonably long career, she can share her experiences with a view to finding solutions to issues her daughter may confront. She can also put the daughter in touch with other inspirational women (and men). 

A mother can also push for gender equality at home by demonstrating how she and her spouse share the load, thereby encouraging the daughter and son-in-law to jointly run their house.

Swapna: ‘Supportive husband’ is the most cliched term according to me! Again going back to Ruth Ginsburg, not all husbands are Marty Ginsburg! What is your definition of a real supportive husband? What would be an ideal Ashwin or Srikanth be like? 

Archana: For me, an ideal husband is one who is aware of his wife’s aspirations (personal and professional) and is willing to help her achieve them as a partner-in-crime. This means sharing the load at home as a practice (not as an exception), raising children together (including cleaning up the mess), motivating her when she is feeling low, and championing her career (even when she has a better chance of success than he does). 

I believe there are many men in India who can become ideal husbands but they are encouraged by their families and social networks to maintain traditional gender roles and remain heads of the family. The notion of a wife being given the same privileges as a husband and an equal voice in decision making, makes many families uncomfortable. I have seen many cases in my social circle where the couple behaves differently when the in-laws are visiting and when they are not.

Breaking out of these expectations can be challenging. Men who do it run the risk of being ridiculed, especially when things do not go as per expectations. In short, to be an ideal husband a man needs a lot of courage. 

Swapna: You have also called the bluff at the third angle of this equation – the company where the woman works. I am sure many of the leadership level women as well as HR professionals, when they read your book – specifically Raksha’s story – will get a deep insight into how much of a gap there is in proclaiming to be a women friendly organisation to actually being one.  What according to you are some good initiatives being adopted today by truly progressive organisations? 

Archana: Truly progressive organisations demonstrate and live by the policies they institute. They are also open to change and will provide flexibility for employees to adopt policies in a way that suits them. Some examples that I have seen are as follows.

  1. Shared parental / family leave – It is a well known fact that women tend to have a disproportionately high responsibility for child care or elder care. This is one of the main reasons for a career break. If women are to prolong their careers, they need to share these responsibilities with their spouse (in case of nuclear families). By providing a shared leave that men and women employees can avail, organisations can push for men to also take these breaks and share the load at home, thereby giving them an opportunity to understand and appreciate what women go through. If such leaves continue to be taken by women, men need to be pulled up and possibly penalised to bring about a change in behaviour. 
  2. An outcomes based performance evaluation system – Most organisations today continue to rely on the efforts put in by the employee and not the outcomes achieved. This means, when a woman seeks flexible working hours as per the company policy, she is still evaluated on the standards that employees working regular hours are evaluated on – such as physical presence, reliability, hours spent on the job that others can validate, etc. In contrast, an outcomes based policy is inherently tailored to look at efficiencies involved in completing a task. It doesn’t take into consideration whether you worked remotely or on premises when completing the task. This system tends to benefit most women, given our abilities to multitask and not miss deadlines.
  3. Fast track programs to push women into key decision making roles – Given the relatively low percentage of women at senior roles in corporations, there needs to be a push to provide women with more opportunities to rise to senior positions. Whether this is through training programs, participation in high visibility projects, or promotions to strategic roles. Most organisations provide training programs but only a few provide the opportunity to demonstrate those skills and sponsor the woman candidate for a strategic role.

Most importantly, progressive organisations work towards removing bias in their hiring and working practices, and don’t make excuses or condone existing practices citing external factors (eg: the client may not be happy if we do this or we have a cost and time issue on this project so we can’t have people working remotely). 

*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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