17/06/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

How Women In India And The US Are Starkly Similar

"We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women's voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored." -- Sheryl Sandberg

As I started reading "Lean In - Women, Work And The Will To Lead" by Sheryl Sandberg, I realized that all those things that come in the way of a woman reaching the top, are quite similar irrespective of whether it is USA or India. Even in the US there is a dearth of women in the leadership roles. The part where Sheryl describes her own life's experiences made me realize that working women in India are also facing issues quite similar to what women from the 'developed' nation are facing. And if a nation like US is still struggling to fight gender stereotypes, India is bound to take far more time to change the status quo.

All these things struck me to the core especially after reading that more than 1,000 companies on the BSE and nearly 200 on the NSE had not complied with the directions given by Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) for listed firms to appoint at least one woman director on their boards. These companies will now have to pay a hefty amount of fine because of this violation. What was supposed to be an exercise to promote gender diversity on boards became a 'tick-the-box' exercise for many companies who ended up appointing family members of promoters or well-known personalities. Interestingly, the Government itself has been lazy about compliance. Data revealed that 32 of the 180 NSE companies that had not complied were PSUs, where the Government is responsible for appointing directors.

According to the report by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, a total of 20.4% women were employed in the organized sector in 2010. The workforce participation rate of women in urban sector was 13.8 for women and 54.3 for men. While the statistics reveal a pitiful situation, there are a handful of women who actually exist at leadership levels. Part of the problem of what experts call a dearth of talent, is social and cultural issues in a country where women take bigger domestic responsibilities such as child care and caring for elders.

In the middle of the supercharged work environment where promoters push for fast growth, fostering a culture of overwork and aggressive competition, many women usually drop out of the workforce at junior and middle levels. This implies that there is a need for an effective director assessment process. Mid-career women with high potential should be identified at the firm-level, and adequate exposure and grooming need to be provided for such identified directors.

I am sad to say this, but most of the women are reticent and do not push themselves as aggressively as men. Here's an excerpt from the book highlighting this issue:

"The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and become self-fulfilling prophesies. Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don't expect to achieve them, and that becomes one of the reasons they don't."

How many families are there who really support a working woman who puts her career first? Most of the times, she is found juggling between her career and the household responsibilities that she has to fulfil. When she cannot deliver her best to both she is traumatised by the guilt of not being able to cope up. Sheryl rightly says that "Trying to do it all and expecting that it can be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment. Perfection is the enemy." Maintaining the right balance at work and home, with the husbands also supporting at home, will bring in happiness in both personal, as well as, professional lives.

While women as a community need to come together and support each other, even men who support gender equality need to implement it in letter and spirit. There are many organizations that understand the needs of working women and accordingly provide them with additional facilities. Of course, the challenges will continue to exist and we need to fight against them so that there can be more Chanda Kochchars, Indira Nooyis, Kiran Majumdars, Naina Lal Kidwais, Sheryl Sandbergs in India. For every woman who will 'lean in' there will be many who will follow!