May 30, 2013 — Welcome to the latest in our series of #WomenCan profiles, highlighting executives who are Catalysts for change in their careers and their companies. This week, the spotlight is on Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India WRC. Learn how she is helping to address stereotypes, change corporate mindsets, and create #WomenCan workplaces in India.
Empowering women in India: I have always believed in challenging the status quo. Indian children are taught not to speak out to their elders or air their opinions, and because of this early training, many women don’t openly discuss their career aspirations—either at home or at work. In addition, India’s patriarchal society gives preference to the male child. Boys are taught to shoulder family responsibilities, while girls are brought up to be submissive. Boys are trained to make decisions; girls are pushed to accept decisions. While this is changing in modern India, it will take time for workplaces to overcome these deeply rooted cultural norms. The country presents a fascinating paradox: on the one hand, more women than ever are asserting their rights; on the other hand, many remain subjugated.
Early influences: Luckily, my parents always encouraged me to speak my mind, take risks, and most importantly, fight my battles. They taught me to believe in my dreams and aspire to reach the top. I have also been truly blessed to have supportive in-laws who applaud my career goals—this is very important in India.
My career path: I received my BA in Computer Science and my MBA from Pune University, and at first I thought I’d become a software engineer. But then I realized I didn’t want to spend hours alone with a computer screen! So I found a way to combine my interests in technology and people by working for telecom and software companies in an array of departments and roles, including business development, marketing and advertising, employee relations, internal communications, and diversity and inclusion. My interest in the challenges women face at the workplace deepened when I became head of diversity at Infosys.
Women CAN Lead: At Infosys, I spearheaded a women’s leadership program open to all eligible mid-level women managers. Much to my surprise, women were hesitant to apply for it, and I had to figure out how to convince them that it was OK to step forward and register.
I ended up telling small groups of women a story about two men preparing for a marathon. They are equally talented and equally motivated, but one of them is forced to train with an iron ball chained to one leg. The race organizers remove it just in time for the race to begin, and claim that there is now a level playing field. But of course the man who trained with the iron ball doesn’t perform as well as the man who didn’t. I then asked the groups to imagine that the impeded runner was a woman. Wouldn’t they agree that in light of the obstacles women have faced, they need a little extra coaching in order to compete equally with men? This story really resonated with the women, and nominations started pouring in. The program went on to be one of the most coveted in the company!
Advancement advice: Look at your career trajectory and ask your managers about what you need to do to advance. And if it turns out that the path you’re on is not aligned with your aspirations, it’s time to change direction. Sometimes women focus too much on specialization, or are overly loyal to managers who might be impeding their growth. So women need to be told “You CAN do it” more often by managers, and companies must reinforce that message by providing development programs and opportunities for career-related discussions.
I am a Catalyst for change: When an opportunity arose to help Catalyst lead its mission in India, I grabbed it with both hands. Though workplaces in India are changing rapidly for the better, and policies are becoming more inclusive, the challenge lies in fixing the “leaking pipeline” and getting more women into leadership roles. While many Indian women aspire to advance professionally, they may not have received the right guidance on how to go about doing so. In India, we need more men champions who encourage women to take on leadership roles in organizations. This, in turn, will encourage more men to accept women in leadership roles. So much has been done, and yet there is so much more to do!
There are many cultural differences that affect women in the workplace globally, yet there are shared challenges too—whether you work in India or Indiana. How does Shachi’s story resonate with you or your company?
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