YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY!
By Ajit Chaudhuri – December 2012
Returning to management school after 22 years offers opportunities for longitudinal comparisons. What has changed from the late 1980s? The short answer is – two things! One, communications! Computers, cell phones and the Internet have revolutionized research, assignment writing, and people to people interaction. And two; there are more women students on campus (to those ascribing my return to this factor, let me quote the statistical adage ‘correlation is not causation’)! In fact, 2012 is an inflexion year for IRMA – the first time that an incoming batch of prospective MBAs has more women than men. The proportions can only partially be attributed to IRMA’s policy of positive discrimination (yes, the admission criteria for women is lower), this trend is seen in most institutions of professional education and is more a testament to women’s increased access to education, their intelligence and concentration levels, and their capacity for hard work (but don’t worry, my dear male readers, we will always reign supreme in class 8 mathematics).
IRMA is coping admirably with this change. Men’s hostel blocks have been converted into women’s ones (I wonder what happens to the piss-pots and graffiti), north Indian type behaviour in common spaces (comment-passing, testicle-scratching, et al) has been clamped down upon, and courses on gender attitudes introduced. Even the evening football game welcomes women participants. But will the world that these highly qualified women (HQWs for short – caused by my reluctance to type and not my eagerness to typify – and by HQW I mean only the achievers among them, and not those passing time between college and marriage) enter upon graduating be as kind? This paper looks at this world, at the difficulties these young women will face in converting their potential into achievement, and offers some advice.
HQWs entering the job market today have much to thank previous generations of HQWs. Many battles have been fought (and won); glass ceilings smashed, and stereotypes broken. Critical decisions and discussions now happen in office (and not in golf courses and bars), and most modern recruiters are gender blind. But some remain! The first is the conflict between getting ahead and raising a family? The fact is that most achievers follow a similar career path; they are identified in their late 20s and early 30s, and are provided with serious opportunity soon after – usually a position in which all functions converge, like a cost or profit centre, or managing country operations in Kazakhstan or somewhere, where the buck stops at their desks. This is a 24/7 position, with little scope for distraction or a full night’s sleep. But this is also when their career paths deviate from that of their peers, leading to senior management, directorship, and even top management – while others languish in the middle and contemplate early retirement and organic farming or whatever. HQWs with young families tend to refuse this opportunity for obvious reasons, possibly expecting that it will knock again when they are better able to manage the strain. By doing so, however, they wave goodbye to the corner office – forever. Another trap is that of flexi-time, tele-commuting, and part-time work – no matter how attractive they are, and how much a woman needs them to balance demands on her time, taking these options in most organizations is an effective way of communicating one’s unsuitability for the trials and tribulations of senior management.
If you do manage to negotiate these traps, or if you don’t have children and can afford to give your career everything, you will find that the fast track is more than about being brilliant, hard working and strategic. You also have to be ruthless – a trait that cannot be acquired or learnt – and you have to build relationships with mentors and mentees to give yourself an edge. Unfortunately, HQWs are at a disadvantage here; the socialization of girls in India as participatory, care giving and communitarian is difficult to rub off (despite management school’s best efforts), and mentor-mentee relationships are close and intense ones that discourage the crossing of gender lines (and lead to all sorts of rumours, and often the real thing as well, when they do).
The other battle is that of finding suitable life partners; men who will be a positive factor in one’s career and its advancement. At one level, this is easy – most men are similar, and one merely has to avoid the future wife beaters and the mentally ill (easily said, but they are ten percent of all men and these traits only show up about a year after marriage), and see that he is fed on time, that there is no conversation when sports is on TV, and that one doesn’t shout at him in front of his friends, for marital relations to be clement. This, however, does require the management of expectations – and HQWs often go wrong here, there is this vision of the perfect man waiting for them; high income, handsome, educated, sensitive, supportive, blah, blah, blah, a vision that is played up to by the genre of films known as chick flicks (in real life, if such men do exist they usually already have boyfriends). Coupled with this are the facts that the office, where HQWs spend most of their time, is not a good place to hunt, the Internet is full of perverts, and the combination of intelligence and a fast track career is not exactly an aphrodisiac to most men.
What is the likely outcome? Well, by their mid-30s they become desperate (it is now or never regarding having children), they find that the laws of supply and demand are not in their favour (there are few single straight men in their age group, and they are invariably having such a good time that they are loath to change their status), and they end up as fodder for otherwise unsuitable men. How can the coming generation of HQWs circumvent such a scenario? One, be a little nicer to your admirers in management school, and accept a few flaws (male students, I want a kickback for this nugget of advice) – the known devil is often better than the deep blue sea! Two, if you have to run around with older (married) men, they should drive a Ferrari. And three, if two converts into marriage, have a kid quickly – this is actually an unwritten rule for all second/third/etc. wives, it locks the guy in and makes treating you like he did your predecessor an expensive (and, to you, lucrative) proposition.
To conclude, welcome to the world, ladies! May your battles be different from those of earlier generations, may you find an appropriate balance, and may you change the world! And yes, may you stay, as Dylan said, forever young.
Some additional reading for those particularly interested in HQW issues:
Slaughter, Anne-Marie; Why Women Still Can’t Have It All; The Atlantic; July/August 2012 (available on-line)
Hewlett, Sylvia Ann and Carolyn Buck Luce; Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success; Harvard Business Review; March 2005