Founded in 2003 by Harsh Mariwala, Marico Innovation Foundation (MIF) is a not-for-profit organisation in India executing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for its parent company Marico Ltd. The organisation aims to nurture innovation in India across the business and social sectors alike. The Foundation works closely with organisations that are innovative and impactful through three of its sector-agnostic programs - MIF Scale-Up, MIF Awards and MIF Involve. To know more visit: http://www.maricoinnovationfoundation.org/
Engineering, it has always been a boys’ club until the last decade. Let’s go back a few decades; it is the 70’s, Thermax was in turmoil because my husband the then chairman had passed away. And then the board did something that was almost unheard of back in the day - put a woman in charge of a chemical engineering company. For me, it wasn’t a planned move, circumstances pushed me to the position and I accepted the role by default. And I wasn’t the only one, through my journey I have seen several women take over leadership roles at companies by ‘default’, it was never a planned career move.
So, when young women ask me for career advice, that is always my first advice - plan your careers and sketch out your career paths so you don’t have to conform to ‘default positions’.
While the current workplace gender ratio is certainly encouraging, there is still a vast ground to cover, when the goal is to build a healthy ratio. In India, we see women in top leadership positions especially within the BSFI and media spaces but other sectors are still bitterly lacking, and it shows. Research has proven that women are better multi-taskers than men and have been known to maintain a better work-life balance too. Vulnerability - it is a key aspect that most men, especially in the top rungs of companies severely lack. On the other hand, women are much more open to asking questions and admitting when they’re unaware about things. These factors cannot be underestimated when we look at it through a business lens. The differential that women bring in is crucial for businesses to maintain balance and empathy which can sometimes be lost in the ‘corporate jungle’. This is of course, apart from all the talent, creativity and innovation that women bring with them to the table. All they really need are more opportunities for a seat at that table. And if that doesn’t happen, it’s about time women proactively bring their own chair and find their space, so to speak.
Innovation and the impact women can make
Wherever women have gone, they have been trailblazers. A peek into our blooming social sector would reveal the outstanding results that occur when you have more women heading organizations. Take the example of Shaheen Mistry, who took the framework that Teach for America offered and customized it to fit the Indian framework. From there, Teach for India has only grown leaps and bounds and continues to expand what is already a massive network that facilitates primary school education for children across India. It is this kind of innovative thinking that not just the social sphere, but all industries could use.
Briefly exploring the history of innovation, we are quickly able to name men who’ve created remarkable inventions and services that have changed the world. But when we have to put a finger on women who’ve done the same, it is difficult. It is only true because women are not encouraged to be innovative, especially in a commercial sense. There have also been cases of women not being credited for their inventions or their contributions to discoveries and academia. That apart, as a culture, we are not as conducive to fostering and nurturing a woman’s idea from a seed and see it through, till it is a reality. In India, we raise our girls to be submissive, adaptive and risk-averse, all of which are traits that do not promote out of the box thinking and entrepreneurship. If we want to see more equitable growth between the genders, then we as the leading generation need to take the first step forward in teaching young women everywhere that it is okay to fail and convincing them to be bold enough to take more risks and make more mistakes, because that’s the only way to learn.
As parents, it is imperative that we stop building girls to be ‘affiliation-oriented’ unthinking robots who do as they are told. The more a woman questions the more she learns and the more she starts leaning towards becoming achievement oriented in every aspect of life, especially professionally.
Breaking the shackles of patriarchy
The impetus of change to bring more women to the helm of the innovation is not just on society, it is also on corporate India along with the social services sector. Working as an alliance, they must ensure that there are workshops and training sessions being held that can help women with innovative ideas bring them to fruition. Programs within organisations such as the Marico Innovation Foundation do exist where innovators are matched with mentors who help analyse the work and identify loopholes that may have slipped past the innovators themselves. Women must be given the right resources to be able to scale-up their fantastic ideas and execute them to their full potential.
Corporate India too needs to be more open to the idea of making changes that would make women’s experiences more comfortable. With better penetration of internet connectivity, flexi-timings and work from home being increasingly put on the offer, companies are now waking up to the fact that making the workplace conducive, especially for mothers, ensures that they are not forced to take a career break to raise their children. HRs should ensure that their hiring policies are gender-neutral and should also be more open to hiring women that have chosen to take a career break to tend to family. Extended maternity and paternity leaves will also be a huge relieving factor to women who are looking to start their families.
In that vein, I do not believe in permanent gender-oriented quotas. While it may be the need of the hour to balance the scale, any policy for more than a period of five to seven years is only detrimental to the cause. Bias will take time to completely be erased but merit always prevails.
And one of the very last but crucial career advice that I give women is this: don’t discount your womanhood. Even when we are between the pressures of family life and our professions, we stand tall in the face of adversity and that is only possible if you have complete faith in yourself. And when you truly do believe in yourself, you will never fear failure; you will only use it as a milestone to your next success.
-Anu Aga, Member, Governing Council, Marico Innovation Foundation and Director on the Board of Thermax Limited
This article is a part of ‘Thought Leadership’ series in partnership with Marico Innovation Foundation (MIF). The author is a member of the Governing Council of MIF.