Superwomen



Not yet 45, they are youthful by most professional managerial standards. And,
each of them is an achiever, with a career-record that would put to shame the
entire careers of a lot of other men and women. This despite being women in a
world where the old-boys’ network determines the pace at which one climbs the
corporate ladder. What is even more amazing is that despite having extremely
successful and very public lives, they have managed to do this with panache,
without compromising with their personal relationships and responsibilities. So
how do they manage to keep up the juggling act? What is it that they do
differently from other women, and men? Meet Hema, Mythily, Revathy, Meena, Neela
and Ushasri-IT’s wonder women. Dataquest looks at how their individual
decisions to take the rough with the smooth and to stick out all nine rounds
have made all the difference to their lives. And that of other women in infotech.

It was Hema Ravichandar’s first day at work in MICO and she had had a
great time interacting with the gang. That all of them, incidentally, were
male had come as no surprise.

Women managers who occupied positions at this level in this company had been
few and far in between. After an interesting half-day spent touring the
organization and trying to understand it under the cheerful guidance of her
(male) colleagues, they headed for lunch. At the entrance to the canteen, one of
her colleagues pointed out a space in the corner, which had obviously been set
apart from the rest. “That’s the ladies enclosure. See you after
lunch,” said one of them and walked off to the other tables.

For a few moments she was stupefied and she couldn’t fully describe the
nature or the intensity of hurt that she was going through.

After a lifetime of studying in co-educational institutions, acquiring
qualifications that, in some cases, exceeded those of the men, here she was, on
the threshold of her professional life, in which she would be rubbing shoulders
with men, being told that during lunch she would be restricted to the
“ladies enclosure”.

Even as she stood there shell-shocked, she knew that it was her moment of
truth, her baptism by fire. She had to make a choice, a choice that would in all
probability determine the way the men would perceive her for the rest of the
time she was with the company. Was she going to claim special privileges, or be
part of what was then an overwhelmingly male world?

The decision was not too difficult. She chose to eat with the men in the
common area, and hasn’t looked back ever since.

That was Hema’s illuminating experience that piquantly captures the nature
of the choice a woman has to make in what is still a male bastion.

Being a woman is a tough job. Being a woman professional is tougher. And
trying to break the glass-ceilings on your way up the ladder of your chosen
career can prove to be the trial of a lifetime. History shows you that this is
true. IT shows you that things can be different.

IT isn’t called a new economy industry for nothing. Unlike industries that
belong to the pre-1980s universe, IT has, since the beginning, given women more
opportunity in terms of work options and professional growth. If there was a
competition to judge which industry gave women optimal career-development paths,
the IT industry would emerge the easy victor.

But not everything is picture perfect and history’s beckoning hug does not
let go all that easily. Though IT offers a better platform for women to rise, it
still offers its own set of challenges to the woman with ambition.

In February 2003, Dataquest carried a cover story about the issues in the IT
fraternity that hold women back. One year later, we’ve come back to record
some success stories of women in infotech. We approached some of the illustrious
women who have made it big in the world of IT and asked them what they did
differently to get where they were and what they thought was the magic formula
for any woman who dreamt as big as they did. And this is what they had to say.

Separate But Equal
They did not all go to the same graduate college. Not all of them have a
management background. Not all of them started on a slightly higher rung in the
ladder. Not all of them had the same family background.

But what is surprising is how similar their success stories are. Even more
striking is the similarity in the approach all these six women have taken to
their careers, and the even more remarkable is the existence of a thin, but
extremely strong, common thread that runs through each of their disparate lives.

For one, all of them have impressive, even formidable, academic
qualifications backing them up. Most of them are engineering graduates and a
good percentage of them hold management degrees from one of the IIMs.

“Programs like MBA do increase your chances of being recruited by bigger
organizations simply by making you a much more attractive candidate.
Consequently, an MBA degree is a measure of your capability to perform, which
means expectations will be that much higher in the organization. Of course, at
the end of the day if you don’t perform you won’t last there anyway,”
says Mythily Ramesh, VP, business development, innovation and marketing, at
Wipro Infotech.

Revathi Kasturi, president, Tarang Software, thinks a liitle differently.
“It is not important that one goes to a management school. But it is
certainly important to go to a professional institution that provides an
environment of equal opportunity, which encourages you to grow and instills in
you values by way of team work. I have never felt the need for a management
degree myself because the IIT gave me all of that,” she says.

All of them agree that they have never really experienced any kind of
harassment in the workplace.

“Issues like harassment of women in the workplace are a result of social
conditioning. In my over 20 years of professional life, I’ve never been
harassed,” says Neela Bhattacharjee, senior VP, global business
development, Kale Consultants.

But most of them also agree that they have gone through, at least once, a
subtle exclusion from the circle of their largely male colleagues.

“I call it the brotherhood. And I really felt when I was working for a
huge MNC. I never really felt part of the fabric there. In fact, when we went
offsite for company meetings or conferences, the menfolk would walk away in the
evenings and leave you to find ways to spend by yourself,” recalls Meena
Ganesh, CEO of Tesco.

“Yes it happens most of the time. But the choice is up to you. You can
either choose not to play this game of acceptance and sit by yourself, or you
can put in an extra effort and go up and start a conversation. But frankly, I
think that the situation will change with numbers. As more women come into
management, the men will find it increasingly easy to accept them into their
fold. Also, with company the women will find it easier to mingle,” says
Revathi.

Each one of them also went through little tug-of-wars trying to find that
fine balance between their career and a pleasant motherhood. In fact, according
to Mythily, learning to manage your work and your home, especially during the
initial growth years of the children, is the biggest hurdle that a working woman
can face. Compared to this, ”everything else is peanuts”.

“It is a tough juggling act that every working woman has to go through.
And I went through it too after my children were born. The most trying times are
when they are still young and you want to pay equal attention to them as well as
your work. But then you will have to consciously not take up certain roles,
especially if you lack proper support systems,” says Ushasri, MD, Force
Computers, India.

“Without adequate and easily available support from my family, I might
not have been able to do all that I have done,” agrees Hema Ravichandar,
who is currently senior VP and group head, HRD, Infosys. “You have to
forget that you are a woman. You must refuse to fit into the mould that society
has fashioned for you,” Meena aptly sums up.

Like Alice in Wonderland
These are women who have made it there. And, almost all of them, at some
point of their careers, have ventured out on their own. Even as each of them
tried and continue to try in their own ways to ensure that the working
environment around them remains as encouraging to women as possible, they do
agree that there is no one magic formula for success. They all feel that in the
path to building a successful career, each woman will inevitably have to make
choices as and when they are presented to her.

That said, there is one important caveat-and not to use their gender card
while making these decisions.

“One of the first things that a woman has to learn is that she cannot
use her gender card. She has to work on everything as a true professional.
Simple things like getting back on the day after the leave ends are ways to
gaining other people’s respect. After all a supporting environment can do only
that much,” says Hema.

Agrees Revathi, “There are no special privileges that come along because
you are a woman.” At the same time, she adds, the woman in the workplace
should learn to use her natural, inborn abilities like nurturing and patience to
the full potential. Revathi believes that it is things like these, which no
management school can teach a man, that can prove to be the potential keys with
which women can unlock the doors to their success.

Neela adds to that by saying, “Women are far more intuitive and their
sixth sense much sharper than men’s. Therefore, their ability to read
situations in a business environment is much better. Women should use such
strengths to their advantage.”

One of the remarkable things about these women is the way each of them has
moved from one job function to the other in a fluid way, even while working
within the same organization.

Says Ushasri, “Every time you feel you have become comfortable in a
particular role or position, you’ve got to push yourself into a discomfort
zone and try something new. Unless you do that your learning stops. Working with
diversity is very interesting and the best way to learn.”

Another thing that all of them feel is of the essence, but which most women
miss out on, is relationship building. “Networking and building
relationships is a constant process both within and outside the office. I use
specific forums and groups for networking along with using a bit of my husband’s
network,” says Meena.

“Socializing and networking are very important for a woman, especially
as she rises up the ladder. But unfortunately, it is something that is absent
from the agenda of most women. It should become part of the woman’s aim and
should be done to some extent at least,” says Ushasri

“Another thing most women lack is mentoring within the community. Most
of them are reluctant to ask for help. There are people who sit next to one
other for years but never discuss real issues. Women have to come out and ask
for help. They will not believe the amount of advice and aid they will receive
only if they take the step to ask,” says Revathi, who conducts regular
sessions at Tarang for women professionals to encourage them to talk more openly
among themselves

Hema, who has initiated a similar meeting ground for women within Infosys
called Infosys Women Inclusivity Network (IWIN), and conducts networking and
reverse-mentoring sessions along with initiating policies, benefits and training
via the group, says that many men end up attending these sessions too.

Mythily, who is part of a similar initiative within Wipro, called Women of
Wipro (WOW), believes that networking within an organization should take
precedence.

Ushasri, however, thinks that mentoring should be taken beyond the company
domain and women working in different IT organizations should find a common
platform to share and learn from. “There have been initiatives in that
space, even one in Bangalore. But I don’t think any of them are very active
with their agendas,” she says.

All these women cannot emphasize enough the need to have the self-confidence,
the right attitude, and goals to aspire to, and the ambition to dream big dreams
about what you want from life.

“Its very important to dream. And you have to make that dream your
driving force. Unless you aspire, you will not get any where in this competitive
world,” says Revathi.

“It can get very lonely at times. But the point is to stick it out and
not to give up. You must have the never-say-die attitude to make it big,”
Hema asserts. Finally, they are firm in their conviction that life doesn’t end
at the office either-it is just as necessary to have activities beyond work,
either in the form of a hobby or a social group to hang out with.

Staying in Wonderland
All of these women are younger than 45 years of age. And what they have
achieved in this relatively short span of time would put most men and women to
shame. Not only are they successful at their extremely demanding and often very
“visible” professional responsibilities, they also manage to have
kids, provide them with good surroundings to grow up in and keep a home together-all
in the same go. But these real-life superwomen, however, discourage prospective
wannabes from trying to be superwomen. “Its all about making choices and
women are lucky in the sense that the social fabric that they operate in offers
them an alternative. Unlike men, who are forced to work, women have the option
of going back to a home environment. Unfortunately, this also acts as a
detriment for women and often calling it a day simply because they
alternatives,” says Neela.

But Meena feels that the good of this cannot be gainsaid: “You have to
find what you are comfortable at and what you want to do and go for it. You
should not overload yourself and end up not doing justice to either.”

Most of them though do not hesitate to agree that things have changed a whole
lot since the time they started out and believe that there will be a lot more
women in managerial positions in a few years’ time.

More than anything else, they believe that there are no short cuts to success-it’s
a long, painful road to the top and you have to stick it out to the end, fight
to the death, so to speak, if you want to get there. “Ultimately in the
professional world, there is no difference between men and women. Women will
have to fight the same battles and go through the same trials as everyone
else,” says Revathi.

“Things might look impossible. But one has to remember that there is
always a way to work out a situation. Always,” says Mythily.

“It will be tough going. You will have very difficult situations where
priorities become a total muddle. But the fact is, you’ve got to keep going.
You can and will have moments of overload, but you don’t give up. After all,
even this shall pass,” quips Ushasri.

Kudos to that!

Sathya Mithra Ashok in Bangalore

Hema Ravichandar, senior VP and group head-HRD, Infosys

Career graph Graduate degree from Stella Maris College. Specialised in
HR IIM-A. In 1983, joined MICO Bosch. In 1992, met NR Narayana Murthy and Nandan
Nilekani, joined Infosys. Left in 1996, to take care of her two children.
Started consulting firm. Joined Infosys again in 1998

Family
Husband
-Ravichandar, IIM-A, runs his own market research firm, Feedback
Market Research and is an active member of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF).
A son and a daughter who are studying

Hobbies Socializing with people within and outside the IT fraternity
and gaining perspective from the same. Involved in a bit of counseling that
touches upon the professional-personal space of friends and peers

Punch Line “All of us have to make choices like whether we go
along with the flow or decide to stand out. The important thing is to make a
choice for yourself and live by it.”

Neela Bhattacharjee, global VP, business development, Kale Consultants

Career Graph Maths graduation from Mumbai University. Computer science
post graduation from Pune University. Joined A F Ferguson & Co Management
Consultancy in Mumbai, though she was invited to join Kale in Pune. Within few
months moved to Kale’s Mumbai branch which started in 1982. Left Kale in ’87,
when her son was born. Ran her own software firm with partners for 13 years.
Rejoined Kale in 2000 as the head of the healthcare division. Her joining
coincided with Kale’s acquisition of Speedwing’s assets. She oversaw the
acquisition and aided in the formation of the airlines division. Around the same
time, Kale disbanded their healthcare division and she was made the business
development head

Family Husband-Arunabh, Son-Tanmay, just completed his twelfth
standard

Hobbies Enjoys movies, listening to music and attending concerts. She
is also very clear about discussing non-IT topics with her social circle which
remains largely outside the IT sphere

Punch Line “If you look at yourself as a woman first, and as a
professional second, then you yourself will create a self-imposed barrier on
you. Therefore, something to be avoided.”

Meena Ganesh, CEO, Tesco India

Career graph MBA from IIM-Cal. Recruited from campus by NIIT
(1985-1992). Shifted to PWC and spent three years in business process
re-engineering and high-end financial re-engineering areas. This was followed by
Microsoft India for five years where, she set up various businesses including
consulting services, business solutions division and the Internet division.
Started Customer Asset in 2000, sold it to ICICI OneSource later and stayed on
to supervise their acquisition of First Ring.

In
December 2003, Meena joined TESCO, to build up the shared service center of the
$60B UK retail company. The center will handle IT services and back-office
business processes for the company

Family Husband-T
Ganesh, building an offshoring company in the
automotive sector. Gives consulting advice to other BPOs. Daughter-Akshita,
14; Son-Atishay, 5

Hobbies Listens to music, plays a keyboard, enjoys traveling with the
family

Punch Line “Being a woman there is the unusual amount of
visibility that you get. You are still a slightly unusual animal in the
corporate world. Also, there is the common assumption that you have worked
harder to get here.”

T S Ushasri, Managing director, Force Computers India

Career Graph Electrical engineering, IIM-B. Joined BHEL (1981-1985)
where was involved in re-organization of business units and technology
feasibility studies. Then moved to NIIT for eight years. Was in Hinduja’s IT
unit (1994-1998), where was involved in bringing in a product feel and setting
up the ERP business. Moved to Wipro and was involved in the ERP division. Then
came Digital where was involved in technology incubation frameworks and product
initiatives. Then moved to Force Computers in 2003

Family Husband-Venkatachalam, HR professional from IIT Delhi.
Daughter-Mrudula, 18; Son-Sarang, 12, a computer games addict

Hobbies Reading, writing poetry, traveling

Punch Line “It’s not what is given to you that matters, but
what potential you can take it to that does. If you can see beyond what is given
and do more, then you will bring in a wave of change to your world.”

Revathi Kasturi, President, Tarang Software

Career Graph Passed out from IIT Bombay in 1980. Recruited from campus
into then Tata Infotech as a programmer and spent three years there. Joined
Wipro as a software programmer and by the time she left after 17 years she was
the chief executive of a division within Wipro. Left Wipro to start Tarang with
four others in 2000

Family
Single. Daughter
-Anandi, 13, studying. Mother who “is the queen of
the house” and takes care of the home to a large extent

Hobbies
Calls herself a kind of fitness freak. Is into trekking and
sports including badminton and tennis. Was involved in social work related to
women’s issues but now rarely finds time for the same

Punch Line “You have to train your mind to rebound from bad
situations faster. It’s like how exercising increases the capacity of your
body to face high stress situations better. That’s where attitude matters the
most.”

Mythily Ramesh, VP-business development, innovation & marketing, Wipro Infotech

Career
graph
Engineering graduate from Guindy college of Engineering, Madras. MBA
from IIM-A.

Was recruited into Wipro by way of campus recruitments in 88. Began her
career in the organization as a software developer and worked her way up to
cover divisions including product management, manufacturing, regional business
head for the south, six sigma quality initiative for Wipro Infotech and was
assigned to head the growth of Wipro’s 01 markets when it was started in 2001.
After three year, she was moved to her present position in the organization

Family Husband-Ramesh,
IIT-M, IIM-A, executive director, IBM India. Sons-Abhinav, 12 and Pranav, 7

Hobbies Listening to and singing Carnatic music (she says she is
learning the same), reading a whole lot, learning to swim and trying hard to
make time for meditation and yoga

Punch Line “The one thing that I noticed among men during the
initial stages of my career was how they were unaware or insensitive to any
specific wants of yours especially if you were the only woman in a group. For
example, I have sat in on so many late meetings and none of the men would ever
ask me at the end of it how I plan to get home. Of course, that meant that most
of the time I had to find a way to get home by myself so I guess in the end it
was a good thing.”

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