Aarti Kelshikar Analyses How Women Work In A Man’s World

Are the rules that define women leaders in Asia different from those in the West? How are women leaders perceived across Asia? What are the cultural barriers and biases that they grapple with? How is ambition displayed and aspiration cloaked? These are some of the questions addressed in Aarti Kelshikar How Women Work: Fitting In and Standing Out in Asia.

With observations from women leaders as well as their male counterparts, How Women Work enriches and deepens our understanding of women’s leadership in one of the most dynamic regions of the world. It lays down the skills and strategies that work and the pitfalls to avoid for the modern working leader as she navigates the intricate ties between leadership and culture in the Asian hemisphere.

Here is an excerpt from Aarti Kelshikar’s How Women Work

Punita Kumar-Sinha, an experienced investment manager and corporate governance expert, talks of how she managed being a woman in a man’s world:

When I joined the world of finance, I was one of a handful of Indian or non-white persons in the investment industry. For a while, I was a novelty. It was a different culture and wasn’t easy to fit into. Years later, when I became partner, I was one of five women partners in the entire firm and one of the only Indian women partners in a Wall Street firm.

Because I was a minority woman, I had to excel in what I did, and I had to go the extra mile.

I started off as a quantitative fund manager as there weren’t many quantitative fund managers at that time, and I could excel in that with my PhD and engineering background. Also, I was an early investor in emerging markets and ran one of the first few India funds globally, which helped me make a niche for myself.

I am a straightforward, direct person and generally have no problem giving tough feedback or asking tough questions when needed. My tough style is also partly due to the fact that I ended up studying with a male cohort, in a male-oriented profession and organisation. When you are the only woman, you aren’t taken seriously unless you start behaving like the men. So subconsciously I imbibed a lot of the characteristics of the people around me.

Here is another account of managing in a ‘predominantly’ male environment in the US. Lynette Ortiz shares her learnings and experience:

When I began my career, I was the only woman on the trading desk in New York. I learnt not to be thin-skinned in the uber male-dominated trading room. I didn’t want to be the angry female always taking exception to comments that were not politically correct! For instance, my colleagues would joke ‘Don’t have your dogs around Lynette’ because they thought that all Filipinos eat dogs. Granted there are some provinces where this is prevalent, but certainly, most Filipinos don’t eat dog meat! Anyone would have flown off the handle, but I didn’t take these comments personally.

Having gotten used to all the banter in the trading room made me tough and helped me build a constitution to deal with men and their language. On coming home, I learnt to call out certain things but not in a shrill manner. The ability to keep calm in the face of challenges as a female leader helped me a lot.

Given that women are often perceived as being emotional, the ability to be calm and carry on are qualities that hold Lynette in good stead as she rubs shoulders with alpha-male honchos in the world of banking.

Another observation is that since the older generation of women was in a minority in the workplace, they felt that they had to behave more like men in order to fit in.

This was Punita’s case and the case with the older generation of Japanese leaders, as elaborated upon in the chapter ‘Don’t Talk Like a [email protected]#$%’. Punita focused on her work and strove to build competence in a niche area. She was strategic and at times deliberate about her career choices.

Sometimes the best way to stand out is to fit in.

In a recent training session I facilitated, a Middle Eastern leader shared how she was often not included in post-work meet-ups over beer with her international teams when they visited the Dubai office. This, despite being the boss!

Not losing sleep over incidents like these, women figure their way around. It takes tact, tenacity and as Lynette says, a bit of ‘thick skin’. As the only woman or one of a handful of women in a meeting, one observes the rules of engagement, understands the tone at the top and adapts to the cultural code in a way that feels authentic.
My observation of these women leaders is that many of them downplay their gender. They don’t fuss, whine, expect special treatment, or want to be singled out.

Rohini Srivathsa sums this up well:

I recall my husband once telling me: ‘You might forget that you are a woman but others in the room are probably seeing you as one!’ Despite being a woman in a male-dominated industry, I tend to be focused on my work and the impact I create, and I’m not as conscious of my gender. Whether it is technology, strategy, or the ability to build relationships, I’m bringing all of me to the table, not just the woman to the table.

Excerpted with permission from How Women Work by Aarti Kelshikar; published by HarperCollins India. You can also join SheThePeople’s Book club on FacebookLinkedIn and Instagram.

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