04 Feb 2021 20:09 IST

How corporates can make way for more women at work

Abanti Sankaranarayanan, Chief Strategy and Corporate Affairs Officer, Diageo India

Women need to find comfort in vulnerability and ask for help when needed, says Abanti Sankaranarayanan

Abanti Sankaranarayanan, Chief Strategy and Corporate Affairs Officer, Diageo India, believes there has been a big shift for women in leadership in the last decade. She delivered the Raghu Pillai memorial lecture in a virtual national conclave on the theme ‘Women in Leadership: Future Perspectives,’ presented by Madras Management Association (MMA) in partnership with Coaching Foundation of India (CFI).

Group Captain R Vijayakumar (Retd), VSM, Executive Director, MMA delivered the welcome address. Ganesh Chella, Co-founder and Managing Director, CFI gave an overview of the conclave. He said that though the path for leadership is the same for both men and women, the latter face different challenges and therefore, they need separate space.

During her address, Abanti Sankaranarayanan talked about how women leaders have a prominent presence not only in corporate India but even in the start-up ecosystem now. Quoting a Grant Thornton report, she said that India’s ranking has improved in gender diversity. “Yet, as a country, we have a long way to go,” she argued.

The gaps

“While 43 per cent of women are in tertiary educated graduates space and 25 per cent as entry level professionals, only 4 per cent are in senior management and 11 per cent as Board Members,” she quoted and added, “Though there is a Companies Act provision that there has to be at least one woman member as Director in listed companies, there are still many companies that don’t.”

The contribution of women to India’s GDP (2016) was only 18 per cent as against 41 per cent in China and Cambodia and 40 per cent in Vietnam and Thailand. She continued, “According to a 2019 study, 79 per cent of women lack confidence at work. The top three obstacles for women in reaching senior roles were — juggling work-life balance; lack of visible internal opportunities; and lack of confidence in their own ability. 55 per cent of women surveyed said that they suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ which makes them shy away from ownership and feeling the pride of achievement.” She advocated for women to take responsibility and not feel guilty about having an ambition.

Distilling her rich experience, Abanti Sankaranarayanan prescribed ten commandments for women to grow in organisations:

Better decision-making

Diversity is at the heart of better business decisions. The more diverse people are, the more the decisions get challenged. They are viewed with multiple lenses and thus, better decisions evolve. Diversity must not be restricted only to gender and must cover disability, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.

Business priority

Diversity must be a visible priority for the CEO and executive leadership. It should not be confined just to board room discussions.

Set targets

As there are business pressures for a company, unless there are targets, hiring of women will take a back seat. Targets must be achievable, yet they must be stretched.

Beyond policies

Policies are important but not sufficient. Companies must aim for at least one best–in-class policy and maintain parity on the rest. Maternal leave and paternal leave and flexi-work for both parents are progressive policies.


Get men of large functions on board. The agenda of women in leadership cannot be driven with a sustained commitment to change without allies.

Model behaviour

Women leaders in the business become role models for girls. Women in middle and junior levels need powerful role models to look up to and gain confidence, since they often have self-doubts.

Long-term goals

External hiring is good in the short-term but work on sustained talent development in the long-term. Ensure there are enough women in the pipeline for leadership roles.

Irreplaceable value

Establish corporate reputation as an employer of choice for high performers. Women always have a trade-off between opportunity and cost. For women to continue in their organisational roles outweighing the costs, meritocracy must count in their professional growth.

Practice checking biases

Attack unconscious biases as they stop women from being hired and recognised and even lead to micro-aggressions and inappropriate behaviour by men at work place.

Workplace culture

Culture is a crucial factor. It must enable women leadership to flourish. For an enabling culture, four aspects are important:

  • Value people, not hierarchy.
  • Provide an inclusive environment. Encourage people to be themselves without the need to act in artificial avatars.
  • Culture must be performance driven.
  • The visceral feel of the organisation must be inspirational and not transactional.

“These ten commandments have helped Diageo to be where we are today and be recognised globally for championing gender diversity,” she declared. "We just clocked 100 women in our manufacturing team. We are the world’s biggest beverage alcohol company. In our executive committee of top eight members, three are women and in the next level of leadership, we have ten out of 28. If it can be done in an alco-bev company, which is generally a male bastion, it can be done anywhere,” she ended on a positive note.

Marrying cultures

On how Diageo managed the culture change after taking over USL, she replied that the USL culture had many good things such as agility, aggression, and entrepreneurial spirit. “Diageo brought in a more inclusive environment and ensured everyone was respected and encouraged. We created the right condition for people to perform. Some seniors felt that their special privileges like reserved car park and reserved elevators were taken away. But, overall, inclusivity appealed to everyone.”

Marry wisely

On the challenges that she faced as a high-profile working woman, she said that, she has been living in a nuclear family with her husband and twin children, and family is her first priority. Two things have helped me, she acknowledged. “I have an incredibly supportive spouse and, I have never been stopped from being driven.” She also had words of counsel for young women, "Marry wisely."

Quizzed on how women can manage stress they face in a WFH set-up, she suggested women to find their voice, demand more from their family, and reach out for help when needed. “Striving for perfection is a recipe for stress. They should not aspire to be superwomen. They must feel comfortable in being vulnerable,” she advised.

During the event, CFI honoured Nirmala Menon, Founder and CEO of Interweave Consulting and a renowned HR professional with a citation and admitted her as Honorary Fellow. CFI also presented a citation to honour the contributions made by its executive coaches Anita Gupta, Saroja Kannan, Sharada Chandrasekhar, Sudha Cannan and Latha Nambisan for shaping ‘She Leads’ women leadership programme.

(The author is a freelance writer based in Chennai, a corporate trainer and a visiting faculty for various B-schools)