05 Mar 2020 21:04 IST

Women deal with VUCA all the time, without a fuss

Businesses should tap into this wisdom, seeking women coworkers’ inputs before any critical decision

Each Women’s Day is a time to dedicate ourselves to not needing a day to remind ourselves of all that is special about women and celebrate the unique contributions they make. Can we take some lessons from the women heroes around us?

The Shaheen Bagh women. Do we have the courage of conviction? These women certainly do. The lesson I learn from them is — are you prepared to pay the price for your convictions? Are you prepared to stand by your convictions even if you are opposed by the majority? Even as they faced inclement weather, daily threats, the challenge of having to keep their homes running, they’ve stayed put.

In business there will always be times when we face dilemmas. Maybe something the business wants to do conflicts with our personal values. Maybe the way bosses treat some people smacks of condescension. Maybe a colleague is being bullied or harassed. Do we have the courage of conviction to stand up and be heard?

Katherine Goble Johnson. She is the woman made famous through one of my favourite movies of 201,6 Hidden Figures. She died last month, on February 24, aged 101. But what a legacy she left behind. While discrimination of all kinds still exists in the workplace even today, it is hard to imagine how suffocating and cruel it was in earlier decades. She faced a double discrimination every day at work — she was a woman and she was coloured.

The first challenge was even being taken seriously. In a time when men at work believed women were only to be seen not heard, she had to navigate being brilliant and working with superiors who couldn’t digest that fact. She began work at the Langley aeronautical laboratory, which later became part of NASA. She crunched numbers and calculations and created models that first helped supersonic flights and later the moon landing.

Her daily discrimination included a segregated cafeteria and a toilet for coloureds in the next building. The movie captures the daily inconvenience poignantly. With grit and resilience, she stuck it out — performing work of the highest standards and overcoming all the discrimination to the day she was celebrated and recognised. In 2015 President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Actresses who called Weinstein out. Harvey Weinsten was a monster in more ways than one. Not only did he harass and rape actresses, he used his power over their careers to silence them. Overcoming years of shame and humiliation they finally came out — first one, then another. Aided by courageous investigative journalism, Weinstein was finally convicted in February.

It took over a 100 women to come out for even the two convictions to hold. Their courage is a lesson and a reminder. A lesson especially for male leaders. Can we be role models in our respect of women, in treating them as our equals and, as is often the case, more than our equals? Can we avoid the plague of a patriarchal and patronising mindset and, of course, any form of bullying and harassment. Even if we are not guilty of misbehaviour, are we prepared to stop it when we see it happen? As Edmund Burke put it. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

What else could we as future business leaders do?

Make more women leaders. The biggest difference we could make is to simply get more women into leadership. Not only will the teams benefit but business results will too. It was a personal delight for me to hear of Julie Sweet becoming global CEO at my former employer, Accenture. IBM had already made the leap when Ginni Rometty took over, though she steps down in April. Mary Barra at General Motors has made a massive difference, especially being in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

But leadership need not happen only at the CEO level. A team leader, a manager to lead a new geography, to drive a new business initiative or product — if you have a woman candidate equally qualified and competent as others you are evaluating, opt for the woman candidate. You won’t regret it. I never have.

Design policies and processes that are sensitive – that help and don’t hinder a woman’s chances of excelling. Sheryl Sandberg relates a personal anecdote in her book Lean In. She was pregnant with her first child and had ballooned to the size of a “whale” – in her own words. She was running late for a sales meeting at Google, her then employer, and was only able to find a parking slot a long way from the office entrance. The next day she confronted her boss, Sergey Brin and demanded for herself and all other expectant mothers parking slots that didn’t necessitate the long walk. Sergey immediately agreed and wondered he hadn’t thought of it before. We all need to be asking the same question.

Leverage the innate wisdom and the market smarts. I remember a conversation with a senior lady executive at a multinational which made almost 90 per cent of their products for women and used by women. Most of the product divisions were still headed by men! Imagine the opportunity cost! Women very often have an intuitive sense for how to make the best of an opportunity, how to deal with a challenge that male leaders are sometimes blind-sided to. Make a habit of hearing out the women in your team. Don’t make any critical decision without the benefit of their wisdom.

They’re more VUCA-ready. Think about the most VUCA-ready person in your life who’s dealing with VUCA every single day. Isn’t it Mum, isn’t it your wife? Bharathi Bhaskar, renowned public speaker and debate personality, was sharing at a recent event how we could all recall telling Mum that two friends were coming over for dinner and, often 15-20 landed up. Mum seamlessly dealt with it. We didn’t know how, but 20 people had their fill and left happy. On other days the reverse would happen – 20 were expected and only two showed up. Was the excess food junked? Never. But somehow, with creative variations, it would show up for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the next week with no one noticing.

Women deal with VUCA all the time, without making a big deal of it. Businesses and organisations should tap into this enormous asset they have.

Happy Women’s Day to all the women living lives of daily heroism and, to all of us men, let’s remember that when we stand up for women, we stand up for a better world. As someone said, the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.

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