In India, few women have broken the glass ceiling in the traditional male world of operations. Why?
"The fact that corporations with women leaders post significantly better results, are higher on ROI and have lower debt/equity ratios should make companies blindly put their money in grooming women leaders and bringing more women on board."
Harshbeena Zaveri, NRB Bearings, Vice Chairman & Managing Director
With a view to help organizations improve gender diversity in senior operational roles, we interviewed seven successful women operations leaders to better understand the challenges they have faced and what have they done differently to achieve success. These interviews integrate viewpoints from female leaders at both large-scale listed public companies and private sector organizations, as well as those from MNCs operating in India, the Indian diaspora, and promoters.
Female leaders share their journeys, struggles & inspirations
"I never joined NRB Bearings with an intention to stay; my heart was in law. My father really wanted me to be his successor. So with the odds stacked against me – lacking an engineering degree, being one of the first women in the organization – I started as an apprentice and spent two years on the shop floor to understand the business and followed the company’s progression for professionals to prove myself. In fact, like many other women, I had to demonstrate results at a much higher standard than my male peers to move up in the organization. I feel that was the reason I learned to strive and work so diligently. The success of the R&D centre I built was a crucial moment for me. Nobody, from my family to the board, believed in the idea. However, I was confident that it was a necessary move for us to remain disruptive in the industry. The inspiration for this came from my son. I constantly take my work home, share my business problems with the family and we try and solve it together. My family has been my most loyal and passionate supporters."
"I come from a middle-class Maharashtrian family. However, as a I look back, my siblings and I were never brought up in a traditional manner. Expectations from my brother and I were similar, and my parents pushed us to excel in sports in addition to academics. When I joined Tata Power, I was the third female management trainee in the organization. I was always treated as an equal, and the company rewarded all people who worked hard and delivered. Also, I never played the gender card to receive the flexibility I sought. Having worked on power projects in the most remote locations across the country, where sometimes I was the only woman on site, has taught me a lot in life. Family support is instrumental in ensuring success as a woman in such demanding roles. However, women also have to be brave to succeed against the odds."
"I had no particular idol growing up, so I drew my inspiration and learnings from various people & situations – which varied from the leadership skills of Indra Nooyi and Sheryl Sandberg to those of my house help, who worked tirelessly to support the education of her three daughters.
"I drew inspiration from my parents – they are self-directed and self-motivated. After getting married to my husband, an entrepreneur, I also developed an instinct for business and at the age of 27, I too became an entrepreneur.
Making their mark: A balance of discipline and risk-taking drives outperformance
- Inclusive – Drew inspiration from family: Given the paucity of female leaders in operational roles; they rarely had any idols or mentors to guide their careers. Their inspiration and ambition has often come from their families, and they learned to utilize all relationships and advice available to them.
- Proactive – Seized the opportunity: Whether it was a conscious decision to pursue a career in manufacturing or by happenstance, these women chose to make the most of the opportunity presented to them and capitalize on it.
- Disciplined – Never played the “gender card”: While all of the women interviewed described working hard to create a space for themselves, they chose to take gender out of the equation, refusing to let it come in the way of responsibilities that required action, decisiveness and stoicism.
- Fearless – Unfazed by obstacles and operational hindrances: Almost all the women leaders we spoke to had to face significant challenges, such as lack of infrastructure, security concerns, or family responsibilities. By recognizing them as speed bumps rather than roadblocks, they continued to drive change in both mindsets and organization hierarchies.
What leadership competencies differentiate these women?
EXECUTING FOR RESULTS
RELATIONSHIPS & INFLUENCE
Differentiated actions: 5 critical moves for organizations hoping to diversify their operations team
Counsel from women leaders who have built successful careers in this space revolved around five common themes:
"Gender diversity is a deep-rooted issue for India. As a country we need more push from corporations to promote women in manufacturing. Such diversity will lead to increased productivity and predictable performance."
- SHAMA GUPTA is a member of the firm’s Industrial and Energy and Natural Resources Sectors. She is based in New Delhi.