While leadership, as a concept, may be gender neutral, it is high time that the workplace moves towards a more balanced gender ratio, especially when it comes to leaders in senior positions. This was the overarching message emanating from a fireside chat between two senior women leaders from the Indian media and entertainment industry at the Fortune India Most Powerful Women Summit 2019 held in Mumbai on November 8.
The discussion, moderated by Sourav Majumdar, editor, Fortune India, featured Jyoti Deshpande, president-media and entertainment, Reliance Industries, and Apurva Purohit, president, Jagran Prakashan Group. Deshpande and Purohit, both veterans of the media and entertainment industry, highlighted the need for women to stand up and take credit for their own achievements and stake claim to senior leadership positions in an organisation. They also concurred that certain gender stereotypes exist still and were only changing at a very slow pace.
Edited excerpts from the discussion:
Majumdar: Do you think leadership is gender neutral?
Deshpande: Leadership is gender neutral. Women sometimes tend to get harsher on other women and set strict norms because most of us have risen meritoriously and we are precious about it. We don’t want any concessions to be made. Having said that, I think women leaders can do a lot in having a leadership team that represents women well. I am trying to do that at Reliance. My chief financial officer (at Jio Studios), my chief legal officer, chief strategy officer are all women. Around 45%-50% of the total workforce in my division comprises men, but our organisation is women-led and women-dominated. It is not necessarily by pure design. There are a lot of meritorious women out there and we must consciously give them a chance, other things remaining the same.
Purohit: I think leadership is gender neutral. There are equally good male leaders and equally bad women leaders. Second, leadership … is a constant work in progress where a leader is always trying to become the best version of herself, or himself. One of the problems that I have with women leaders is that there are too few of them. Given the competency level and talent they have, sometimes they inhibit their leadership abilities due to their own subconscious biases. And even if there are women at the top they largely remain invisible and behind the scenes.
Majumdar: Jyoti, you have spent about a year and a half at Reliance and this wasn’t an organisation that was known to have too many women leaders at the top. So how has your experience been and do you see yourself as a catalyst for change in bringing about this change at Reliance itself?
Deshpande: When I met Mukesh Ambani and Manoj Modi, the point that I am a woman didn’t come up. They wanted someone to lead their media and entertainment vision and I was that person. I am glad they didn’t pick me because I am a woman. But having joined that vision, I think there is a desire to see more women leaders in my business. Businesses like refining and petrochemicals do not employ too many women—whether it is in Reliance or any other company. Those industries are male-dominated by nature. And Reliance was no different. So, here was a chance to put forward this agenda and I have great support from Isha Ambani who champions this cause internally and I work closely with her to see how we can do more for the women at Reliance.
Majumdar: Apurva, some industries are male-dominated and some are dominated by women, like media for instance. What is it about industries like media or financial services that attract women to such industries?
Purohit: It is not true that there are too many women in media. We have to distinguish between what we see on-air and off-air. In terms of leadership roles, the percentage of female leaders to their male counterparts in media is the same as in any other industry. At junior levels, there are a lot of women. Though it is a stereotype, but we have seen more women gravitate more towards liberal arts and non-science study streams.
Despite the fact there are enough female journalists and editors, we see as much as 30% women writing about lifestyle and fashion and services; and less than 5% write on sports; only 10% write on science and technology and only 15% write on politics. So even there the stereotypes are perpetuated.
Majumdar: What are the specific challenges that you have had to overcome as a woman in the course of your career?
Deshpande: I spent over 20 years in the film industry out of my 25-year career. I was a part of the journey through which we saw the film industry get corporatized. So I would interact with film producers who made films where women hardly had any roles. Those were the kind of films that we were making. Women would be paid ₹50 lakh for a film, even if the hero was getting ₹5 crore. So when we had to sign a deal for a film, the people I would have to speak with would think that we can speak about operational stuff with her, but the final deal—involving discussions on money—would be made with the boss. To my ex-boss’s (Kishore Lulla of Eros) credit, he let people know that he was a poor negotiator and the buck stopped with me.
There were no studios then and only individual film producers. Film financing was done through private deals. We didn’t have multiplexes; only single screens. So the entire value chain was made up of people who did not really portray women well in the kind of films they were making. We have come a long way from there. When I google top 10 female-oriented films, I see at least three-four films that I have been a part of.
Purohit: I have been in media for 30 years. A few years ago if you asked me if I have faced any biases, I would have said no. But for a book that I have written, I have spoken to many senior leaders who say that will only hire women candidates for many roles to ensure gender diversity. But for six to nine months the position remains vacant as they cannot find a suitable candidate. I asked some of the women employees of these organisations as to why they aren’t striving for these senior leadership roles. They said because no one even asks us.
When I asked the HR of these companies as to why existing women within the organisation weren’t asked to take up these roles, they said they may not be suitable as this job would require 300 days of travel and so on. So there is a paternalistic bias. We believe we are protecting our women by saying we cannot give them jobs that require them to travel for 300 days. But in the process we are stymieing their growth. So now when I think back at my career, I feel I may also have been biased against as there may have been several openings that were offered to me because I am a woman. Apart from the couple of years after they have had a baby, women have to be treated exactly the same way as their male colleagues, otherwise you will bonsai them.
Majumdar: Apurva, you write in your book that sometimes the glass ceiling is in the minds of the women themselves and they need to overcome it. Would you like to elaborate on that?
Purohit: A lot of things can be changed by women themselves at every level. At a more junior level, they can ensure they ask for the support of the ecosystem around them so that it doesn’t become a matter of choice between career and family. Women don’t celebrate success enough and don’t take credit for their success. So women need to stand up for their success, as much as their male counterparts do. It is important to be visible.
Majumdar: Do you think there are any green shoots of change that successful women leaders are bringing about as far as empowerment of women at the workplace is concerned?
Deshpande: There is definite positive and affirmative change that is coming about. Some of the young turks in my team actually clamour to say that they played an important role in sealing this deal. Or they ask for more responsibility to execute important projects. At least three of the eight senior women leaders in my team can be my potential successors over the next few years. Women in the industry are still underpaid. Even in the creative field. Content-driven films is what we want to focus on and break a kind of caste system that exists in the film industry where male actors are one caste and female actors are another caste.
But things are changing. Successful leading women in films are setting up their own production company and getting into the business side of filmmaking. Women were missing on the business side of things in our industry and that’s where they are slowly coming in.
Purohit: Things are changing but they are changing too slowly. The World Economic Forum says that at the current pace of change it will take 108 years for gender parity to happen. That is a very long time. But I think the millennial girl is going to drive change much faster. She is smart, determined to make a career and be treated equally with the millennial guy. I also want to credit the millennial guy. Because they have seen a lot of working mothers than the previous generation, I think our sons are growing up to treat women more equally. To that extent, I certainly give credit to the mothers for bring up their sons right.