Fortune India MPW: "I was sent to Amethi because I was the most combative individual the BJP had," says Smriti Irani
If organisations are going to pick female leaders as to how compliant they are, how submissive they are, and how nice they are, you possibly will not find their mention at the top echelons of corporate power, Union minister for women and child development Smriti Irani said at the Fortune India's Most Powerful Women Awards event in Mumbai.
"Why is it that we want to find amiable women in boardrooms who don't make much of a noise? Why can't we withstand that cantankerous woman who makes sense and you only, in hindsight, lament the fact that you wish you had listened to her huge rapturous voice, and was trying to drill some sense into you. I think when we start giving those women positions of power in corporate entities, then your Top 100 CEOs will need a different men's section. The question is where are the men hiring them?" Irani asked.
The union minister further said that she didn't go to Amethi — where she defeated Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in 2019 — because she was nurturing. "I was sent because I was the most combative individual the BJP had," she said.
"When one talks about the budget, an impression one carries is that the women's agency's responsibility is of the woman and child development ministry alone. For years on end I have said on many platforms that till such time it becomes the agency of every gender and every family, you'll not find the changes you are hoping for. And that is why as a professional politician and a minister, one of my greatest joys is that the prime minister of India leads changes with regards to the women's agency," the Union minister for women and child development said.
"I also believe that when looking at the agency of women from an administrative perspective, this year, we have had in totality across 60 departments an allocation of ₹2,23,000 crore only for projects which are dedicated to women's needs. Out of the 43 departments that were to report the gender budget, I have till now received the gender budget reporting from 41 departments already, which means that there is a fiscal discipline when it comes to gender justice which is now a permanent part of governance at the Centre," said Irani.
The 15th finance commission for the first time now has spend tied to gender justice across all panchayats in our country, she said, adding that this is not only limited to female-led panchayats, it is now imperative for every panchayat that a particular amount in the budget has to be spent on issues, which women deem fit within the panchayat. "This has not happened anywhere in the world," Irani added.
"If you speak of women in organisations, ask any women what are the challenges we face according to our age. If you are in your 20s, you are told you are young and inexperienced and you should have a little patience and if you are in your 30s, you are told, didn't you just get married, aren't you going to have a baby? If you are in your 40s you are told, don't you want to mentor the 20 year old? If you are in your 50s you are told you want to mentor the 30 year old? If you are 60, you are dead because they are like we want 20 year olds. It doesn't matter which way our professional lives are transitioning to, what matters is who's that individual or company who says this is the combative or balance of talent or tenacity it wants in its company. Problem is when you are combative, people feel like you are a bull in a China shop. The woman who is combative, may be prone to failure, is not easily digested," Irani said.
On the government's initiatives, Irani said with Mudra loans, which were not gendered loans, 70% of the beneficiaries ended up being women. "320 million loans were given. Over 200 million women made a cause for what women can do in business," she said.
"The dichotomy is 46% of STEM graduates in India are women but if you look at their transition into science-based enterprise, it's less than 30%. And that happens because you can possibly push only up to a certain level when it comes to women and science, it is very rare when such women are taught how to commercialise their innovation," the minister said.
"When we did research on this particular aspect, we found that when toys are introduced to a child how many of us give building blocks to a girl vis-à-vis how many of us give it to a boy child. How many of us sit and talk maths with a girl child as compared to what we do with a boy child. How many of us tell the girl child, okay it is lovely to wear pink and hence set a colour tone in her head as compared to how many of us do not denote a colour to a boy child. So though the methodology sounds very simple, the complexity is in the little crevices in which bias hides. So many times we don't intend to be biased but we don't realise how we are manifesting a bias and that bias that carries forward," Irani said.
"When Women's Day comes closer, everybody that you know will talk about how this woman broke the 'glass ceiling' and that woman broke the glass ceiling but ask them where did the term glass ceiling come from? It came from a management consultant 45 years ago. Why, because her boss told her you are good but you need to smile more. It came because she wanted sexual harassment laws at her workplace and the United States of America then was bereft of such strong law. Now look back, the law for prevention of sexual harassment at workplace came in 2013 but sexual harassment law at the workplace finds a mention in the Arthashastra. But how many of us talk about it? There will absolutely be no mention of it but there will be a conversation about 'glass ceiling'. From the day we were a democratic nation constitutionally, women and men had equal rights to vote, we compare ourselves to a nation where women had to tie themselves to benches in Parliament so that they could get the right to vote. So how many decades have we lost comparing apples and oranges?" Irani added.
"The Covid-19 pandemic has been a big revelation because before the pandemic if a woman said I will work from home, it was a death knell for her career. It was literally a lovely farewell we gave to female professionals. The pandemic got men working from and suddenly it was kosher for the entire industry," the minister said.
While responding to an audience member who sought Irani's advice on how to become an entrepreneur when you need that monthly income to pay bills and support your family, the Union minister said, "In 1998, when the first McDonald opened in Bandra, I used to work there sweeping floors. I made ₹1,500. The journey between inspiration and aspiration is a tough one and a costly one. There is a personal cost to it. I will be very blunt. If you are happy to pay that personal cost, by all means, run to the aspiration. I made that run before I got married and had two kids. I think many women have the capacity to lead but curtail themselves because they are more tied into their responsibilities and there is a cost to that ambition. And the toughest sacrifice is sacrificing your ambitions, knowing you have the talent, so that your kids can sustain themselves. So if you can afford it, make a run to that aspiration. And if you can't, somebody in this room someday will hire you or support you to make that dream happen."