“Metals in general and steel in particular have been conventionally the domain of men,” says Soma Mondal, who in January this year assumed charge as the first woman chairman of steel behemoth Steel Authority of India (SAIL). Prior to that, Mondal was director (commercial) at SAIL and played a significant role in the turnaround of the company’s sales and marketing activities. SAIL is the largest steelmaking PSU (public sector undertaking) having a pan-India presence with five integrated and three special steel plants. It has owns several mines spread across five states. “Being the chairman of this company, I am part of this multicultural and diverse manufacturing family, and I am enjoying every moment of my responsibility,” Mondal tells Fortune India in an exclusive interview. Last year, she was among a few women who had made their debut on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in Business list.

“After taking over at the beginning of this calendar year, we began to consolidate our efforts on various fronts to take advantage of the global upturn in the steel market. We ended up having one of our best quarters and closed the financial year with highest ever production and sales,” says Mondal. The company’s performance in fiscal 2021 helped SAIL reduce its debt from ₹52,000 crore to about ₹35,300 crore, she says. With reduced borrowings, Mondal is now working towards SAIL’s next expansion phase. “We are working on multiple fronts to align with government priorities like Atmanirbhar Bharat, PLI schemes, front-loading capex expenditure, maximising procurement through government e-marketplace, etc,” she says.

Edited excerpts of her interview.

What made you take up the chairwoman’s role?

I believe growth is an essential and integral part of a professional career. Challenging the status quo provides opportunities for not only self-development but also avenues for creating something meaningful. Previously, I was on the board of NALCO as Director (Commercial) and then moved to SAIL as Director (Commercial). This shift provided me an opportunity to work in this challenging and globally competitive steel industry. We are committed to a strong steel industry in general and a robust SAIL in particular.

As a woman business leader, what are the challenges you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

I did not consider gender as a disruptive challenge at any point in my career. I am proud to be a woman and proud to be in a position where I have an opportunity to make a positive difference. In fact, business leaders, irrespective of their gender, have to deal with their share of challenges in their own ways. Leaders should have the ability to create a shared vision and lead/guide the team to fulfil the identified milestones. A leader has to optimally marshal available resources to bring out the best in the team while creating a solution for the future. I have always had a great team; have never felt out of place; or found myself in a disadvantageous position because of gender.

I must say that today our country has an ever increasing number of female leaders in various fields. The environment is much more conducive and mindset more accommodative towards diversity. In the end, it is your potential, attitude and perseverance that take you forward.

The steel industry in India has been dominated by male leaders. How do you see yourself changing that old order?

Yes. Initially, engineering education was not very popular among women. In our college, we had only two-four girls in a batch of about 200. Hence, their representation in the mainstream industry was not very high. Metals in general and steel in particular have been conventionally the domain of men. It is not that women were completely missing from action, but their representation was far less at any level. Things have been gradually shifting. As we are providing equal education opportunity and bringing in a gradual change in mindset at large, changes are being reflected in every sector. Today, you have women working on the shop floor, in mines and in other so-called difficult areas. In a few years from now, we shall see a fair representation of women in the top echelon of the industry. I am looking forward to a day when leadership is discussed without any reference to gender.

What would be your advice to aspiring women leaders?

The challenges faced by a woman leader are no different. Having said that, the challenges of a career woman, having the extra responsibility of managing the home front, is surely much more than her male colleague, mainly in the initial years. At that stage, we as women have to set our priorities right and carry out the responsibilities to best of our abilities. Time management would be most critical and along with a suitable support system, a balance can be created between personal and professional commitments. This may sound difficult but women are made of tougher stuff. My advice would be to give your best in whatever you do as there are no shortcuts to success. It is your ability and performance which will define your leadership.

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