Women Power Lights Up A Billion Hopes

Updated: Dec 14 2003, 05:30am hrs
The joke that is doing the rounds in Madhya Pradesh today is that the Raja has taken sanyas (renunciation) and the sanyasin has come to power. The news about Uma Bharati becoming chief minister in Madhya Pradesh, Sheila Dikshit in New Delhi and Vasundhara Raje Scindia in Rajasthan may be sinking in yet lightly across the board, but its long term impact, particularly on womens empowerment, is already being looked forward to, if one goes by the reaction of opinion leaders. Its for the first time that the country has five women chief ministers, including J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Rabri Devi in Bihar.

For, in these women, they see a sign of womens empowerment and of better things to come. Vibha Desai, executive director, Ogilvy & Mather, New Delhi, puts things in perspective. The election results have been a huge boost for women in the country. Traditionally, women have got a raw deal on parity issues. True, Indira Gandhi was a woman and served for long as a prime minister. But now the election of the three chief ministers at the state level means womens empowerment is percolating down, she says.

Vineeta Rai, revenue secretary, Government of India, the first woman to head an economic department, says its a heart warming feeling to see the three new women chief minsters. Its a great feeling because these are women who have proved themselves as great leaders. The fact that theyve been elected by people shows that theyve touched not only so many hearts but also so many minds.

Adds Priya Paul, chairperson, Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels Ltd, People look forward to women chief ministers making a difference to the society. Besides, women who achieve positions of power in public life are definitely role models. She adds, Though it demonstrates its possible, its also equally important what they are going to do.

Not everybody is excited, though. Gita Piramal, managing editor, The Smart Manager, is a little hopeful that the initiatives of these women as chief ministers will percolate to the grassroots level. Does she foresee any major policy changes Not at all. The fact is that the general elections will take place in less than two years and any major policy change will be put on the backburner, keeping the elections in mind, she replies.

Sumitra Mahajan, minister of state for petroleum and natural gas, puts it in a more holistic perspective when she says: Empowerment of women does not come through political representation alone. It has to start right from the grassroot level. There has to be social, economic and educational upliftment of women. This will give rise to awareness among them and they will come forward with the problems.

According to Nalini Gupta, chief operating officer of Genesis Colors (of the Satya Paul label), the real empowerment of women has to start at the grassroot level. If you want higher representation of women at higher levels in the organisation, then it should start from the grassroot level like educating women.

Along with education, an enabling environment at the grassroot level is equally important. Kalpana Morparia, executive director, ICICI

Bank, says that women as leaders are able to bring about a change at the grassroots level. A woman, even if she is inducted at the panchayat level, can enable proactive transformation. There are numerous instances of micro-finance and self-help groups that have been creating economic empowerment of women.

In fact, its already happening. Elaborates Jaya Jaitly, Samta Party member, Women have reached an amazing level of empowerment through panchayats. The very fact that lakhs of women are a part of the panchayat system is a great feeling. And its at this level that a woman chief ministers appointment matters. Its a great meeting ground for women at these two levels to come together to make things better. All the women who have been chosen have been chosen because at some level theyve convinced people that they are able leaders.

True, women have come out of the four walls but then they still face numerous hurdles to reach the top slot and even if they reach that slot, they still have to work in a male dominated environment. To give a simple and seemingly insignificant example: A lot of women executives feel out of place when their male colleagues discuss subjects like golf. This is probably because they dont know the finer nuances of golf and in the process are left out from the conversation.

Women have come out of their ghunghat

TAKING over as the first woman chief minister of a state that has been largely a male bastion, Vasundhara Raje Scindia has made history.
A graduate in economics and political science, she was initiated into politics early in life, along with her elder brother Madhav Rao Scindia, by her mother Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia. She joined the BJP after her marriage to Hemant Singh.
During her stints at the Centre, she has held important portfolios. She was the minister of state for external affairs during the first Vajpayee government and later in the small scale sector and industry.
Womens empowerment has been high on her agenda ever since she embarked on her parivartan yatra in the state. Women have come out of their ghunghat, she said, commenting on the record turnout of women voters in the recent assembly elections in the state. She spoke to Sanjay Thapa shortly after taking the oath of office. Excerpts:
What does your election as a chief minister mean for women
I hope my becoming the first woman chief minister of Rajasthan sets an example for women who need to come forward in order to bring about a change in the society.
Do you think women are better than men in providing clean administration
A: Saying that would be making a sweeping statement. There are definitely worthy men, too. These characteristics would have to be assessed individually from person to person rather than gender to gender.
Q: How much more difficult was it for you as a woman to make it
A: Ill like to say that a woman can achieve anything if she is determined to make it.
What do you think of other women chief ministers
What the other women have achieved, I think, is well deserved.
What is the kind of vision you have to offer to women at the top-end as well as at the lower strata
A woman, with her role as a family-maker and home-keeper, is definitely able to make a good manager at all levels.
How high do womens issues figure in your agenda
A: We already have a woman welfare and development department. And I shall see to it that it is further strengthened by all means in our government, as I have been saying all along. And the fact that this time there was record turnout of women voters underlines the fact that women wanted to have their say.

Agrees Ms Desai, In reality, the boys club is about exclusion of women. Thats the reality and that works against many women. This is not only in India but it has been observed internationally, too. The presence of things like the boys Club is a big deterrent to women.

But then there are certain attitudinal and mindset issues that need to be dealt with. Sita Nanda, proprietor, Villa DEste (a lifestyle store in Delhi), laments the fact that the girl child is still looked down upon. A woman, especially an Indian woman, faces a lot of hurdles right from birth, says Ms Nanda.

Adds Ms Piramal, Women do put in a lot of effort to achieve what they set out to do, if they want to. They try a lot harder than men. I am not sure they get success commensurate with their efforts, though.

Ms Gupta of Genesis Colors seconds her. There is a glass ceiling in the corporate world and its made of concrete. And women have to work doubly harder to reach the top.

But not all share the same view. Swagata Sen, head, HR, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers believes that in todays context there is absolutely no difference in the challenges faced by men and women to reach top slots. The market and business realities today have all organisations looking at bottomline delivery and high quality. Those, who are able to fulfill that, irrespective of whether they are men or women, can reach the top, says Ms Sen.

Some beginnings have been made in the right direction. At Reebok India Company, for example, the company is trying to make work-life balance a working reality. Reeta Bhattacharjee, executive director, human resources, explains that the company has provisions whereby working women are allowed to tie their leave with their kids vacation. If, for instance, one of our executives has to attend a parent-teacher meeting, we allow it. In all, we are appreciative and sensitive of such needs, she concludes.

Nevertheless, they have to walk the extra mile. Says Ms Rai, Though women have to walk that extra distance, they bring to every job that extra sensitivity. Also, the images of the woman as the provider and the man as the subjugator are mere stereotypes that have been passed on, she says. Today the roles are changing. An able woman is accepted everywhere. The environment today is more enabling and things have changed a great deal. Be it the laws, the government, the NGOs, everybody is making tangible efforts. Womens empowerment, she adds, is not possible without men, though. They cant be empowered in vacuum. The whole atmosphere has to be enabling.

Ms Rai makes an observation that women are particularly good at business and finance. Says she, They have the capacity to look at the macro as well as the micro picture. Macro, because of the work. Micro, because, being sisters and mothers and wives, they all perfect the art of time management, which is very important for a professional. All in all, she says, women have come a long way and they need to keep going.

According to Ms Morparia of ICICI Bank, Corporate or political leadership, both require a fair amount of diversification in managing people. It is not just about talking to people but about persuasive skills and personal rapport. Women are more sensitive to the issue and relate better where these are concerned.

Priti Hiranandani, director, Culture Shop (a lifestyle store in Mumbai) echoes similar views. She feels women are endowed with excellent management skills right from birth. Women have to manage their in-laws, manage their homes, children and servants.

Women Cant Be Empowered Without Men

SHEILA Dikshit, the only chief minister to be re-elected in Delhi for the second term, has about her a dignified charm. Its well earned. Her party won 47 seats out of a total of 70. Credit goes to her mainly because shes been very actively involved in peoples issues. So, be it Bhagidari scheme, the Delhi Metro or the effort to clean the Yamuna river, she has led from the forefront. She spoke to Prachi Raturi and Manika Gupta about the looming issues and how she sees them. Excerpts:
How does it feel to win the election the second time Was your being a woman an advantage or a handicap
Its very nice to be told that youve done a good job. My winning the elections has told me that Ive proved my professionalism, that Ive done well, that people have faith in me. As far as being a woman, I dont think that matters. People choose you because you are worthy not because you are a man or a woman. When you hire somebody you hire them for their skills. Its the same logic.
But would you say that your being a woman would bring sensitivity in dealing with womens issues
Yes, being a woman I will definitely understand their problems and hope to attend to them better.
What do you have to say about Indian womens position
We are now at a much better position than we were earlier. Things are so much better than they were when I was a little girl. Today women excel in almost every field. They have proved their worth.
What your priority as far as women go
Healthcare is a very important issue. Sadly, you miss a woman, a girl only when you dont get the morning tea. Are aaj bitiya ne chai nahin di, bitiya kahan hai This has to change. While men need to be more sensitive to womens health, women need to understand the importance of being healthy. Only if she is healthy will she do ably. Streeshakti has been a major project. Besides healthcare, I plan to focus on literacy and skills.
How good or bad is the situation right now
Weve improved but there is a lot of scope for further improvement. We need to move away from cliche of women as providers and men as perpetrators.
Care needs to be taken to move the pendulum slowly. There should be no extremism, no conflict because women cant be empowered without men.

So, will women-centric issues benefit with a woman at the helm According to Ms Mahajan, A woman leader can understand better the expectations of other women. I believe the new women chief ministers will definitely work for the betterment of women in their state.

Ms Morparia believes it is all about striking a balance. An elected political leader has bigger challenges to face compared to a corporate leader. A corporate leader has to address shareholders. The main motive here is profit maximisation.

And look at the diversity the elected leader has to manage...from urban, rural, tribal to labour to traders, etc. One has to position oneself to become the leader to lead all of them. She adds, I feel the day we stop raising women centric issues, the problem will be solved. Let us try and attain gender neutrality. Get the best person for the job, irrespective of whether one is a man or woman.

Obviously, the election of three women chief ministers is a step in that direction. Ms Paul of The Park sums it up aptly when she says that it may be only a punctuation mark in a long sentence that will someday recap the story of womens empowerment in India, but its important. How important Only time will tell.