21 December 2010

Women Unbound, Leading Ladies - Writing on women by women and interview with Sudha Menon

It's not hard to see that women are increasingly dotting the professional arena, and even dominating the scene in specific industries. Every subsequent day is seeing their number rise at the work place, and in a few years, women are tipped to take over plum positions in all fields, including those that have been traditionally viewed to be male bastions. This changing gender dynamics on the work-front will unquestionably alter and challenge the working space in the years to come. Which is why, the timing of two recent books, Women Unbound (Penguin) by Gita Aravamudan and Leading Ladies (42 Bookz Galazy) by Sudha Menon couldn't have been better. Both expectedly 'celebrate women' and acknowledge the rapid strides they are making in their professions, and how this is impacting family and social life. Admirably, both books focus intently on the professional journey and achievements of women, not allowing their personalities to be overly defined by their private lives.

While Aravamudan focusses on the whole class of working women trying to gather an aggregate of how things stand today, Sudha Menon’s book, Leading Ladies profiles the country’s long-standing women achievers, seeing what makes them tick.

Both books have been penned by ex journalists. While Sudha I recogonise as a sassy journalist on the Pune reporting scene, Aravamudan has also worked as a journo in Bangalore. Both women take a mature and balanced approach towards the topic, trying to understand the role of women today and the realms of the possible. However like it happens often with print journalists who turn to non-fiction, the writing assumes an impersonal, third-person staidness. From time to time both of these give you the feeling of reading a newspaper cover story or magazine with the ‘he says’ ‘she says’ approach. Their authorial voice is a timid one having for years seen things from a generalized, neutral stand point. This is a disadvantage because non-fiction frequently relies on effervescent writing to offset the seriousness brought about by the theme at hand.
Both books  run out of steam after making a few points and then get  terribly repetitive.

Gita Aravamudan’s Women Unbound has interviews with women across the board - media personalities, IT professionals, BPO employees and one even with item girl Rakhi Sawant. There is novelty in the first few chapters as the author gives an introduction about the history of the ‘working women’ and tracing how and when things started changing. Some of the women she interviews are interesting. Like there’s one with NDTV journo Radhika Bordia and her reporting on hard news. Radhika rules out being differentiated on account of gender and says those days are long over. Yet, women are not singularly judged on their capabilities still. She notes how women on television have an advantage if they look good. This was something Radhika had to reluctantly come to terms with. “The visual media has become like the film industry. The male anchors are getting older, and the women are getting younger. But it’s not just the TV industry. It’s everywhere. All career women feel the pressure to look good."
There are some observations that stay with you. Like the author finds how even though women are found in plenty at the entry level of an organization, their number drastically reduces in the middle management level – this is because most women tend to take a break after marriage or pregnancy and find it difficult to get back into the groove. Working around the family and yet the same time having a full fledged career remains the single most important challenge before women. What the book brings out, however, is that many women are fiercely dedicated towards their work and given the right support system can really do wonders.
But the idea of a woman being defined by her professional life and career will only happen with time. In the book Gita narrates how many bosses at the time of recession were tilted in favour of  their male employees and when left with little option laid off the women, citing that men needed their jobs for their families. Obviously having a job may still not be viewed as a necessary part of a woman’s identity. But it’s very clear that the winds of change are blowing fast.
The book tries to cover just about every working woman it can find, so it feels like a great amount is crammed in. It gets repetitive and the only way one will not mind it so much is if one doesn’t read it at stretch.

The same condition needs to be applied to Sudha Menon’s book, Leading Ladies as well because the pattern in each story starts to get familiar and tedious. The book looks closely at the lives of well-known personalities like Anu Agha, Naina Kidwai, Lila Poonawala, Mallika Sarabhai. There are other leading business women and CEOs like Shikha Sharma, Kiran Muzumdar, Priya Paul and Amrita Patel that the book covers. Many of them have been extensively written about and quoted in the press, so straight away, the subject loses some of its novelty. 
Anu Agha is terrific and inspirational as ever as she reflects on her life where she suffered the worst knocks possible, including the death of her young son in an accident soon after the death of her husband. The tragedies made her philosophical, but not bitter, and she picked herself up in the larger interest of her company, Thermax. Today, Anu is putting her weight behind some of the most constructive social activities in the city. And her advice for professionals is especially valuable. “The balance between ordinary and extraordinary self is a key aspect. When you are full of your achievements and have a bloated ego, it is vital to remember that you are pretty ordinary. And when you are taking it easy and not pushing yourself, it is essential to remind yourself that you are extraordinary."

The one element common to all the success stories is that most of these women were ambitious from the very beginning, having an excellent academic track record and a focussed, single-minded approach to their careers. Most of them had extremely supportive parents who had big dreams for them. Importantly, the one aspect that comes across is the strong value system ingrained in them, where they were able to look at the collective good of people. Not surprisingly each one has been a terrific team player continuing to encourage and inspire others.

They all entered their fields in the 70s when most companies did not even hire women as a policy. But these achievers attest to the fact that there was no great gender bias once they got reasonably settled into their field of work. Invariably each one of them had the backing of a male mentor who proved decisive in their career growth.

It's also vital to consider that these high achievers suffered some form of personal loss or the other, and it brought in its wake a great deal of pain and anguish. But importantly, they showed the courage to rise above it and recogonise the larger roles they could play in their professional sphere. Kalpana Morparia, CEO J P Morgan says she found it difficult to recoincile with her childless state and until very long considered herself to be failure. That's when she resolved to flip that loss on its head and use it to her advantage instead, wherein she single-mindedly applied herself to her career.
There are many such inspirations to be drawn from.

But one thing to consider about the women featured is that most of them have been heirs to big business empires or had influential parents who guided them correctly and funded their education abroad. Not that their achievements are less commendable, but the stories may not resonate as well as one would have liked. Just to make sure all fields get a representation, there's PT Usha and Shubha Mudgal added to the mix. One gets the feeling that the author could have been far more eclectic in her choices of women. As it stands, the narrative gets into a familiar loop with familiar themes and words floating around. Each story should have been more distinctive in order to engage the reader fully.

The book nevertheless is sincere in intent, and its approach of citing specific examples where these women applied their talent and innovation will go some way in showing how much women can be productive in the professional and public arena.

'Women bring an emotional quotient to their dealings'

Journalist Sudha Menon's book Leading Ladies profiles 15 successful Indian women who've made a real difference in the professional world, and through them tries to understand the realms of the possible

The idea for Leading Ladies, a non-fictional book featuring some of the country's most successful women in varied fields, lingered with Sudha long before she actually got down to writing it. As a business journalist, she had followed the corporate world from close quarters and it inspired her to see so many 'can-do' career women with stunning success stories. “I was keen to find out what made them tick,” says Sudha about the book-idea that had been “rattling in her head” for a while.

It wasn't easy to give up a secure full time journalism job that she had been pursuing for the last 20 years. “But there was a restlessness in me. I had grown up in a house where there were books everywhere. I had finished reading all the Russian classics by the time I was eight or nine. I loved words. In that sense, though I enjoyed my work as a business journalist too, it was all facts and figures which does tend to get repetitive after a while. And since this topic inspired me for a book, I resolved that I would have to take the plunge,” she says. It of course meant altering her approach and style and fully donning the writer's cap. “As a journalist you are objective and cut and dry. This was a different project altogether where I wanted these highly talented women to open up their hearts to me. I wanted to tap into their real selves, and know more about them than what one has read in countless magazines,” she says.

Sudha listed down 100 super-successful women but soon realised she would not be able to do them justice in one book. Finally, she settled on 15 names, and some care was taken to include women from the arts fields as well. But primarily, the book concerns itself with women business executives and entrepreneurs. This makes her list far less eclectic, but Sudha says she was hesitant to include women from fields she didn't have an assured knowledge of. Leading Ladies has many of the names one would expect. It has Thermax ex chairperson and social worker Anu Agha, social activist, her daughter and current head, Meher Pudumjee, classical danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, Naina Kidwai, and Lila Poonawala. There are other leading business women and CEOs like Kalpana Morparia, Shikha Sharma, Shireen Mistry (Teach For India campaign), Vinita Bali, Kiran Muzumdar, Mallika Srinivasan. Priya Paul, and Amrita Patel that the book covers. From the sports world, it has P T Usha and from the music world, classical singer, Subha Mudgal. Their obvious professional success apart, most of these women have leveraged their positions to make a real difference in their respective fields. Almost all of them have either begun or nurtured organisations that contribute to the larger good of their community.

Most of the women Sudha featured were only known to her through their work, but her process of finding out more through her book, proved to be a personal journey of self-discovery as well. “I had a lot of self-confidence issues. I feared I wouldn't be able to capture all the aspects about these women. But each time I met them, their confidence and energy started to rub off on me. They were generous with their time and I noticed they bring a certain emotional quotient to their dealings, a heart into an other hard-nosed world that makes them sensitive and effective leaders,” she says.

Since much has already been covered in the mainstream media about these women, Sudha deliberately chose not to create biographies and instead pitch it as an inspirational book. “When you feel low, you can just leaf through it and it has enough to give you hope and uplift your spirits.”
Sudha is already planning for a Vol 2 which will feature women from a variety of fields. Besides that, she is also going to release her fiction work soon. “Yes, the writing bug has bitten me now,” she smiles.

- Sandhya Iyer


janaki said...

It remains to be seen how many women at the top will employ women in their firms - other than for the token jobs.

It all boils down to how many women, even in middle and senior levels within corporate India are influencing corporate HR policy to allow them to work from home.

In india, where independent support system is almost nonexistent in terms of babycare, how can simple middle class women dream to returning to the workforce ?

Women need to get out of their homes to work, whether they need the money or not.... they need the self esteem that they get. Women employers have to make the work world a more humane place. With more women reaching the top, one is hopeful that this will happen.

janaki said...

And you could have included "Women Changing India" ed. by Urvashi Butalia and Anita Roy which also includes comtemporary women.

sandhya said...

Yes Janaki, as more women assume important positions in the working space, I forsee several challenges. At the moment, I think most of these books will be 'celebratory' in nature and will not try to question whether women make natural leaders or what their weaknesses can be. But in private, men and women will both have many observations to make on women and their role in the work front, or the kind of bosses women make. I think as their number goes up and gender inequalities fade away, one would be able to tackle these questions more objectively.

WW said...


Been a regular, but silent follower of your blogs and have loved them. But had to delurk this time - as it happens to be a topic close to my heart.

Thanks for the recommendation. As a working professional and mother, trying to balance the demands of a career with those of 2 little children can get frustrating at times. And those are the days when quitting seems not such a bad decision after all.

Maybe having these books on my shelf would deter me :)

sandhya said...

Hey, thanks for 'delurking'
You must read Meena Krishnamoorty's Balancin Act then. Women are nurturers by instict, so perhaps career decisions can't always be as clear-cut for women as it is for men. :-)

WW said...

Sure, will try and get my hands on it soon.

btw, have you read 'Immmortals of Meluha' I have posted a review @ http://wackywacko.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/book-review-the-immortals-of-meluha/
in case you are interested

sandhya said...

WW: Thanks for the link. Will check it out BTW, I did read about the mother-in-law menace you've written about. I can sympathise, though have no experience of it.:-)