Mother India

For those of you who thought Marissa Mayer wouldn’t be able to handle being a new mother and CEO, it’s time to eat your words. Less than a month after her return from a two-week blink-and-miss maternity leave, the Yahoo CEO has announced several aggressive moves to turn around the troubled company. Yahoo has also posted some pretty promising first-quarter results under her watch. Clearly Mayer means to prove the naysayers wrong. No doubt, though, one little misstep will set those tongues wagging again, speculating whether women are up for motherhood and work at the same time.

At 37, Mayer is the youngest CEO to head a Fortune 500 company. In appointing her, Yahoo has created history. Not very often is a pregnant woman given the top job. But will she be, as many would like to believe, a game changer for working women across the globe?

Gazing at the line-up of women leaders in corporate India, one has reason to hope.

“When I started my career about 25 years ago, motherhood mostly meant an end to careers for women,” says Mumbai-based Meera Sanyal, chairperson and country executive (India), The Royal Bank of Scotland Group. “Today, it is not so. We are trying to create a supportive culture through flexi-time and reduced work weeks. But I believe we still have a long way to go.

“Banking and financial services sector has seen the presence of more women on top than any other industry,”  Sanyal adds. “In fact, women CEOs in this space among private and foreign banks would almost outnumber men. However, scaling the ladder continues to be a big challenge for women across most industries.”

Ground reality

Reports show just how big a challenge this can be. Deloitte’s November 2011 report, ‘Women in the boardroom: A Global Perspective’ revealed that out of the 1,112 directorships of 100 companies listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange, just 5.3 percent were held by women. India’s biggest competitor, China at 8.5% had more women in the boardroom. Earlier this year a Grant Thornton International Business Report titled, Women In Senior Management: Still Not Enough, gave a global perspective on women in top jobs. With just 14% representation, India is followed by Germany (13%) and Japan(5%). Russia, Botswana, Philippines and Thailand are among the top three. Interestingly, at 17%, the US fares just somewhat better. Clearly even for the US, Mayer’s elevation is a landmark moment.

“Here, if you are pregnant you won’t be hired easily,” points out a Mumbai-based head-hunter who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Why would someone hire you knowing that you will be on leave after six months? When I interview women candidates I ask them upfront about their plans to start a family.”

It’s not just the companies that are reluctant. “Internationally, attitudes are very different,” says Mumbai-based K. Sudarshan, managing partner of global executive search firm EMA Partners International. “We had a client from South Africa who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy and she was open to relocating to another country soon after the baby was born. It’s an attitude I don’t see so much here where attitudes are still traditional. Here women tend to withdraw their candidature the moment they realize they are expecting. They would rather stay in a company where they are already working so they can try and negotiate for greater flexibility at work.”

It’s what may happen after the baby comes that explains some of the reluctance to hire a pregnant woman. There is this concern that she may be unable to do justice to the demands of a full-time job. “Companies invest in these individuals,’’ says Sudarshan, “and they start paying back 2-3 years later and then these concerns do come up.”

Most companies now offer three-six months of paid maternity leave, with the option of extending it up to a year without salary. However it’s the lack of support and options thereafter, when it is most required, that makes it difficult for women to continue working.

Accenture’s report, THE PATH FORWARD: INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2012 GLOBAL RESEARCH RESULTS found that 64% women held flexible work schedules as the main reason for continuing to work. “The maternity leave is not enough”, says this Mumbai-based senior journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity.  She quit her job in a leading English news channel recently, within six months of returning from her maternity leave. Like banking, the media, especially television, has a large number of women in senior positions. “Television is an unpredictable profession. It’s the hardest to manage with a young child, especially in a senior position. I found it hard to say “no” even if my child was sick. And unlike the head office, the bureau did not have the infrastructure to support working mothers. Even in a women-dominated organization I found it difficult to find empathy.”

A Mumbai-based banker  who also wants to remain unnamed, who had spent four years with a leading bank stuck it out for two years after her first child was born. Finally, in 2009, she stepped down as associate vice-president. “When I came back from my maternity leave, I had a lot of pending leaves which I would take when my child fell sick. But that was an issue”, she says. “I would manage my clients from home, but that was not good enough as my male peers with kids were in office 12 hours a day. I was denied a promotion despite meeting targets. My boss would say things like, ‘Why do women have to work? I tell my wife she should stay home’.”

“It is natural that you will have a child who will fall sick, ageing parents to care for, and parent-teacher meetings to attend,” says Sanyal. “In our country, and in many other countries, women carry the load of social responsibilities. Many women willingly opt out of the active working force due to social pressure. You can only reach a senior level when through the years you have been provided with equal opportunities and supportive policies to see you through those critical phases.”

Make a difference

“Companies have recognized the need for adapting to changes that are being introduced in other markets to help women ease back into work after having children”, says Mumbai-based Nita Joshi, director, K&J Search Consultants Pvt. Ltd, an executive search firm. “Some corporates now offer flexi-time and day-care centres at work. But it is not the norm yet.”

Among the exceptions – Bharti Airtel which offers day care facilities, Accenture which offers flexi time and has tied up with crèches, Godrej which has an in-house crèche and offers the GROW Godrej revival of opportunities program for women and Tata’s Second Career Internship program that offers flexi time.

Sarbani Sengupta, director, customer service at DHL Express (India) Pvt. Ltd, who’s based in Mumbai, credits company policies like flexible timings and work-from-home options for being able to do justice to a demanding job which requires considerable travel. Sengupta, mother to a 5-year-old, says, “They understand benefits that a woman brings, in terms of a different perspective.”

Women bring a higher emotional quotient, believes Sanyal. “A better balance in stressful situations, ability to forge strong client-customer relationships, and a high effectiveness in crisis management situations. What I am happy is that Marissa Mayer’s appointment is encouraging intelligent debates about women in the workplace. I hope it ushers in further changes in our attitudes as well.”

Mayer is generation Y’s radically cool poster mom. But that is cold comfort for the construction workers, peasants and numerous other women who struggle daily with motherhood, home-making and earning a living. The road for mother India is long and stony and she’s walking barefoot.

This article appeared in the Livemint, November 11, 2012 under the title ‘Women and the Workplace’. You can view it at


Grave Inequity

Days after a controversy broke out over its decision to ban women from entering the sanctum sanctorum, Haji Ali Dargah’s website still proclaims: “People from all parts of the world without restrictions of caste, creed and religion visit to offer their prayers…”  The statement is a reminder of the inclusive, all-embracing spirit that one of Mumbai’s most famous landmarks was known for.

Built in 1431, the shining marble dargah, floating off the Mumbai coast and immortalised in many a Bollywood film, houses the tomb of 15 th century Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. The shrine attracts thousands of visitors every day — men and women across faiths. Therefore the move has come as a shock, and many are calling it “anti-Islamic” and “unconstitutional”.

“Our fear is that if this can happen in Haji Ali, which is an iconic dargah, then it can happen anywhere,’’ says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founder-member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which has openly challenged the ban. “It goes against the spirit of what Sufi saints preached. There is a larger issue of not respecting diversity, disrespecting women and moving away from the spirit of Islam,’’ says Niaz.

The Haji Ali Trust, on its part, claims it is upholding this very spirit, and that the ban is not a new one. “Women were never allowed to enter the room where the tomb is kept as the Sharia law does not permit women to touch the tomb,’’ says Haji Ali Dargah chairman and managing trustee Abdul Sattar Merchant. “One of the rooms, at a distance from the sanctum sanctorum, is reserved for women.They can do the namaz there. But the shariat does not allow them to enter the room where the tomb is,” adds Merchant.

Not true, say activists. “I visited the dargah last year in a group and we were all allowed into the mazaar ,’’ says Niaz. “But when I went again this July, there was a steel barricade and we were told we could not enter the sanctum. The president of the committee told us some woman had visited the dargah dressed inappropriately, but that does not mean you ban the entire community of women. Besides, what Sharia are they talking about? What about those dargahs that allow women? Is their Sharia different,’’ asks Niaz.

“The debate regarding entry into shrines is an old one,’’ says Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, professor of Islamic studies at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College. “There is no clear specification regarding the matter relating to entry into shrines, for men or women. Some say that there is a tradition of the Caliph Omar, which mentions that women should not visit graves. Others hold that this was specified under certain circumstances. As gender justice is an important part of Islam, it was not considered a general rule as it would prevent women from visiting the graves of their loved ones.’’

After all, as Dr Ali points out, Muslims, both men and women, visit the Prophet’s grave. “The Prophet’s own daughters visited his grave. So many women visit the grave of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussain in Iran. The Taj Mahal is also a makhbara (mausoleum) like the Haji Ali Dargah. Are you now going to say women cannot visit the Taj? This attitude of women as un-equals is going to precipitate Islamophobia and convey a sense of misogyny that is totally alien to Islam,” she says.

Other religious scholars agree. “The dargah’s decision has nothing to do with the Sharia,’’ says Maulana Shoaib Koti from the Darul Uloom Deobandi University. “It is an administrative decision. The Sharia allows men and women equal access. All that it says is that women and men should be in separate enclosures.”

Hasan Kamal, a senior journalist and editorial advisor to Rashtriya Sahara Urdu, sees the ban as an attempt by certain groups within the community to gain the upper hand. “They want to give the message that they command the community. I am connected to many dargahs and none has such rules. If Mecca and Medina, the two places most sacred to Muslims all over the world, don’t ban women, how can any other?”

But the powers that be at Haji Ali Dargah are sticking to their guns. “Eventually, this will be done in every dargah, as the Sharia law will have to be upheld,” says Suhail Khandwani, trustee of the Haji Ali Dargah and managing trustee of the Makhdoom Baba’s Dargah in Mahim, Mumbai. Incidentally, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board too has come out in support of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust.

Activists fear the ban could set a precedent. The BMMA has found that seven other dargahs in Mumbai already deny women access to the mazaar . The BMMA has also tried to get the Maharashtra government to intervene, but so far, its attempts have been futile. The government has refused to get involved in the issue on the ground that being a religious matter, it falls within the Haji Ali Trust’s purview and not the government’s. There is now talk of looking to the courts for redressal.

“Legally, it is a tricky issue’’, says human rights lawyer Mihir Desai. “On the one hand you have a personal law. On the other, there is the matter of discrimination against women. It is a fundamental rights issue but vis-a-vis a private body — not the State. But it is also a question of freedom of religion guaranteed under the fundamental rights in our constitution.”

Watching the debate play out from the sidelines are writers like Sameera Khan. “When my grandmother died several years ago they did not allow her three daughters to witness the burial or visit the site later. Even today we stand on the pavement outside the graveyard, separated by a fence and say a prayer for her.” Though Khan did not contest the stricture then, activists like Niaz are in no mood to meekly accept the ban on women entering the Haji Ali Dargah. Clearly, this is a debate one hasn’t heard the last of.

This article also appeared in The Telegraph