Vol 02 Iss 04
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Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE

Vol. 2 :: Iss. 4 :: November 1999


A Conversation

Shaju John

With a double Ph.D - in natural products chemistry and physical organic chemistry - heading the public sector Hindustan Organic Chemicals seems a natural assignment for Reena Ramachandran.

A senior woman manager who has done two fairly long stints in the public sector - from 1986 to 1992 she was in the ONGC - she does not wear her gender on her sleeve and was fortunate enough not to feel that she was shattering a glass ceiling.

In an interview to Business Line's Rasheeda Bhagat, she discussed the traits which had aided her in her career and called upon women managers to improve their professional visibility.

From your two long stints in public sector what would you say are the main challenges that a woman manager faces?

As a person, I've never looked at my work from the gender perspective. Perhaps it is because right from the beginning, I was always a single girl in the class... whether it was M.Sc., doctorate or whatever. So I had already got used to studying/working with men.

But I do recognise that it may not be a similar situation for all women. Such issues do crop up, particularly when you change jobs and get into a new environment, where it is difficult even for men to adjust. But it becomes doubly difficult for a woman;apart from the need to deal with the new environment as a manager, the elements of being a woman, of proving herself, become even more challenging.

I love taking on new assignments and challenges. In a new assignment its always having to prove yourself; in terms of job content and as a manager and a leader. The higher you go up the ladder in management, the more you have to prove this.

And a man doesn't have to do it?

I'm not making this observation as a discrimination against women. But it is purely a number game. If the critical number of women managers goes up, the issues may become less complex. But so long as the disparity in terms of numbers remains, women will stand out and be conspicuous.

However much you desire, you just can't wish this away. It is a practical reality. Ultimately we have to examine certain perceptions about women, which, even though gradually fading away, still remain. These pertain to their ability to move out, travel frequently, to be away from home, take on new responsibilities which might need longer office hours, which means being available to the management and the administration when required.

So what are these perceptions?

Generally the perception among employers is that women will not be able to do all this. Therefore they do not even make an offer. In that process women tend to lose out. That, to my mind, is more damaging to a woman's career. It is very important that a woman manager remove this perception. The only way you can remove it is in the beginning to even volunteer, to be a little proactive and demonstrate your professional ability. You cannot imagine that everybody knows that you can perform.

How can a woman improve her professional visibility?

By being proactive and talking about it. Now, this improving of professional visibility is required not only within the work system but beyond the work environment, when connected with professional interests outside office hours. That would improve her professional visibility even more.

Not running back home from the office!

Exactly. Making yourself available, making your presence felt, spending a little extra time to be in the milieu where professional people meet, interacting and discussing common concerns and day to day current developments in the profession. These things stand out and show her ability. But for all this, extra time, effort and deliberate action are required.

Do you see such an effort being made by your fellow women managers?

Yes, they are now doing it. Now you see a lot more women in management institutions and management associations and in the committees too. This is a good way to spread awareness. I'm not saying its happening everywhere. But a trend is developing. Also, in industry associations and the federations of chambers, there is a different wing for women, which is different from the ladies wing. This is a wing for professional women managers, or business women who are themselves entrepreneurs, to form small groups and hold meetings and discussions.

To answer your question, things are happening, but the actual number is very small.

You yourself have been there and watched many women managers perform... some even under you at junior levels. Do you think there is anything which distinguishes a woman's style of management? Is she more matter of fact, more businesslike or whatever? What are her advantages or disadvantages, for after all you cannot escape your gender?

I would say even amongst women, such things vary, just like they do amongst men. I wouldn't like to generalise that a woman manager has particular traits. A woman manager ten years ago was operating in an environment very different from today where there are lot more women in the workplace. So the psychology, environment and lifestyle have changed. Therefore her style of functioning has changed too.

What style of management do you adopt?

Down to earth. Absolutely down to earth. And practical, which is by demonstration. Setting a personal example. If I expect something from the staff, I need to do that first myself. Secondly in all my work, people have essentially been the centrestage of my management. Because ultimately an organisation or enterprise has no existence without people. So I've always believed that you can get success only if you take the people along with you.

What the Americans call the 'colleagual' approach?

Absolutely. Because nobody can succeed individually. So I've been fortunate to have excellent colleagues and subordinates who have made things happen.

How do men view a woman manager initially? It must have been a cultural shock, because we're talking about a period 20 years ago.

I didn't feel it. If it was a cultural shock then I should have felt it.

Because you did shatter a glass ceiling...

I never felt that there was a glass ceiling. I don't believe in a glass ceiling. I never felt that there was a shock.

You never felt that there were people in the organisation who were prejudiced against or resented a woman boss?

No. I believe that first of all you should not expect anything. In a new environment, when I take on a new assignment, my expectation is zero. I should be in a position to give first and the rest will automatically happen. So I must perform the function for which I'm hired to the best level possible. And how do you assess the best? Through the bottomline.. through results and this should get reflected in my actions.

And you cannot achieve unless you have the support of people. I never have to wonder when I take a new assignment, whether people are accepting me or adopting me or how they feel.

So you start off with the single main objective of delivering?

Absolutely. I'm a self-motivated person. I don't depend on anybody else to motivate me and that is a strength which probably makes me do things in a more pro-active manner.

Do you think self-motivation is a gender-based or a more individualistic concept?

It has nothing to do with gender. There have been excellent professional men who have been self-motivated.. very hard working.

A woman's Emotional Quotient is supposed to be much higher than a man's. Do you think a woman manager scores in interpersonal relationships?

People have observed ... I can't assess myself. But I do get feedback of people saying she is a bundle of patience. When you deal with people you have to start with patience.

Do you think the role of a mother prepares a woman for this?

Perhaps. You definitely have that small little thing in the corner of the heart which makes a woman get possibly the best out of people without creating earthquakes and without too many hiccups. But sometimes you feel that this system may not work in all situations.

You may require a very harsh method of doing things if things do not happen the easy way. There is no single prescription you can describe or which a text book can give you that in any given situation you can do this or that.

Can you give an example?

There are several managements techniques and these are more people-related. One is the motivational method and the second is the harsher method, where we have to make use of the administrative ammunition and machinery at our disposal. I've used those too quite a lot. I've noticed that in the same company, you have to adopt different measures with different units or divisions. Because culturally the people are so different in this country. In a unit in the north, people react very differently to situations than people in the south, where people tend to be more emotional or sensitive. In each environment you have to follow a different technique.

Do you think such techniques can be taught in management schools?

No. I've never undergone any management course.

What about books.. there are so many books on management?

They are good. I like reading management books. That's in fact my extra-curricular activity and it certainly gives a lot of insight because, after all, in life as you go along and deal with various types of managerial assignments, you do make mistakes. Nobody can claim that everything a person does is right. In hindsight, one often thinks it could have been done in a different way.

By learning through the experience of others narrated in the books, one learns of different ways to manage a situation. But life and the actual doing of things teaches you something which can never really be described in a book. If you can learn from experience, that is a great achievement. But the worst scenario is to keep repeating your mistakes.

So if you are very sensitive to your performance and results you'll learn not to repeat mistakes.

What about integrity?

I attach a lot of importance to it.

Do women tend to be more honest than men.. or to put the question differently, is it more difficult to corrupt a woman than a man?

Yes, both are true. But of course there have been exceptions which have been published. But sometimes, in some environments, it can even go against you.

In impeding ones' growth?

It can. So one should be able to strike an excellent balance of keeping your integrity and values and also perform within the system.

Is it possible to do that?

It's not impossible.

Without treading on toes?

Oh yes.

And they leave you alone.. whoever your bosses are, including the politicians?

I couldn't care less. Ultimately, you have to strike a balance, and I've survived for so long! It's one's intrinsic strength which takes one forward.

You said women tend to be more patient and understanding. Do you think male subordinates tend to take a woman manager for a ride because of these qualities?

But why should I blame the subordinates? In management, the first responsibility is that of a leader.. the person who is managing. If the person is a good manager, irrespective of gender, he/she should know how to manage the subordinates. If the subordinates are taking the manager for a ride, I don't think he/she is doing his/her job.

One of the most important traits of management is that you should manage people; below you, above you and around you!

In management jargon there is this thing called the double bind syndrome. An autocratic male boss means business; but for a woman they say power has gone to her head and call her a Hitler or even a bitch. On the other hand, if a woman is humane and understanding, she is perceived weak; a male manager doing that is a great human being. Your comments.

This has been widely researched, specially in the American context. This is an integral part of socially accepted norms and the culture we have been brought up in. We cannot change the culture overnight. So, even with the best of intentions if she doesn't take care of these aspects, there is a possibility of her being misunderstood.

I always tell my women colleagues that this aspect may seem to be innocuous but is very important. A lot of problems at the work place, and at home, can be handled very effectively if you handle this aspect of how to conduct yourself in the office.

You can't say I'll deal the way I want.. wear the dress I want or deal with a client the way I want. It doesn't work like that. It may not hit you immediately but it hits you at some point. But if one is firm.. some of these aspects can be positive. One needs to make the best of the positive aspects of both the trends and strike a good balance in the way you conduct yourself.

Do you think a dress code is important for a woman manager?

Very important.

The way she dresses, carries herself and even behaves?

Absolutely important. And the higher you go, these aspects become even more important because everybody watches you as a symbol.

So where do you draw the line between being friendly and bossy?

It's judgement. You can't get an instant formula. There are instances when I've planned to do certain things but changed the course of action. The most important area which is a big gap for women is information management. This is a weak area.

Why and how?

Because they get busy.. managing both the office and the home. Outside information accessibility is very limited for them. Even in the office, because they are smaller in numbers, they tend to converse among themselves. And the kind of information which is very vital for their career growth, for equipping themselves as better candidates, for moving up and such crucial things, will be missed by them because they don't know what is happening around them.

Such information is very critical for their career growth. Professional information; you may have documents and libraries but that is only one part. There is unpublished information which one gets to know only by mingling with people.. talking to them. What I mentioned earlier about professional visibility.

I know cases of women who are not happy in the set up in which they're working and looking for an opportunity but don't know how to go about it. They don't know the options they have in another organisation.

You feel men are smarter and quicker in this?

Yes. I feel the media is an excellent source of information for professionally equipping yourself. Sometimes you don't have enough time to go through newspapers/magazines. You need a systematic collection of information and documenting. It helps you a lot. I have used it a lot.

I'm sure in your career you must have encountered irritating situations where you've wanted to scream and fire somebody. How have you managed? Have you allowed yourself to fly off the handle or tackled it more calmly?

Irritating situations arise even at home, where they can be more damaging! But I never lose my temper. I always analyse that maybe something needs to be done on my part to solve the problem. There can be conflicts between two parties on things like promotion which can lead to irritation. Where there are human beings, there will be diversity. Things are always seen from an individual's perspective. What is happening to ME? What is happening to MY career? What am I getting from it?

If a person has not performed, one should ask why. I spend a lot of time listening to people. My doors are always open; anybody can always walk in. As the head of HOC, I think I'm working for different segments of people and in their interest. And an enterprise will do well when all of them get together to deliver the goods. No individual can succeed alone.

So I should listen to what bothers them. That is the fundamental principle. I meet them in groups or as individuals and listen to them. Often I find just listening sorts out a lot of problems. There could be a background.. historic or family reasons. The person's psychology has to be analysed. Of course dark horses or mischief mongers have to be tackled. It involves planning.. strategy and working in a system.

But in a PSU, your hands must be tied.

Not really. A lot of things which bother people are based on wrong information or rumours. So it's important to talk to them. No point in saying I'll use the official machinery to deal with them. I don't go after people; it's not a good strategy. I work for people and not against them.

I suppose the top person giving them a hearing itself solves half the problem.

That's exactly what I meant.

Psychological therapy?

Yes, but the problem is that as you move up the ladder, time is the main thing. There are too many things to do and you think this is not a priority. But for me people and issues connected with them are always the first priority. Ultimately all people are good. Some perform better; the strength lies in working through their strengths. A lot of it rests with the leadership. In the public sector it becomes a little more complicated because there is the government and the political system.

How have you managed with political interference?

No politician has ever interfered with me. Absolutely not. Ultimately its all about the strength of the individual. There are chief executives themselves

Who want to be pliant?

Yes.

What has been the fundamental challenge of your career?

Showing results. But every time things may not turn out the way you planned because of factors extraneous to the organisation. The greatest challenge is how do you manage and perform in difficult situations in a highly competitive business environment and I've enjoyed that challenge greatly.

How are things with HOC? It has been making losses for the last two years.

Yes, but this year things are looking up. We have taken steps to tackle the situation and in the current year things are different.

Do you find it easy to admit that you've made a mistake, in dealing with either people or situations?

Oh yes. I begin with the premise that everybody is a gentleman till he proves otherwise.. I'm sorry I'm using the word gentleman!

How do you deal with complaints of sexual harassment. do you get many of them?

Not really. When you have me sitting here, the problem gets less because they know it will be heard better than with a male boss. I encourage women to bring it to my attention because solidarity is very important.

But how do you solve the problem?

First of all I don't like bringing any external pressure to help women. They must learn to help themselves. I tell them `you be strong first.' Confidence building, strengthening the women executives and the staff to raise and discuss the problem and taking everybody along with you, are crucial. The man then knows that there are 50 people behind you. Legislation may not help. Many of the women do not even know what are the legal provisions. Strengthening the woman is very important.

You mentioned in the beginning that you haven't shattered any glass ceiling. Do you believe that it exists at all?

Must be... because a lot of women have said it exists.

But how come you never felt it?

Because I never perceived myself in that way. I suppose I got used to working with men. I never had any inhibitions with travelling or meeting the evening requirements of work like late office hours. I've in fact overdone on the work front. I was very conscious and sensitive. At certain stages in my life I've even compromised on my domestic requirements.

Do you think the personal life of a woman manager takes more of a beating than a man's?

Oh, yes, surely; it's a price one has to pay. I have compromised but I've never harboured negative feelings like I shouldn't have done it. I did it because I felt that was the way to do it. I've never regretted my actions.

Do you think support from the home front is important?

Very much, and I got it. But being one of four daughters, I was raised as an individual more than a girl. The home environment also helps a woman. Growing up in a different social environment and then expecting that to change at the work place cannot happen.

What more would you want to achieve?

The sky is the limit.

What is your dream for the future?

I have great interest in women's issues; building self confidence in women, evolving strategies and giving some practical tips. I'd like to work with a wide cross section of women employees and give them self-confidence. When I came here there were no women executives. Now there are 10. Apart from striving to excel in the professional area, of course.

How much bigger can you become?

I'm not big in any case, and for professional excellence, there is no limit. There is so much to learn.


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