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Tough climb to the top

Until you reach a certain designation where gender stops being thrown in your face, it's a struggle

Jaya Vaidhyanathan, Director and Business Unit Head, HCL Technologies Ltd, winner of MMA's award recently

JAYA VAIDHYANATHAN doesn't believe in making snide remarks about men. She'd probably chuckle with a group of girlfriends about their husbands not being able to find the right pair of socks, but she wouldn't bite every male nose off just to prove that she could.

"It would be the worst thing to keep drawing consciousness to the fact that you're a man or woman," says the Director and Business Unit Head, HCL Technologies Ltd. Jaya has won the `Outstanding Woman Manager' award of 2005, conferred by the Madras Management Association. "When I brought the award back to work, my team told me I should have been awarded just as a an `outstanding manager'," she says, touched by the high-esteem in which her team held her. What was the need to classify? No one has heard of an award set-aside especially for men, they said. Jaya repeats to me what she told them: "I may be just a manager/colleague — whether I'm a woman or man might be irrelevant now. But the fact is that I had to face tougher situations in my climb up the ladder because what I was doing was outside the usual scheme of things."

For example, when she would walk into the shop floor of the Vishakapatnam Steel Plant (her first job), there would be stunned silence and even some sceptical laughs. A woman? Supervising something other than deskwork? And, at a `sweat, muscle and testosterone industry' like a steel plant? But Jaya had wanted to do something other than administration, accounts, and other fields considered "suitable for women". "I think the award honours me for having come through the tougher fights."

Doting mother

After she received the award, Jaya, an MBA from Cornell University, and a Chartered Financial Analyst, was approached by many media houses for interviews. But she doesn't seem taken in by all that. "I'm only thinking of how thrilled my son will be to see his mummy on TV," says Jaya, grinning at the thought. Apparently, he even wanted to take her award to school to show it off to his buddies, but Jaya didn't trust him to bring the glass trophy back intact. "Everything I do is now scheduled around my son," she says. There was even a career move that was shaped by the need to make most of her little boy's childhood. For almost a decade, Jaya was director of investment banking at CIBC World Markets in New York where she managed the fortunes of billion-dollar companies. "I enjoyed my work immensely, and I didn't realise until really late that I was the only woman in the whole office floor!" As if she were reeling off a feasibility report, Jaya calmly says why she left that job: it wouldn't have allowed her much time with her son. "My job at HCL is more flexible. My parents live nearby, and they're more than ready to play with their grandson 24/7!"

Man-woman equation

Jaya points out how our people can accept — thump their chests in pride, actually — if they had a woman for a Prime Minister, but if the same PM was their wife, "oh, would she have a tough time!" It's all ok to talk about emancipation of women, and their influence as role models now, but really, didn't she just do it for herself? Jaya explains, "At the beginning, I just went about thinking of what I wanted to do. It was just about me. Soon, I started realising that ours is not a gender-neutral society." The man-woman difference was thick in the air in a factory, in the boardroom, in the lift, in the canteen... Even while networking, she would not be able to participate in the "drinking, backslapping and sometimes lurid joking" that men used to bond. "Until you reach a certain designation where gender stops being thrown in your face, it's a struggle. And that makes me take refuge in woman-power, if only to tell myself that I'm not the only one!"

Jaya says that aggressiveness isn't a trait she particularly approves and "though many people love Carly Fiorina (ex-CEO, Hewlett Packard, who was recently forced to quit) for naming aggressiveness was the key to leadership, I think you only push people away with it." Although her "woman of influence" is her mother, Jaya's role models are Brenda Barnes, CEO, Sara Lee and Indra Nooyi, president, PepsiCo. "If you're in a field that doesn't have too many women already, then you find a role model who's a man, that's all," she says. Her professional goal being to make it to the Fortune 100 list, Jaya softly mentions her greater goal: that she becomes both the role model and woman of influence in her son's life.


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