People An inspiring story of three women who've taken advantage of changing technology and attitudes to occupy top corporate jobs

Another Women's Day has gone by. Awards, flowers, long speeches. Glowing tributes, biting criticism. The optimists highlight how far we've come; the pessimists harp on the long way we have to go. But nothing — not even the statistics that speak up for both the camps — can take away from the fact that the last decade has seen the greatest of changes. ‘Bossy', which not long ago was a derogatory term for little girls who tried to sort out the boys in the playground, is, today, literally what little girls are raised to be! Ambition, which was once considered vulgar in the female of the species, is actively encouraged. And when the go-getters finally make it to the top, praise is heaped on them for about five minutes, but after that they're just another CEO. Just like their male counterparts!

Change — thanks to shifting attitudes, flexi-timing, tele-commuting — has been the operative word in women's careers in the last ten years. To find out where we stand and where we are really headed, we speak to three successful women who've been part of this great sweeping change…

Jamuna Ravi, vice-president and head of business (IT Services, Energy, Communications and Services) Infosys, says the IT industry has always been a good place for women to work in India. “The number of women in senior positions, especially in banks and IT companies, has gone up considerably in the past decade, adding to women's confidence levels and role models to look up to.”

“When women leaders head large organisations, research in the West shows, it has a positive impact, including on the revenues/profits,” says Srimathi Shivashankar, associate vice-president (Diversity & Sustainability), HCL Technologies. “Women bring about a different leadership style, and create a very progressive workplace — progressive in terms of policies, ethics and support systems.”

And perhaps, the best example of this came from a friend who praised her woman boss saying that she worked very hard for her, as she thought things out not just as a boss, but as a woman and fellow mum too. “Besides,” adds Jamuna, “the greater the number of women in top management, the more empowered the average woman feels. I can tell you that every time I see Chanda Kochhar or Naina Lal Kidwai in a really prestigious forum, receiving an award or as part of the award jury, I feel very good myself!”

Now, with so many accomplished women in the spotlight, it's easy to get complacent about the road (and the roadblocks) to the top. Watching Sheryl Sandberg's (COO of Facebook) inspiring speech on the net might fire you up for about five hours, posting feminist Gloria Steinem's quotes on Facebook might impress your pals, but they're hardly going to jet you to the top. What then does it take to get up there?

Ambition, hard work and perseverance.

“Women are usually very hard-working and result-oriented,” says Jamuna. “The challenges start coming when they manage teams and need to demonstrate mobility, put in extra hours and take tough decisions.” There is a lot of pressure on women to be well-educated, to be extraordinarily good at their job, as well as be super homemakers,” says Vani Saraswathi, managing editor of Qatar Today and other magazines from the Oryx Group. “What we need to ensure is choice. If a highly educated woman's ambition is to be the best homemaker, they why question her choice?”

But for those eyeing the top post, willingness to take on more responsibility helps. Agrees Jamuna, “It is at the stage of 10+ years that women need to show commitment and staying power, if they are in for the long haul. Sadly enough, this is the stage in a woman's career that she may also be going through marriage and childbearing and have conflicting priorities in terms of work-life balance.”

“Women also need to get better at talking about their successes,” says Vani. Because, worried about sounding boastful, they often underplay their achievements.

But things are, on the whole, moving in the right direction in India, says Srimathi. “Recently the alcohol-beverage industry picked up a number of senior women to lead their India subsidiaries. That's an indicator of how industries have switched their thinking about women leading non-traditional/stereotyped roles. We have a long way to go, but surely India Inc is attempting to bring about a big change.”