A special report by Shuchita Sonalika, director and head – UK, Confederation of Indian Industry.
We sit in the hallowed halls of Wilton Park, a think tank of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. An enrapturing setting for three days – green rolling hills with nothing but dots of sheep in the distance and a majestic mansion. A board room that has survived decades of the most depressing, problematic, conflict ridden discussions. On the agenda – women’s economic empowerment.
Women’s empowerment is not a “women’s issue” alone – rather, it is a “business issue”. When more women work, economies grow, says the United Nations. Research from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates a huge opportunity cost of $12 trillion to global GDP if we don’t progress fully on women’s equality. The global average of women’s contribution to GDP is 37 percent, and India is much farther behind at 17 percent as one of the lowest regions in the world.
The meeting at Wilton Park drew on the work of a High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment of the United Nation’s Secretary General. We acknowledged that there isn’t a magic formula for removing the systemic constraints that hold women back, but surely, there is an important role for partnerships – including government, industry, academia and youth to bring about change. The meeting focused on 3 areas for impact: opportunities for financial, digital inclusion and entrepreneurship for women-owned and women-led enterprises; addressing adverse norms, discriminatory beliefs and limiting practices that affect women’s economic participation; and the unrecognised care economy.
Gender parity at work influences and enables greater parity in society – so if we want social norms to change, we’ve got to get better at including and integrating women in the workplace at all levels.
“But you can’t be what you can’t see”, said a passionate participant at Wilton Park and this quickly became one of my favourite phrases, almost like a mantra. So I pledged that I would do more to highlight inspirational women around me.
We’ve got to see more women in leadership roles, and role models all around us. Take a moment to identify women that you can look up to – who may be a few steps ahead of you, who you can relate to, and you can aspire to be. You’ll be surprised to see so many strong and supportive women.
11 Inspirational women in the India-UK business corridor
On International Women’s Day, and in the spirit of finding these role models in the India-UK business corridor, where my work is focused, I wanted to put the spotlight on inspirational women who are playing such an important and interesting role – across Parliament, industry, academia and arts. This is not a complete list, and not even a comprehensive one. But these are women, who have been beside me, ahead of me and rock solid behind me, in my journey. It is inspiring to hear of their ideas and the challenges they have faced, and the contributions they have made in their journeys to break the glass ceiling and challenge the status quo.
Bina Mehta, Partner, KPMG
Bina Mehta, a Partner at KPMG, is one of those inspiring, unassuming personalities, who champion women’s participation and career growth. Having mentored many young women and men entrepreneurs, she is one you quickly count among your friends, philosophers and guides. “Pay it forward” is her biggest advice to women.
“Successful businesses are often those who have an inclusive environment where colleagues thrive and can achieve their full potential. Mentoring schemes are a good way to encourage women and reverse mentoring is particularly successful in my experience, where executive committee members mentor female rising stars. There is a great deal that businesses can do to help empower women. Flexible working programmes support women who have to balance the challenges of work and home life. Of course there is a role for women to play in supporting each other in their careers. Ultimately it is down to women to seize and create their own opportunities, to make the most of the networks, support and other female role models around them. Having succeeded, there is also a requirement for our female leaders to pay it forward, and support those younger women starting out in their careers to be the best that they can be.”
Jhumar Johnson, Open University
Jhumar Johnson is truly an inspirational woman who has combined social cause, education, technology, money and passion into one amazing career path. “I have always believed that a woman can have it all. The choices we make are shaped by the support from our friends, family and those we work with,” she says.
However, she believes women’s diffident attitudes can sometimes come in the way of their own success. “My one plea to women would be to stop sabotaging themselves. Stop using apologies as punctuation. Stop devaluing your contribution by peppering it with a justification. If you don’t stand for yourself, it’s hard for others to stand by you. In my experience, empowered women are enlightened women. They empower others, not just other women. They accept their realities and push through to redefine their possibilities. What if we stopped believing in ceilings? And what if, businesses led the way in setting the example, celebrating their heroines so generations to follow can find their new ‘Hero’?”
Joanne Ahmed, Deloitte
Joanne Ahmed, a Partner at Deloitte, is a familiar face in the India-UK corridor, with links to Manchester, where she is based and serves as Honorary Consul of Japan. From facilitating technology partnerships to building regional connectivity, she has spearhead several projects, tasks and special assignments. Having “been there, done that”, she firmly believes in letting actions speak for themselves.
Recounting her own journey, she says, “I was asked in 2017 to take up the co-leadership of the India Services Group (ISG) at Deloitte. My first reaction was one of incredible pride and delight that I was considered suitable for such a role. However, I was also worried about the task ahead. I had worked on the corridor for many years, serving clients and interacting with UK and India teams but I suddenly wondered for the first time how I would be accepted as a woman in such a role. As with all challenges I have worked through in my career, I decided that actually the best thing to do was to do what I always have done and that is be true to myself; my style of working, communication and leadership as that is the only way to sustain a long term and happy working environment. I have also believe that you have to be true to yourself and not be afraid to challenge or debate where necessary. I can honestly say that almost 12 months into the role, I have not once felt that being a woman is in point as it is ultimately it is your actions that define you, not your gender.”
Lopa Patel MBE, Entrepreneur
Lopa Patel MBE, a digital entrepreneur with a lifelong love of science and technology, is a charismatic and dynamic woman, most often seen with a camera around her neck. She is a strategic thinker who can conceptualise new ideas to fruition, and can also be pretty hands-on when it comes to ground work. Recognised with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, she supports the cause of women, entrepreneurship and skills wherever she goes – but most of all, believes that it all begins with toughening up!
“Women have to realise the power they have in changing the world for other women. In business, I find the warmth and support of my female friends can often help me overcome many challenges. It helps raise my confidence and aim that little bit higher. Business women should pay it forward, by giving their custom to women entrepreneurs and investing in women-led businesses; recommending women employees for promotion, mentoring, and sharing their skills and knowledge with younger women too. I am often asked for tips on how to succeed as an entrepreneur and the answer is always the same: build a professional network for yourself and become more resilient.”
Mira Kaushik OBE, Akademi
Mira Kaushik OBE is a woman you’ll never forget. With her signature big red bindi and her big warm smile, she shows you the world of performing arts. As the Director of Akademi, a renowned performing arts center, she has the opportunity of shaping a new-age work culture that is fair and accommodating. She has developed Akademi as a woman-led organisation, with a majority female workforce. It is an efficiently-run, successful arts organisation known for its excellent working conditions for female employees. The result is that they create extraordinary Indian and South-Asian dance performances, nurture the UK’s next generation of South Asian dancers and choreographers and inspire and engage people to do their best.
“An equal opportunities policy and transparent HR system guides Akademi to make fair decisions to ensure gender equality within the organisation. Regular training opportunities, encouragement to communicate freely and board mentorship schemes enable the Akademi team to evolve, whilst challenging all unconscious bias. This has helped us to create a gender-neutral environment that propels Akademi to excel”, says Mira. “Akademi celebrates motherhood through its flexible work policies, allowing employees to invest time in appropriate child care and self-care. This has helped in getting the best out of the team and sustain many long-term relationships.”
Kiran Khatri, High Commission of India
Kiran Khatri is a Special Advisor to the High Commissioner of India in London. She observers everything quietly, manages everything quietly. Behind the scenes, with her hallmark hyper-efficiency, she works tirelessly to ensure the most productive use of resources and time to bolster the India-UK relationship.
“In India, the public sector is a beacon of best practices when it comes to gender equality and equity. I am fortunate to be a part of the Indian Foreign Service that has a sizable number of women officers who have reached the highest offices in their tenure with their competence and capability,” she beams. Headed by a woman, Hon’ble Minister Sushma Swaraj, the relatively small Indian Ministry of External Affairs boasts around 135 women officers. “There are everyday challenges that we face as a woman, and these exist everywhere in the world,” she says. “I look forward to a time when there will not be any need to celebrate a special day as women’s day. It is vital that women accept, appreciate and encourage other women in their lives every day. It is only by supporting and nurturing each other will we be able expand the quality of our life – whether at work or at home.”
Nandita Sahgal-Tully, ThomasLloyd Group
Nandita Sahgal Tully, the Managing Director of ThomasLloyd Group is a finance wizard who has climbed her way to the top on her own merit. When she started her career in 1995, she was surprised to see only a handful of females in senior positions. “This has changed with times, but it never ceases to amaze me that brilliant, capable women bow out of fulfilling their career potential because the work place is often not flexible to have both – a family and a career”, she says.
When she was appointed CEO, she shattered that glass ceiling to be in the top leadership role, but such positions can make it quite difficult to balance home life and work. “I had 12 days annual leave in 2 years!” “Balancing work and family remains a paramount challenge for women. But if organisations start having more women in leadership roles, it operates as an encouragement to other women in the workplace. Women’s leadership is so important in ensuring that more women are in positions where they have the authority to decide and negotiate on issues that affect them.”
Baroness Sandip Verma, House of Lords
Baroness Sandip Verma, a “power” woman in the House of Lords, a former Energy and Climate Change Minister in the UK, the co-founder of POWERful Women, a proponent for more women on boards, and indeed a globally recognised champion for women and girls. She believes in creative disruption and in fact, calls herself a “disruptor”. “Sometimes you just need to give the system a good shake” she says.
“There is plenty of research and data available that demonstrates women in business would add trillions of dollars to the global economy. Women run businesses are often take greater account of risk and therefore offer a safer investment for banks and funding institutions. It has been widely demonstrated that women led or women driven businesses are more likely to invest more in developing their workforce. Given that the majority spend is by women surely it makes business sense to bolster the number of women operated or owned businesses. A no brainer”
Shehla Hasan, Confederation of British Industry
Shehla Hasan, has been the India Country Director for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) for nearly 6 years now, and as the Convener, she has championed the concept and execution of the UK India Women’s Leadership Network. She is passionate, persistent and to the point.
“Business organisations suffer from unconscious bias – societal stereotypes which both men and women unconsciously adhere to. Decisions are taken by both men and women which may be biased against women, without intending to. This exists both in the UK and in India, in differing degrees. This affects women’s professional growth prospects and their negotiating ability vis-a-vis their male counterparts. Family is the first unit where women give more but think they deserve less than they get. Patriarchal cultures perpetuate this situation. Indeed, the first glass ceiling that needs to be broken is at home.”
Sophie Charbonneau, Varana World
Meet Sophie Charbonneau, the Managing Director of Varana World, a high-end fashion boutique in Mayfair. Sophie’s passion and enthusiasm is so contagious that before you know it, you are swept away into the elegant and chic environs of Varana, whose textiles combine rich influences from the East and West. And even though the fashion industry is mostly about women, even there, she says, women are far from empowered. She is keen to bring diversity of every kind into the modern work space.
“Empowering women in business organisations is not a matter of positive affirmation but should be the true recognition of real talent and experience,” says Sophie. “Having worked in luxury retail over many years, in some of the most prestigious fashion houses, I have crossed the path of only a handful of women who make it as senior managers. Although the luxury industry comprises of a majority of female clientele, it is still “middle age, grey-haired, white men” in senior management roles, and especially at the CEO and Chairman levels. Diversity of race, gender and education is key for any modern organization to grasp world complexity.”
Baroness Usha Prashar, House of Lords
Baroness Usha Prashar is a force of nature, who will take you under her wing and then push you off the cliff and say “Fly! Now!” As the Deputy Chair of the British Council, she is involved in hundreds of projects. She has been at the forefront of the India-UK Year of Culture as the Chair of the Board of Patrons, which laid the foundation of a revitalised relationship between India and the UK last year and is curating an India Garden project at the Chelsea Flower Show this year. She juggles them all gracefully and simultaneously, yet giving you her full and focused attention.
Having seen the transition of the times, she has seen the confidence of women growing and their assertiveness strengthening over the past decade or so, and she couldn’t be more pleased.
“The onus today lies with both – the company to reach out to women, and for women themselves to claim their seat at the table,” she says. “They deserve to be at the table in their own right and on their own merit, but they’ve got to leap up and grasp the opportunities.” As corporate culture progresses, she says companies must widen their net to bring women with the right skills into the right positions, but believes that a huge role lies with men in equalising this landscape. “We must bring men into the discussion too. It is not a one-way street today. It is about mutual benefit by enabling diverse perspectives and new age ideas from both men and women!”