“My first day at work at a big bank, I was in the elevator, and a very senior man from another department accosted me saying I should come work for his team. It has been 20 years and I still remember that moment, because it was an offer purely based on my looks and nothing else.” Today, Nayana Sharma is an MD at yet another big bank, but still struggles with moments of doubt about whether her rise has been due to her performance or because bosses along the way found her attractive.
She adds, “I used to work for the most charming man, happily married with kids, and two years into the job, he confides to my colleague that he finds me difficult to manage because he’s attracted to me.”
But it’s not just unwelcome sexual advances that female leaders in male-dominated industries struggle with. They also find themselves having to work harder, just to be taken seriously by their peers.
When Shubika Bilkha, business head, REMI, would meet contemporaries in a professional capacity, people weren’t convinced she was the one running the show. “They would automatically address male members of the team, who were also perhaps a little older, and assume they were the decision makers,” she says. “They wouldn’t even shake my hand!”
Nayana adds, “People thought ‘if that bimbo can get it so can we’. It took almost two years for my team to come around. You have to constantly prove yourself and use words like ‘I think’, ‘I suggest’ — so as not to ruffle any egos.”
Shattering the glass ceiling
Despite the odds, what these successful women have in common is their ability to see these factors as obstacles to overcome, not deterrents.
“You have to mould yourself to the industry,” says Shubika, “Particularly when it’s male-dominated. In my meetings, people respect me for the work that I do. It’s not because I’m a woman, but inspite of it.”
She recalls being one of a handful of women representatives among 600 participants at a real estate conference in London recently. “I stuck out like a sore thumb “ she says, “But people were more interested in the work I was doing and that automatically translates into respect. If you have the knowledge, you already have the commanding position and no one can question that.”