Women in Male-Dominated Industries Must Let Their Work Speak for Itself, Says AIMA Director General Rekha Sethi

CXOToday has engaged in an exclusive interview with AIMA Director General Rekha Sethi


Q: Tell Us About Your Journey In AIMA?

I joined AIMA in June 2008 – after 17 plus years in CII it was not easy to take a decision to move on. I had never envisaged myself in a CEOs role before that and was a bit apprehensive about what it would mean going forward!

It turned out to be one of my best decisions and I love the way AIMA has grown in the last few years – to an organisation which is looked up to for its work in the field of management, innovation and leadership. AIMA has grown from a largely management education and testing body, to a multi-dimensional organisation that fosters management thought, and works towards building a future-ready workforce and leaders through innovative programmes and industry exposure – and I am happy I have been able to contribute to its growth.

AIMA has also given me freedom – freedom to have a vision for the organisation and take it further and freedom to move beyond AIMA and grow as a person!

AIMA gave me not just the go ahead but encouragement, support and confidence to join the Boards of some excellent corporates as an Independent Director including Sun Pharmaceuticals, Samvardhana Motherson International Ltd, Kirloskar Bros Ltd, CESC, Spencers and Hero Steel – thus adding a brand-new dimension to my professional journey.

Q: Throughout your career, who were your biggest inspirations?

Throughout my personal life and professional career, my family has always been the one constant. My father who left us too soon, my mother who wanted to see me excel in life and my brother who has been a silent supporter. Through it all, they have served as my pillar of support and inspiration.

I’ve also had the good fortune to have worked closely and interacted with some of the greatest thought leaders and business minds of our times. I have been greatly inspired by their stellar achievements, unique perspectives and solid work ethics – which pushes me each day to become a better version of myself.

Q: Is empathy important at the workplace? If so, why?

I strongly believe that one of the key qualities a CEO must possess is empathy!

The ability put your self in other’s shoes and understand their issues is extremely important in the growth of an organization.

I have made it a point to give the confidence to every staff member of mine – at any level – that they can walk into my office and share their problems / issues. They have the confidence that the Association has their back and that they are not alone!

It is because of this empathy that we as TEAM AIMA – have been able to achieve what we have today.

They give me and the organisation the best – and I try to do the same by giving them my best.

In today’s day and age – empathetic leadership has become a non-negotiable requirement for building a high performing and successful organization.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge for the next generation of female leaders here in India?

I started my professional journey at a time when there weren’t many women in leadership positions and to be honest, I was skeptical about my chances of becoming one given the well-entrenched biases and prejudices prevalent at that time. Thankfully, I have never experienced discrimination based on my gender. However, the fact that even today, women are underrepresented in leadership positions, means that they are still struggling and swimming against a tide of hardwired preconceptions and assumptions.

It is still often perceived that women would fall short of expectations, be unable to handle demanding situations or are ‘too soft’ for the top job; as a result of which, more often than not, women give up the pursuit of leadership positions.

Moreover, women professionals are often subjected to age-old belief systems and the preconceived notion that they cannot excel in their roles as they need to be committed to and available for their families; invariably forcing the woman to accept a lesser role in one or the other. However, a balance can be achieved through active family support and organizational flexibility; while an unbiased measurement of performance can ensure that the path to a woman’s success remains clear of obstacles.

While I feel things are getting better – also thanks to government intervention at times – we still have a long way to go – to come even at par with countries like Norway, Sweden etc. where women have forged way ahead.

Q: What are some strategies that can help women achieve the success they want in their workplaces, especially in male-dominated roles or industries?

I think the most important thing a woman can do is to let their work speak for them. I have always believed in this theory. Ultimately no one cares whether you are a man or a woman – as long as work is done

However, I do accept that initially professional women have to fight bias and a patriarchal mindset (in many industries). It is imperative that women fight this mindset, not always head-on but sometimes by adopting pragmatic methods.

Build a Network: Women need to surround themselves with winners and create a network of influential people who would not only inspire them but also help and encourage them. Networks are also excellent for expanding knowledge, gaining access to resources, career advice, and can be a big professional and emotional support system.

Be Assertive: Often referred to as the gentler sex, women need to make deliberate efforts to speak up– unapologetically and with confidence – to be heard and acknowledged. They need to stop holding back and become more assertive, advocate for themselves and highlight their contributions and achievements.

Power of knowledge: Knowledge is a powerful tool. When it comes to subjects that are considered to be a ‘man’s domain’, women are frequently made to feel inferior or lacking in understanding. By staying abreast of industry trends and making efforts to constantly enhance their expertise, women professionals can ensure they stay one step ahead of the pack and be better equipped to handle any task or challenge.

Work-life balance: Women have some unique challenges that sometimes threaten to stall their careers. It is important for women to accept and embrace these and not be apologetic about things like motherhood and giving equal priority to family. Women are intrinsically fantastic multi taskers, and with the right professional and familial support systems, they can easily excel at both roles.

Q: What is one lesson learnt that’s unique to being a woman?

The biggest lesson that I have learnt is that the playing field is not the same for men and women. Despite increased awareness about inclusiveness and gender parity there are still many organisations where male and female workers are looked at through different lenses. Unfortunately, women often do need to work harder than men to prove themselves, due to a variety of factors such as gender bias and stereotypes. Sometimes women are also held to higher standards than men, with their successes attributed to luck or external factors, rather than their own abilities and hard work.

Despite these challenges, women have proven time and time again that they are capable of achieving great success in their chosen fields. I hope that our hard work and achievements encourage more women to attain their personal pinnacle of success, and further inspire the next generation of women leaders.

Q: How do you engage with and empower others?  

People can achieve anything they set their minds to when they are empowered. Employee empowerment does not merely imply keeping them content with neat bonuses or keeping them productive with job-specific training. It entails giving them opportunities to grow beyond the confines of their current responsibilities and express themselves without fear of any repercussions.

I had a very interesting experience with my earlier Boss – who was the Director General of CII

One day – at the rather young age of 27 – I was asked to travel to Mauritius – alone – without my immediate Boss – to put together – what he said – was a “Made in India Show” in Mauritius – which comprised of an exhibition of Indian goods, a conference, a CEOs delegation, a Food festival and a fashion show! You can imagine that I hadn’t a clue even about what these all meant!

But I did it and it was one of the most successful events ever.

What I am trying to say is that you need to trust and let go – to empower.

The more you trust your staff with greater responsibility – the better they do!

Q: How did you gain your confidence as a leader?  

My confidence as a leader got built over the years. It doesn’t come with a position – but with a lot of hard work! I worked hard to understand the various aspects of AIMA and its divisions, learning and keeping myself abreast of the various management trends, reading up a lot – these were my first steps to achieve confidence.

Another big obstacle was getting past the perception of being a token woman. Hard work and a lot of support from my AIMA Team helped me create a niche for myself in the Corporate world. It definitely wasn’t an easy task to do justice to your job while fighting to break stereotypes, but I think it was worth the while.

The experiences from these challenges and the learnings from them have helped me grow as a professional and become a more confident leader. Thanks to which that I am now a voice on several powerful Boards – many of which still remain male dominated bastions.

I hope I have managed to set precedence for young women professionals and aspiring female leaders to set their sights higher and turn their dreams into reality – with confidence.

Q: What lessons and experiences can you share as a female leader?

The secret word is Management – the operative word at AIMA! Management of your time – management of your team – and management of your resources.

As a rule, I never put off work for later. As someone said, “Procrastination is something best put off till tomorrow”.  If it can be done now – do it immediately and clear it out of the way – so you are ready for the next task. Starting early helps you stay a step ahead, reduces stress and puts you in a better position to make your numbers or meet your goals. In fact, I am known for the speed with which I answer emails to the extent that if someone doesn’t get an answer for an hour – they start wondering if I have actually received their mail!!

Learn to delegate. When you first start out, you tend to get used to doing everything yourself. But once in a leadership position, it is imperative to learn to let go and trust the team. They may not do it “your” way all the time but they do do it “their” way which is not always bad! I knew that if I didn’t let go and delegate – I would never be able to manage an Organisation like AIMA!

I now have a very strong team at AIMA who keep the wheels of the association moving forward, while I can focus on strategy and a lot of new areas where the organisation can get into. Above all – sustain and built relationships! As I keep telling my colleagues – an Association’s work is all about relationship

Q: What advice would you give to women who want to be like you?

You can do it!

A woman has far greater abilities to multi task – she is much more empathetic, fair and doesn’t believe in taking unnecessary risks!

All these qualities make for a great leader.

You already have the necessary ingredients – go ahead and cook up a storm!

Trust one’s abilities, instincts and believe in yourself.

Women also need to proactively seek out opportunities and openings. Women need to stop waiting for the proverbial knock on the door and proactively seek out opportunities for growth – roles where they can steer from the helm, projects where they can take the lead, raise their hands for leadership roles within the organizations, or even start their own enterprise – the list is endless.

Women make excellent leaders because they are intrinsically resilient, possess the capacity to dream big, question presumptions, are naturally empathetic and great motivators. The world today needs more women at the helm – so what are you waiting for?

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