Sandberg Revolution

04.04.134:45 AM ET

How Indian Women Are "Leaning In"

Business exec Naina Lal Kidwai—Harvard Business School’s first female Indian grad--on her own “Lean In” moments.

Women in India—indeed, women around the world—need a lamp to light the way forward. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg provides an incandescent guide for our journey.

Sheryl herself has been on a remarkable path to lead Facebook, one of the world’s most successful companies, and there is much in her story that will inspire both women and men. I found myself agreeing strongly with her call for more women to take on leadership roles in business and in society.

While cultures differ, the obstacles that exist between women and their aspirations are often terribly similar.  Family pressure, social customs, gender bias, and a shortage of role models are just some of the impediments almost all of us face. As a result, Sheryl writes, “the blunt truth is that men still run the world . . . This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, women’s voices are not heard equally.” This can and must change, both at a global level and also here in India.

I have been fortunate to build a successful career in the financial services industry, and it has at times been a difficult journey for me.  When I first set out, I didn’t think women would be where we are today.  Yet there is still much more that can be done.

I came from a very conventional North Indian family, and when I was growing up, women were not expected to work outside the home. Fortunately, my parents had aspirations for my sister and myself, possibly because we didn't have a brother. My parents instilled in us a belief in ourselves, a sense of commitment, and the principle of hard work.  My father was the head of an insurance company, so I was exposed to business from an early age.  He would often have business meetings at home, and I would also accompany him to his office.  I loved the look of his office and the feel of his leather swivel office chair.  I wanted to be a part of that world.

I had to fight to go to Harvard Business School.  I was twenty-three and my parents wanted me to wait a couple of years. There were few career role models for women when I was younger, so I looked at every guy around me and asked myself, “How am I any less?” I was smarter and better at my studies, so why couldn’t I do what they did?  Perhaps the more one is discriminated against, the stronger one becomes. The fact that I was the first Indian woman to graduate from Harvard Business School in 1982 was a gratifying personal achievement but a sad social comment.  Indian men had been going there for 30 years already!

When I entered the workforce, I started at a company that did not offer flexible working hours and had placed the washrooms for women in dark, dingy corners of the office that were often not on the same floor as where the women worked.  When I became a mother, I came under immense pressure to quit my job.  I constantly had people telling me that managing a home and a career was not expected of women.  I felt that if I stepped away, it would reflect on all women. I felt it was up to me to show that it could be done.   

Of course, it is difficult for individual women to stand alone.  One of the points that Sheryl makes that resonated very strongly with me is the need for women to come together as a community to help one another.  I witnessed this firsthand a few years ago at a factory in Tamil Nadu, near Chennai.  This factory makes undergarments, and the largely female workforce was drawn from the local village community.  In a few years, the cultural norms of the area began to change.  Usually a wife moves to her husband’s village when they marry, but here the men began moving to the women’s village because of the wives’ earning power. Changes such as these happen over time, but it proves that if we can train and educate women to be part of the workforce, then they will be empowered to create new social norms and bring their entrepreneurship to the fore. For every two women that “lean in” and make the move, another ten will follow.

At HSBC in India we have undertaken many initiatives to enhance diversity in the workplace and encourage more women to join us and stay the course. When I was the deputy CEO, I asked to head the diversity initiative. We set up task forces across the country—with groups of 10 or 15 people, both men and women—who met over three months and came up with ideas on how to make the workplace more diverse. This led to many wonderful ideas such as flexi-hours, sabbaticals, paternity leave, extended maternity leave, after-hours classes on yoga, parenting, and even salsa dancing. In addition to benefitting individuals, these measures helped women in the organization come together.

Our workforce was young and, at any given point, we had some mothers who would not come to work because they were breast-feeding their babies. No one had considered it before, but these women needed additional facilities at work to feel comfortable. It was a welcome accommodation and a good hygiene factor. These are among the reasons why HSBC is one of the most preferred employers in India today. Apart from the fact that we provide global careers, we’re also giving women the platform to rise to their true potential.

Of course, there continue to be challenges for women in India and indeed throughout the world, but I strongly believe that conditions and mindsets are changing.  heryl Sandberg’s willingness to speak out on these issues is truly heartening. Her important book is a positive call for change and should be read by women and men everywhere.

Adapted from the Indian version of Lean In.


Naina Lal Kidwai, Country Head India, Director HSBC Asia Pacific
President, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry