When Wing Commander Puja Thakur led the guard of honour for US President Barack Obama last Sunday, she marked an important milestone for women in the armed forces in this country. The publicity this ceremonial act prompted has been adulatory, which in itself has an important demonstration effect. As Thakur said, she hoped the occasion would be an “inspiration” for women. Thakur is part of Disha, the division that generates publicity material for the Air Force. Women are not allowed in combat roles in the Indian armed forces.
For that reason alone, Thakur’s new celebrity is overdone. The large number of women CEOs in banking in India has been commented upon for years, but it has not done much for greater financial inclusion of women and still less to reduce the number of women who die in childbirth every year, where India’s record is worse than neighbours such as Bangladesh.
Thakur’s cameo appearance would have been more significant had she been allowed the role that Major Mariam Al Mansouri played last year as an F-16 fighter pilot who was part of the bombing sorties on Islamic State targets in Syria. Major Al Mansouri is the first female fighter pilot for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was revealed that when US planes called in for air refuelling and heard a woman fighter pilot’s voice, there was a befuddled 20-second pause of “radio silence”, the UAE’s ambassador to the US proudly told TV stations there.
Last week, an International Labour Organisation survey showed that there is a wide gender gap in terms of differing salaries for the same work between men and women professionals in India; women are paid almost a quarter less than men in similar roles.
In part, this is because studies have found that senior (usually male) managers believe women will be less upset by smaller raises as compared to men. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella arguably betrayed this mindset when he was asked last October if women should be paid more and replied that they should have “faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.”
One of the telling anecdotes in Sheryl Sandberg’s terrific book Lean In is about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg advising Sandberg that she would be a better manager if she stopped trying to please everyone. It also called for women to be less diffident in staking their claims to larger roles – and quite literally, a place at the table.
For more than half my career, I have worked for women managers. For my first job in New York, I was interviewed by one just weeks before my visa ran out. She made me laugh out loud at that first meeting, even after I was caught in a stalled subway car and consequently arrived half an hour late and out of breath. A quarter century later, she insists on picking up the bill when we meet for lunch as if I were still a cub reporter.
In my first managerial role, I reported to a woman who allowed me to work at home one day a week just as she and the other female editors did. This caused a stir at work, but she was content to judge me on the writing and commissioning I did on that day and overlook the rather more significant fact that I did not have children to look after on the maid’s day off. It engendered a loyalty to her and the organisation that was completely disproportionate. In the Information Age, the fact that most of an organisation’s assets walk out of the door at the end of the day makes these trade-offs necessary.
These experiences made me believe that the best women managers are better than the best male managers. My less than empirically defensible thesis is that male managers had the right skills for the command and control mindsets of the Industrial Age. But in the Information Age, work requires managers who are able to command but are also endowed with the qualities of empathy and sympathy that the women I worked for had in abundance. Workplaces today require multitasking at levels that working women, who are also inevitably managing their homes, are better adapted to do. (Surveys of American families show that most husbands’ notion of doing their share of household chores is limited to taking out the garbage.)
My bias towards women managers started early because my mother ran a non-governmental organisation in the dysfunctional Left Front-led Calcutta of the seventies and eighties. She somehow juggled committee meetings with interrogations she faced before labour tribunals where ‘management’ could not have the benefit of counsel, while the union for staff running the organisation’s guest house had the advantage of a labour lawyer. And, she still managed to cook us our favourite south Indian and Continental dishes when we were home from boarding school. I look back at that time and contrast it with how I belabour over arranging a small dinner for friends every couple of weeks, and I can’t help but be overawed. In her spare time, my mother delivered one-liners she felt were necessary to keep her sons’ healthy egos in check. As a teenager, I made a puerile crack about a woman driver within her earshot. It drew a quick rebuke against growing up into the “most irritating kind of Indian male chauvinist: the kind who puts his mother on a pedestal and looks down on other women.”
Sandberg would have approved.