By Panchalee Thakur

Manage India speaks to two women icons of the country, who are heading projects that are highly complex, prestigious, ambitious, and demanding. Not to forget in sectors that have traditionally been male dominated. They tell us their success mantras as professionals and project leaders.

One is pushing new horizons in an outer space program and the other is testing project management capabilities in an underground project. Both these women are managing projects that are not just highly challenging and complex but also of national importance, and hence are in constant public scrutiny.

Anuradha TK, director of the satellite communication program at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), is the first woman to occupy that position. The senior scientist has led the launch of communication satellites GSAT-9, GSAT-10, GSAT-12, CGAT-17, and GSAT-18 as the project director. Subsequently, she became program director for the geo sat program, which put her in charge of the making of all geo-synchronous satellites including communication, navigation, and weather applications. She is a leading name behind India’s highly prestigious and successful space research program.

Ashwini Bhide, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, is the managing director of Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation, the nodal agency responsible for implementing the Mumbai Metro Line 3 project. Ms. Bhide led a number of rural projects in her state Maharashtra, before moving to high profile infrastructure development projects in Mumbai.

In a country with poor representation of women in leadership roles, these women leaders offer a beacon of hope and inspiration to those fighting for gender diversity. According to a report by Grant Thornton, Women in Business: Beyond Policy to Progress, though the representation of women in leadership roles has improved from 17 percent in 2017 to 20 percent in 2018, India ranks fifth lowest in the world in this respect.

The report indicates that progress has been slow and superficial since many organizations are adopting a “tick in the diversity box” approach and not bringing in real change in policies and practices.

Ms. Anuradha, who has seen a big change in people’s mindsets since the time she joined ISRO in 1982, believes organizations must promote a gender-neutral environment in which men and women work as hard as each other and enjoy the same opportunities and privileges.

“When I joined ISRO, there were very few women in the organization and some departments didn’t like to take women. However, my department head was an open-minded person who gave me opportunities but not any special attention just because of me being a woman. I didn’t feel the need for any exemptions and worked 18-20 hours a day. I worked with male colleagues, without registering in my mind whether I’m working with a man or a woman,” says Ms. Anuradha.

However, she says some benefits are important to enable women to contribute to their full potential — such as a creche for young children and support groups among women colleagues.

Ms. Bhide believes that only when gender policies are well thought through will real equality take place. “The problem of gender balance does not exist at the entry level, but the problem is in retaining women. Hence organizations must think holistically on what needs to be done. Society expects women to balance their career with responsibilities at home, hence work-life balance becomes extremely important for them,” she says.

Women also need to do their part if they want to grow professionally. Ms. Anuradha advises women to invest time in building their career. “Make sure responsibilities at home are shared. That is the only way you can make yourself available for your job. Keep your skills updated; take professional development courses; network with your your peers,” she adds.

Ms. Bhide, who came into the administrative service as a ‘generalist’, constantly updates her knowledge and skills at work. She does not leave technical discussions to her engineering colleagues but instead asks questions during discussions without trying to hide her ignorance.

“Most of my learning has been on the job – keeping myself abreast of industry trends, learning technical aspects of projects from the team, picking up project management lessons from workshops and seminars, understanding nuances of project execution from site visits... My job is to ultimately assimilate all this knowledge so that I can adapt an engineering solution to the social context,” she explains.

She advises women to look at their career from the perspective of personality development and goal achievement. “To achieve that, create a support system, think pragmatically, and do not give up. And above all, do not be too harsh on yourself. Home is not your responsibility alone,” she says. She feels if women get their family’s support for a few critical years when they are bringing up young children, their career will self – propel after that.

Ms. Anuradha has seen the perceptions of her male colleagues towards women change over the years, mostly because of what they have seen women at work achieve. “Human beings have an infinite capacity to expand, whether it’s a woman developing her professional skills, or a man learning how to manage the home front,” she says.

To correct the gender imbalance in leadership roles, organizations need to look beyond regulatory requirements and take meaningful, pro-active steps to nurture an environment where women can grow professionally. Progress will also depend on how women invest time and effort to achieve their longterm career goals. The role of men at work and home will be equally important in supporting women as they reach for the sky.