The Workplace: Patriarchy’s Weakest Link

Leave a comment

The Workplace: Patriarchy’s Weakest Link

“If men gave me one iota of hope by taking sick leave for childcare, then yes, we can think of mooting a proposal for paternity leave.”

While that may seem like a regressive quote coming from anyone, this was by Maneka Gandhi, India’s Minister for Women and Child Welfare.


When those entrusted to protect us, fail us

She was speaking shortly after a landmark move by her government, to increase maternity leave in the private sector from 12 to 26 weeks. India now is among just 42 countries where paid maternity leave exceeds 18 weeks.

If a minister, who is a woman, charged with making things better for women, did not expect much from men, to what extent can patriarchy be weakened?

There are three major areas where one broadly encounters patriarchy – the home, society and the workplace. Of these three areas, patriarchy appears to be weakest at the workplace. Not because it doesn’t exist, it absolutely does. The statistics are consistently sobering – declining gender ratios, disappearance of women as we go up the corporate ladder, income inequality, the list goes on.

Work spaces offer more control

To break patriarchy at home or society means taking on the weight of tradition and deep interconnected relationships between family members, neighbors, towns, cities etc. But in the workplace, power is concentrated with a few at the top making dents in patriarchal practices more possible. If leadership decides to break certain patriarchal norms, then it can establish a newer, progressive more aspirational culture.

Unlike other areas where effects of weakening patriarchy are harder to measure and slower to move, workplace metrics are easier to track and quicker to change. For instance, if we measured pushback against patriarchy by increase in the amount of paternity leave given by corporations, then there are some bright spots that stand out. Some global companies like Netflix, Google and Facebook have impressive paternity benefits that will change the way corporations will have to offer benefits to retain talent. Facebook extends its 4-month paid paternity leave globally, a benefit enjoyed by employees in India.

The paltry paternity benefits offered by the large swath of top Indian companies reflect the stodgy, bureaucratic, old-world, male-centric sentiment of Maneka Gandhi’s statement. That this is an unnecessary luxury. Reinforcing the belief that parenting is essentially a woman’s job and also the bigotry of low expectations from Indian men on these fronts.

Before 26 weeks maternity leave became legally mandated, this is how ‘maternity’ and ‘paternity’ leave stacked up against each other in some leading Indian companies,

Company Maternity Paternity
Nestle 6 months  5 days
Microsoft 6 months 2 weeks
HUL 6 months 1 month
Godrej 6 months 10 days
Bharti Airtel 22 weeks 5 days

Making paternity and maternity leave equal may not necessarily balance out gender roles in the short term. But it can be a giant step towards claiming that the workplace is interested in treating parenthood as a gender neutral issue.

Being the Change we want to see…at work

Federal (central) law in the US does not require companies to pay for the leave taken – both by mothers and fathers. Some progressive states like California have exceptions to this, but this is not US law. Many of the US companies that do an outstanding job are tech companies – as these young scions of the Silicon Valley competed with each other to set more progressive standards that would be more appealing to talent. They did not wait for the hand of Government to “liberate them” but chose instead to do what felt right and fair. It is easier to implement such landmark moves when ownership largely rests with founders and when they set that tone, they trigger a trend that sees more of their peers toe the redrawn line. The promise of a better, new world in some companies then cascades to others and into the homes of these workers and that’s a more tangible dent in the protectionist fort of patriarchy.

Language is a credible marker of our value systems and this too is seen in words employed by companies seen as younger, more modern, desirable work spaces. They offer gender neutral ‘parenting benefits’ – not maternity or paternity benefits. Every individual has more or less an equal chance of being a parent. This ensures that all employees are enabled by the workforce to be a ‘parent’. This in turn normalizes the idea that parenting is the responsibility of both men and women. While this alone won’t magically accomplish the ideal of equality, it is a giant step in the right direction .

Just because organizations offer equal paternity benefits doesn’t mean that men and women will avail of them equally the moment such benefits are available. It is likely that men will return to work sooner than women. Social norms of the “boys club behavior” will stigmatize men who take paternity leave as less”manly” and more “whipped.” But over time, this will have far reaching consequences.

The other potential positive effect of equal parenting benefits is not just shifting the parenting load to be more equitable between men and women, but also some reduction in gender bias when it comes to hiring. Today, the huge disparity in maternity versus paternity benefits, gives pause to hiring managers. All things being equal, it seems like a “better business decision” to hire a man, especially if the woman is aged 20-35 years. The belief, even among women managers, that female employees will pose a challenge to team staffing because they are likely to go on maternity leave makes them lean towards hiring men. But if parenting benefits are equal, then it is equally likely that a man will also be on leave for 6 months at some stage.

If gender equality has to be achieved practically, we need powerful nudges to incentivize changes in the way men behave. Gender equality is no more a women’s issue than ivory ban is an elephant’s issue. It is also very much a men’s issue.

Rather than wait for the more established, often orthodox structures of government or society to force our collective hands to “do the right thing,” more workplaces could potentially establish a new dawn and culture without having to wait for the decades that it takes for generational change to occur.

While it’s easy to be dismissive of efforts to break down established norms and build more equitable spaces, it’s harder to actually make changes in society that institute positive change. The good thing about work cultures is that a simple policy change can accomplish more change than a bloody revolution, with significantly less violence and pushback.

A legacy technology company in Bangalore recently set aside a day for LGBT support, as part of a global Pride initiative. Many of the more orthodox, middle class, heteronormative engineers couldn’t fully understand why they had to stand there with rainbow images and signs. Especially when they would much rather just finish their quota of coding for the day and drag themselves back home through the punishing, stagnant traffic. But when the policy and its intent was explained to them, they were accepting of these “western” norms. Something that would be much harder and slower to accomplish at the home or in a country where Section 377 still holds.

In the workplace, perhaps because we can opt in and out of these worlds, the push from tradition to modernity feels less personal even while changing how we view the world. For those of us who desire more progressive and equitable worlds and find the real world sorely lacking, this is an easier and quicker way to access that end.

Why Communism makes a good Capitalist better.

Leave a comment

Why Communism makes a good Capitalist better.

Jayaprakash (JP) runs a phenomenally successful modular kitchen store in Trivandrum. He’s an unassuming, gentle soul who could pass off as a government servant in any small town. He runs his highly profitable store with a 25% profit margin on a turnover of about 15 crores. All this from his modest 850 sq.ft empire.

JP is a simple man, with a large heart and an astute business sensibility. At the heart of his success lies his fanatic focus on customer centricity, driven with a zealous purpose. Beneath his calm and humble exterior lies a simmering revolutionary – one who believes he is fighting for the right of his customers. Their right to make the correct choices; to get value for what they pay for; to seek something that makes their lives better.

His enemies, in this world, are the big corporation and unorganized local suppliers. He sees them as operating from a self-centered “push” perspective. One that focuses on selling without understanding customers.

He had the zeal of a communist who was fighting bourgeois zamindars. A righteous cause that would secure the rights of his comrades.

JP spends a lot of time observing and chatting with his customers. Not because he has to but because he knows no other way. He could invest a whole day trying to understand how a lady operates her kitchen – assessing the exact height that makes her comfortable, noting if she is right or left handed, determining which appliances she uses most, footnoting the role of her husband in the kitchen etc. This is followed by a customized solution that suits their need and budget with a lifetime guarantee. This commands a 30% premium that his customers are willing to pay for and endorse his brand. A commitment he earns not because he pushes modular stock, but because he starts by understanding his customers’ pain points.

This sense of purpose has nurtured a highly committed, professionally run organization that large corporations would struggle to match forcing them to see him as an ally rather than competition. It is a powerful position from where he influences them to become more customer-centric .

Every person who joins JP’s Agnikone transforms to a more sensitive and competent professional, in stark contrast to the state’s work-shirking stereotype. The kitchen in an average Indian home is a mission-critical organ that has the power to arrest the functioning of the entire unit, if something were to go wrong.

For anyone who has had to call a service number, punch through multi-lingual recorded messages, get through to a human voice, have them misunderstand your concerns and eventually, usually after more calls and yelling, get a service person whose competence is questionable – the pain of dealing with after sales service is real and personal. In remarkable contrast, JP’s team understands how critical it is to fix what’s broken in the kitchen that he orchestrated and ensure that a team member responds promptly and gets the space operational again in as quickly as just half an hour. JP has imbibed in his army the identity of a charged crusader rather than a perfunctory salesperson.

Multiple entrepreneurs from Kerala like Santha Paint House, Wonderla and Tierra Foods follow a similar philosophy. Marinated in a communist milieu, the mindless pursuit of money is not admired, respected or even considered meaningful. This often prevents people from becoming businessmen. However, there is this group of people who have used this same philosophy of not pursuing this mindless quest for money, to fuel powerful businesses amped by what feels like a cause. In their minds, their enterprise is not just another business. It is community service.

By conducting business in an enlightened way that helps all stakeholders, they become a respected force within the society. More importantly, it assuages the guilt (if any) of making money.

This approach is very different from a typical business, which first starts with the purpose of making money and market pressures force it to do the right things. Both may eventually have similar results, but the starting points differ and they also have different souls.

A world that sees either Capitalism or Communism in their darkest, most extreme and absolute forms is inherently limited. When capitalism borrows a community-centered, ground up approach from communism, it simply makes for better outcomes . It makes for entities that are more sustainable and maximising shareholder wealth is not the only concern. Being responsible for the people it serves and the community it operates in is equally important. This could be the most important ingredient to generate sustained profits and be continually relevant.

JP travels the world scouring for best practices to improve his business while he continues to stay in his 650 sq.ft home. He is the community leader who sees business as a privilege and that it’s his dharma to serve the people.


Aasmani Sultani

Leave a comment
Chasing Indigo

Chasing Indigo : Part 2 of 5

Aasmani Sultani

It was in 2015 that the idea of Chasing Indigo came from visits to Ajrakhpur (Kutch) and conversations we had with master craftsman, Dr. Ismail Khatri and his son Sufiyan.  The Khatris have been involved with the craft for over 2500 years and were among the earliest people to work on the color Indigo, an elusive muse that would demand commitment from generations of men. Dr. Ismail Khatri had persevered to have some control in a game that seemed to confound most others.

The magic of Ajrakh comes from its brilliant geometrical patterns and colours that most people associate with the craft. Dr. Khatri spoke to us about the colours used in Ajrakh and the process to make it.

There was madder red that came from the roots of the madder plant. Iron filings and jaggery that yielded black. But it was Indigo that challenged the craftsmen the most and captured the essence of Ajrakh. Neither extraction nor dyeing were straightforward. The complex, unpredictable art of turning the green leaves of a plant into a deep dark blue involved picking the leaves at the right time and then using specific ingredients and managing vat temperature to coax the blue out of the dark yellowish green liquid within it.  Even to Dr.Khatri,  Indigo was a truly elusive color.

‘Aasmani Sultani’, was the metaphor he used to describe Indigo.
Aasmani – as unpredictable as rain in a desert land like Kutch.
Sultani – as capricious as an emperor’s state of mind.

The metaphor of ‘Aasmani Sultani’ was irresistible and simply demanded that we chase Indigo for ‘Color Journeys’

Color Journey – Season 5

Leave a comment
Chasing Indigo

Chasing Indigo : Part 1 of 5

Color Journey – Season 5

“Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.”  – Claude Monet

For some, the subject of color is pretty black and white. Anything beyond what’s in a child’s crayon box serves little purpose. Even that is excessive.

For most of us, we see more. We delight in rainbows and joyful spectral shades in the middle. Especially when these life enriching hues grace our clothes, homes, food, surroundings and the objects we love.

For a passionate few, color is a far deeper, spiritual and demanding life pursuit. Something that calls into play more than just the visual sense. To truly experience the splendour and possibilities of colors, one needs to go beyond its technical and practical aspects and journey unhindered into its very soul.

For five years now Asian Paints has been exploring color through diverse Indian landscapes like Varkala (Kerala) and Rann of Kutch (Gujarat); or through Indian art forms like Pattachitra (Odisha) and Channapatna (Karnataka) toys.

This annual initiative is called Color Journey and is now in its fifth season.
Asian Paints Colour Journey

In Season 5, this routine exploration took a different turn.  Centre of Gravity along with Asian Paints shifted their focus from colors that are the highlights at various Indian destinations, to literally tracking the journey of a single color.

Our experience told us that Indigo with its rich history and resurgent present, had many stories to tell.

That’s the inspiration we craved.
That’s the story we needed.
That’s the color we chased.   

Humanizing the Company Vision

Leave a comment
Most Read

Humanizing the Company Vision

Why crafting the vision statement needs human-centered thinking

There have been volumes of work published around the idea of vision, mission and values – the fundamental building blocks of any organization. The most influential of these are the works of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their seminal work – Built to Last and its prequel Good to Great. Over the years cynics and critics alike, have used the performance of some of the ‘star’ companies outlined in these books to question the relevance and the value of these concepts in today’s times. Regardless, these principles still hold weight today and a lot of leadership time is spent on the enquiry, articulation and communication of concepts like ‘vision and values’ in their organizations.

This article looks at some of the learning my colleagues and I have had while working with the leadership of various companies, in helping them evolve and articulate their vision and values. Since the frameworks used by many of these companies for articulating their ‘vision and values’ has been from Built to Last, I have used the same here as well. But this could apply to the idea of vision, mission, values and the process by which companies arrive at them in general.


A few years ago, one of India’s leading Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) players invited us to help them articulate their vision and values. In our internal brainstorming process, one of my colleagues made a startling assertion that all the work we had done with our clients thus far in evolving their vision and values haven’t been really effective. Over the next few days, we sat around rereflecting on what he said, and relooking at the work we had done with each of those clients. Some of the thoughts that I am sharing here have emerged from discussions with leaders and employees of the companies we consult with, as much as it has come from the outcome of these internal deliberations.

At the heart of the issue was the fact that, in most organizations despite all good intentions, concepts like vision and values are still entangled in the world of corporate bureaucracy. The method of arriving at them, the language employed, the emotional space from where it is created, and the politics involved in it, all make it seem more like a management practice, and a business imperative, rather than an act of passionate human endeavor.

There is a need to make the vision, and the process of arriving at it more human. Where these concepts have been created with emotional honesty, complemented by intellectual rigor, it has worked like magic.

Let’s look at two important aspects in evolving a core purpose that is more human-centric.

1. Evoke the feelings first. Wordsmithing and Articulation comes later.

Built to Last principles had established the need for an organization to have a core purpose (the organization’s reason for existence beyond making money, something that is like a guiding star on the horizon – forever pursued but never reached). In our experience, arriving at the core purpose has become more of an exercise in thinking rather than feeling. An intellectual consensus- building event rather than an emotional journey into evoking a shared meaning and future. This is the stuff of workshops and breakouts,  rather than the truth in open conversations and deep listening. The work done by Clotaire Rapaille (author of The Culture Code) has also helped us in some of these journeys. We were recently involved in facilitating a visioning exercise for a large Indian conglomerate that was entering the real estate business. A group of senior executives including the CEO and Presidents sat on the floor of a beautiful house overlooking a beach in what would pass  as ‘more than casual’ attire. After a while of general ‘chit chat’, we got them to sit around in a circle, close their eyes and journey back into their past to evoke the earliest and the deepest memories of their childhood homes. As each person started to talk about the memory of their homes, with their eyes closed, powerful emotions were brought to the fore – some beautiful and magical, some poignant and sad. The honesty of the session, the rawness of the emotions, the vulnerability involved in the process, and the juxtaposition of those experiences with the cold and clinical way homes are built and sold today – more as an assortment of amenities packaged with superficial themes of nature, happiness etc. led to the creation of a powerful vision. One that was felt deeply first, and then articulated later. One that was birthed from shared experiences, rather than building alignment post facto. One that came from powerful human interactions as against abstract management tools and frameworks. The actual word-crafting of it happened weeks later. This is in direct contrast to routine workshops on visioning, where a lot of effort is put into articulation and ensuring that this articulated vision represents the worldviews of all the ‘people who hold positions of power or influence’. No wonder many of them feel more anti-septic and lackluster.

2. Core Purpose statement vs. Core Purpose

Most vision statements can virtually nag you with their length and their assortment of adjectives, an outcome of pleasing multiple stakeholders. A rare few are pithy and inspirational. All of them however claim to be honest. But that is far from the truth, and many of them risk being unintentionally dishonest. Where does that come from, and what can be done about it? The risk of being seen as dishonest comes from the inherent ‘larger than life’ feel that core purpose statements have. When a company communicates its purpose, without internalizing the relentlessness with which it will pursue the purpose, employees not only get cynical but also start attributing dishonesty to the vision.

Let’s take the case of a luggage manufacturing company, which articulated its core purpose as “make travel a joyful and liberating experience”. Apart from some minor innovations to their core product – luggage, it was pretty much business as usual. A long-time employee remarked in one of the meetings, “I don’t think I have made anyone’s travel, a joyful and liberating experience and I have been here for a while. I don’t think it is going to change dramatically either in the near future”. It was just a matter of time before the core purpose statement became just that – a mere core purpose statement. And maybe a little more – a dishonest core purpose statement.

The idea of abstracting a core purpose statement to a collective whole, rather than making it personal and human to everyone, is surely a way to see the dishonesty involved in the core purpose. We need to ask the question – Is this core purpose really our reason for existence? If it were so, how would we behave every day? What is important and what is expedient? Would it really hurt us emotionally if we did not make progress, even if we were successful in business terms?

To conclude, companies are collectives of human beings and visions are human endeavors. Distorting that with complicated management thinking, language and abstractions is a recipe to a Kafkaesque corporate world. The need to humanize how we evolve and articulate an organization’s vision is imperative and not just food for thought. Otherwise our vision and values become fodder for cynicism and lampooning by employees. Not the firm guiding lights that they were intended to be.

This article was first published on December 7, 2016 on the blog of Yale School of Management.