Category Archives: Company Culture

Catch-22: When I Want to Take Charge but They Want Me to Take Care

What would you do if someone called you a b—– for doing your job very well?

At a recently concluded workshop for women leaders, one young woman sought me out for some advice. She is the first woman in a sales role in a male dominated industry and her challenge was: “I am a top performer in a Sales role, exceed my targets always, and am on the fast track program for rising leaders. But I face heckling from my team that I am too aggressive, pushy etc. I also heard that my peers pass unsavory remarks, urging my team to be ‘careful’ with me, or move over to other teams. I am worried that I don’t enjoy the kind of rapport or respect my (male) peers have with their team.”

This isn’t unusual. When I posted this challenge in our network of women leaders across industries, there was a chorus of virtual head nodding!

“In my role, I have to drive for results and deal with problems head on – but I was so astounded when I heard that my team doesn’t like me because I’m too ‘assertive’.”

“I am very good with pushing my way through challenges, but I often hear comments like ‘bullish’, ‘aggressive’ and they are not said as a strength!”

“I was shocked to see that the engagement survey feedback from my team said I am ‘Too pushy’, ‘Too assertive’, ‘Needs to tone down’.”

Assertive: adj. Having or showing a confident and forceful personality.

When asked to rate women and men leaders on some key aspects of behavior, senior-level executives in the United States ascribed ‘Taking Care’ skills to women and ‘Taking Charge’ skills to men.

If a woman is assertive, she is:

1.      Trying too hard to adopt  masculine behaviors

2.      Not liked by colleagues and subordinates

If a woman is not assertive and adopts traditionally feminine behaviors, she is:

1.      Liked by everyone

2.      But not perceived as ready for a leadership role

No wonder most of the coaching assignment requests I receive for middle management women is either that they are ‘too soft’ or ‘too aggressive’!

In such a catch-22 situation many women tend to create an internal glass ceiling for themselves and lean back in their careers rather than face the repercussions of these perceptions.

Reconciling and managing this ‘double bind’ is a key challenge that coaches and managers have to facilitate in women leaders to enable them to make the leap to the next level.

Some experiences shared by women who have been there:

a)     In a sales head role, figured out the toughest & biggest calls the team had: went all out and helped them close it on field.

b)     Played devil’s advocate to help them make quality proposals/presentations.

c)      Joined them for tea breaks and other opportunities to build rapport.

d)     Showed them how my aggression helped convince management for a better portion of the pie when it came to incentives.

e)     Fought tooth and nail for their promotion & hikes.

Managers can play a big role too, in setting these perceptions right; I remember one manager correcting a peer “I see her as passionate about her work and extremely competent, not aggressive!”

The role of the organization too, in creating an inclusive culture that responds positively to ‘masculine behaviors’ manifested by women leaders, cannot be over stated.

In truly inclusive workplaces, all employees, irrespective of gender, are able to leverage both masculine & feminine behaviors without having to face a backlash.

How do you deal with this Catch 22, as a woman leader? How do you enable the women in your teams/organizations to traverse this?



Kalpana Tatavarti is Founder of Parity Consulting & Training pvt ltd, a boutique firm focused on accelerating women leadership.

Read more of her articles at

Too Tall For A Groom


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

In the groups that I run for building career skills in women, one of the sessions, focuses on mental models that limit the retention and growth of female talent in the workplaces. Some of these mental models are individually held by women, that they are able to work through & challenge.

But the killer mental models that stump me and are the most difficult to break, are the ones that are held by individuals, families, communities & societies.

Too Tall For A Groom

One such is what I call the ‘Too Tall For a Groom’ mental model.

A 32 year old female leader in Mumbai “My parents told me when I got a promotion – ‘its already difficult to find you a groom, if you go on getting so many promotions and qualifications, how will we ever be able to find a groom for you?’ ”

A 31 year old friend’s daughter who is an IIT, MBA working with a large Consulting group “I told my mother to find me a guy who is better qualified than me, earning more than me and in a higher position than me”

My uncle about his 5 ft 9 inch daughter “She is growing so tall! Won’t be able to find a groom for her who is taller!”

Apparently, one might wonder what the last statement has to do with the first two; if you dig deeper you will see the consistent message:

Don’t be bigger than your husband; don’t be better than your male colleague; don’t be so tall.

How is this connected to career skills, retention & growth of female talent?

a)Internalized by women themselves, this results in them:

  • Unconsciously (and many times consciously) limiting their potential, not building skills & competencies for senior roles or slow pedaling their careers to fit into this model
  • Taking a secondary position/not claiming their spaces in interpersonal contexts (or not Sitting at The Table, as Sheryl Sandberg would say)
  • Being apologetic about their power (Remember the telecom ad where the female boss is almost begging her report, who happens to be her husband, to complete some work?)
  • Not choosing to be in roles that have ‘power’ (read finance, balance sheet, P&L) but only support roles; it is no surprise that in India a majority of working women are in staff functions!

b)Internalized by men this results in:

  • Discomfort around ‘powerful’ women
  • Assigning ‘household’ activities to women (note taking, event organization etc)
  • Disparaging of commitment to work “you should be looking after your family”

No wonder the latest study by Mckinsey, Women in the Workplace, states that societal mindsets play a big role in retention & growth of female talent in the workplaces!

Each of us, men and women have to challenge our mental models.

Ladies & Gentlemen, let us all Stand Tall together… women don’t have to stoop to conquer!

The Speed Bump in the Middle of the Road


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

…Conversations with Middle Management on Gender Inclusion

As we walk hand in hand with organizations to increase gender diversity and create inclusive workplaces, we find that one of the primary reasons organizational efforts are scuppered, is lack of middle management buy in and commitment. There is often a disconnect between leadership commitment/ organization agenda and the mid level leaders who have to execute the agenda at ground level.

This is not to say, however, that it is intentional.

What we hear in the conversations on gender inclusion, in our workshops with middle managers on sensitization, is typically resistance and skepticism :


“Why do we need women in the workplaces anyway?”

“Are we expected to compromise on quality/competence to fill our diversity numbers?”

“Opportunities are available for all employees who want to grow. Why separate/special treatment for women?”

“If women are competent they will definitely grow; if they are not rising to the top it probably means they are not competent enough.”

“We have been doing very well without a diversity strategy & agenda. Why do we need it now? We have been a highly profitable company always… what’s the need to change now?”

“I am not letting her get to the next level, I need my diversity numbers in this team.”

“Staying or leaving is a woman’s personal decision, why should I get into it?”

The role of middle management in the Diversity and Inclusion journey cannot be overstated. Middle Management has to role model inclusive behaviors to lead the cultural milieu required for inclusion and take equitable decisions by being aware of their own unconscious biases that could be at play.

To do this, they have to be convinced of the gender diversity & inclusion agenda.

I believe that if we approach this appropriately, we can harness the support and commitment of this critical layer in the system that could well be the lynchpin on the journey.


Here are a few pointers that we have seen working well:

  1. Collect and share data/metrics: Presenting data & metrics specific to the organization such as percentage of female representation at different layers of the organization, attrition rates at specific layers as well as quantitative/qualitative data from Focus groups, exit interviews makes the challenges real and enables the managers to view this as a business problem that has to be addressed. I have found it especially powerful to include qualitative comments.
  2. Make the Business case specific to industry and tie it to the organizational goals: Many times the messaging for this tends to be very confused; is this a moral issue? Human rights issue? Business issue? The biggest concern for this layer in the organization is their business results, hence we need to tie the agenda to this context. Why is gender diversity important for our organization at this stage in our growth? For the customers we are servicing? For the markets we are entering and new products we want to launch? This can be by far the strongest variable that can impact the Manager’s commitment.
  3. Share the strengths of gender diversity at a granular level: I call this ‘Strengths Based Diversity’. We need to share real time stories on how the different strengths women bring to the table play out…like the CEO at a factory shared how the entire stance of the union changed from confrontational to collaborative when they brought in a woman HR head; or the business head of customer services who pointed out how women are able to deflect conflict. One organization has launched a study to identify how & why mixed gender teams are performing…of course the risk of stereotyping is inherent in this process, but it makes the gender diversity agenda more believably valuable to middle management.
  4. Involve them in the target setting process: Setting Targets or not is a choice that organizations have to make; in most cases ‘targets’ are a language managers understand but making sure the targets are a signpost rather than a gun at their heads is critical. Besides, involving them in the target setting process by giving due consideration to their unique business or team makes the targets more realistic and achievable.
  5. Help them understand that gender inclusion means responding to differential needs NOT making concessions: The positioning needs to be clearly about employee engagement. Different groups of employees have different needs, and if they have to be engaged and performing optimally, we need give due consideration to their differential needs.
  6. Provide them with the skills required for gender inclusion: I remember one manager revealing (courageously!) “I don’t know how to build rapport with female employees the way I can build with male employees.” We have to understand that most leaders have not had the experience of working with women in the workplaces. They have to be equipped with the skills of mentoring and coaching women leaders taking into account the socio-cultural context.

Clearly, this is a long term process of building attitudes, knowledge and skills in the middle management but I believe if it is well thought out and planned, it can be integrated into the existing organizational processes.

More importantly it will ensure that the gender diversity agenda is executed with more zeal, commitment and rigor!

Five Reasons Gender Diversity Efforts Stumble and What You Can Do About It


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

Most organizations in India today have launched some form or the other of gender diversity initiatives. Primarily driven by the war for talent, they are making consistent efforts to increase their gender diversity ratios. It is clear everyone is on a learning curve, a very steep learning curve at that. But some organizations are getting it more right than the others; I hope to share here the top reasons why gender diversity efforts stumble and what can be done to address them.

Five Reasons Gender Diversity

1) Visible leadership commitment: Every major transformational agenda has to have strong leadership commitment. As far as the Gender Diversity agenda goes, I find leadership commitment is almost always a given. Where I see diversity efforts stumbling is when this commitment is not visible, especially considering gender can evoke potent reactions.

  •  Articulate the intent at different fora
  •  Have senior leaders participate in & support gender diversity initiatives
  •  Rope in senior business leaders into the diversity council
  •  Ensure the sponsor of the initiatives is a senior business leader

2) Middle Managers Buy in: Managers have the biggest role to play in both bringing in diversity and creating inclusion. They are also the hardest to convince. In most cases the mandate comes from the top, and they reluctantly adhere to it. It doesn’t work. From “I have filled my diversity quota”, to “She is a diversity candidate” it only results in working against the very intent of the agenda.

  •  Include them in the diversity journey from the beginning
  •  Create a momentum among Managers by calling for diversity ambassadors, collecting & sharing stories of inclusion, and nominating awards for inclusion
  •  Provide a forum for them to safely surface & air their ‘politically incorrect’ concerns (See my forthcoming blog on ‘Conversations on Gender Inclusion’ which delves into this further.)

3) Culture & Language of inclusion: The MD of a large FMCG major shared how thru consistent diversity efforts they were able to bring in 800 women executives in a year. Within 6 months, however, they lost almost 600 of them. Most organizations in their eagerness to create a diverse organization, fail to understand the importance of the Inclusion journey. Without a culture of inclusion, diversity will just be churned out of the system.

  •  Set policies & processes that support the agenda before the diversity efforts begin
  •  Equip leaders & employees with the right language to create inclusion by facilitating conversations about the value of differences
  •  Enable employees to understand that inclusion manifests in behaviors that each one of them can commit to
  •  Do a culture & policy audit to assess the inclusion climate in your organization

4) Systemic biases: Unconscious biases held in the mindsets of Managers, such as women’s commitment to careers, prevailing paradigms of Leadership Competencies/behaviors, and equating 24/7 availability to commitment, are also critical factors that pull against the inclusion agenda. Most women tend to internalize gender socialization messages, which act as an Internal Glass Ceiling. (See my forthcoming blog on ‘The Good Women’ which delves into this further.)

  •  Sensitize managers on unconscious biases
  •  Audit your leadership competencies to check if they are inclusive of different styles of leadership
  •  Provide self awareness training for women to relook at their mental models & career skills training

5) The myth of ‘Best Practices’: Again, more from an eagerness to get it just right, there is often a scramble to cut and paste what is working well in other organizations. The latest rage is Manager Sensitization workshops; it is not uncommon to have a clueless bunch of managers sitting through the session with little context of why they are there. There are several stages to both the Diversity and Inclusion journeys, each with their own opportunities and challenges. Jumping the stage results in defeating the entire purpose and can have more detrimental effects than not embarking on the journey itself.

  •  Assess your own state of inclusion
  •  Understand and articulate the need & driver for the agenda
  •  Study the steps involved in the journey and pick what is necessary for your context carefully

Gender Diversity & Inclusion journeys are ridden with many pebbles on the path. Tread with care.

The G Word!


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

Gender! I am willing to bet this ranks high on the list of controversial words of our century. And with the UN declaring that we need to rope women into the workplaces if we are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, it has become increasingly critical and controversial in recent years.

I live bang in the middle of this dichotomy. My work is focused on creating inclusive workplaces. With gender being the biggest inclusion agenda for most organizations, I have been privy to some of the most challenging mindsets surrounding gender, which both men and women have internalized.

The G word!

The Gender division of roles, man as breadwinner and woman as caregiver, is so deeply entrenched in our mindsets, that a whole range of choices & decisions are impacted… in the choices women make about their ‘personal lives’ and ‘professional’ lives; and also in the choices men make available for themselves in their careers.

I come face to face with how these mindsets are limiting for gender-balanced workplaces. But they are so subtle and so nuanced that surfacing and discussing them is challenging.

I am convinced that it is imperative for women to be part of the economic activity of the world. With increasing research, we know now, that gender balanced workplaces make economic sense. Research by Mckinsey, Catalyst and a host of other bodies has shown that “the companies where women are most strongly represented at board or top-management levels are also the companies that perform best.”

India ranks a low 124 out of 136 nations on women’s economic participation. Interestingly, the number of women enrolling in college has grown many times but has not resulted in an equivalent increase in women in the workforce. One study estimates that India’s GDP can grow by more than a quarter if we can bring gender balance into the workplaces. We have to bring and keep women in the workplaces.

And ‘gender’ which defines what a man should be and what a woman should be, has to be de-constructed if this has to happen. IN the hundreds of groups of women and managers (men and woman) that I have worked with, I have come to realize that the work that we do is really about changing mindsets…and changing society.

It is necessary work.

Throughout this blog we will capture and discuss the experiences of men and women in this inclusion journey.

We need to have these conversations if societies, and organizations as microcosms of societies, are to adapt and achieve balanced economic growth.

As we move forward with this blog, are there any topics within gender inclusion that you would like us to pay particular attention to?

What do you believe are the most pertinent issues when discussing gender balanced work places?

Intentional Inclusion


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

Study after study has shown how heterogeneous teams are more productive than homogenous teams.  Study after study has also shown how heterogeneous teams are more unproductive than homogeneous teamsSo what is the contradiction? The answer to the contradiction lies in the difference between diversity and inclusion, or more specifically, intentional inclusion.

Diversity is not a choice anymore. We are surrounded by diversity in every form. In a global workplace we are faced with diversity all the time: cultural, regional, gender, generational.

But differences create conflict. As humans, with vestiges of our animal heritage, we are constantly associating the new and the unknown to the foe. Differences also threaten our sense of self. So yes, diversity creates conflict and can hamper productivity.

So what’s the answer? Inclusion. Intentional Inclusion.

Intentional Inclusion

It requires effort and conscious behavioral choices. For as Joe Gerstandt says, “If you do not intentionally, deliberately and proactively include, you will unintentionally exclude”.

Intentional Inclusion is first and foremost an individual journey.

This individual journey needs us to introspect on the stereotypes and unconscious biases we might hold. I still remember a client who mentioned that she had a team member from a minority community and her client claimed discomfort in dealing with him! The stereotypes and unconscious biases I hold impact the careers of others, especially when I am in a position of power.

Surfacing my unconscious biases and engaging in behaviors of intentional inclusion can create a workplace that provides equal opportunities for all groups.

At the next level, it requires conscious behavioral choices: Do I actively seek people different from me? How do I respond to different thoughts/views? How do I work with differing priorities? Each and every one of us has a responsibility to become comfortable with the ‘different’ person.

As a Manager, do I have checks and balances to counter my own preferences for a certain kind of team member?

I still remember my very first Manager, who used to actively prod the quieter members in a meeting, and listen respectfully to even contradictory opinions. I was barely 20 and we were designing a new pack for a top selling product; I had a very ‘different’ take on the color scheme and recall how he stopped to let me explain the thinking behind it. Not surprisingly, he had the most creative people vying to be part of his team.

Or even the Manager, who on seeing some members of his team being isolated, taking active steps to include them both in formal and informal gatherings.

For diversity to thrive, intentional inclusion is imperative.

As Ayn Rand would say “No contradiction!”.

How do you act when faced with diversity?

Do you join groups that are different?

Do you seek people who are different from you? 

What are some short-term and long-term strategies you can develop to be more inclusive?

A CEO And A Woman


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

I recently attended a CEO forum. As usual there were only a handful of women, which is certainly an improvement from over a decade ago. As I was talking to some of them, the discussion veered around this thing called ‘Woman CEO’.

A CEO is a CEO, woman or man. You run a business, you take tough calls and at the end of the day you have to answer to your shareholders and your board. So why do we have so many awards for women entrepreneurs and women leaders? Why do we have to ‘reduce’ leadership to gender? I’ll admit that I find this annoying sometimes. If anyone had focused the attention on my gender, even five years ago, I would probably have taken them to task.

But I have come to think differently in the last couple of years.

When I work with women at middle levels, one of the key motivators for them, I realize, is seeing women at the top. More and more of them are asking, “Can I do it?” Studies now reveal that Indian women especially report very high levels of aspiration. But a key mindset that seems to be pulling them back is a fear of a tradeoff, ‘this or that’: “If I take the next level, my personal life will get neglected and be affected adversely”.

A CEO and a Woman

But when they see women at the top, effectively straddling the two roles, there is an empowering sense of “I can do it too.”

And in those times when they are about to give up, this can make them persevere. I have heard this from women in my workshops, time and again, especially from women at that vulnerable age group of 26 to 36, when the ‘leaking pipeline’ occurs.

I now see this as a responsibility. Women leaders who choose to mentor other women can be especially effective because they can understand the unique challenges that women face in the workplace, as well as help them understand the unique advantages woman have as leaders.


With so few woman leaders, it is clear that gender stereotypes flourish today with leadership still clearly thought of in a ‘male’ paradigm. If we are to break these stereotypes, we need more women at the top embracing and celebrating their gender.

Besides which, a woman’s commitment to work is still perceived as competing with her ‘family responsibilities’. Frequently referred to as the ‘mommy penalty’ studies have shown that women without children are viewed as more dedicated/committed to their careers than women with children.

It is time for women who have achieved greater success outside the home, to claim their gender. But perhaps we need to rephrase a little:

From ‘I am a woman CEO’ to …

‘I am a CEO and I am a woman’; ‘I am a leader and I am a Woman’.

I now say this all the time. Do you?

Women, what are some other ways you feel that women leaders in your organization can give back and help you to advance your career?

Woman… Don’t Become a Man


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

At a recent panel discussion on women leadership, one of the panelists remarked: “One message I would like to give to women leaders is, don’t become like a man. I find women who grow to the top layers of the organization become more male than the men themselves”.

I have continued to mull this statement over, as many of the managers and women I coach report receiving similar feedback, sometimes in the form of a sly remark, or sometimes even as direct feedback. Women ask me ‘What does it really mean to be not a man’? What should I be doing more of and less of?’.

I like to think this means that organizations are willing to appreciate that women are different and they should stay different. Unfortunately, when I dig deeper that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Leadership requires one to exhibit behaviors of drive, focus, directness and many more such ‘masculine’ behaviors, along side ‘feminine’ behaviors of collaboration, empathy, and sensitivity. Unfortunately ‘masculine’ is associated more with men and ‘feminine’ more with women. As long as women express ‘feminine’ behaviors all is fine. At senior layers one needs to exhibit  the ‘masculine’ behaviors too.

Woman Don't Become A Man


And then begins the challenge.

So many women have expressed to me the fine line they feel they need to walk between being a woman and being a ‘leader’ saying ‘I have to wear a mask’, ‘People are not able to handle my directness’, or ‘Just because I am a woman, I am expected to be soft and caring’.  Very often, this progresses to the women being tagged as ‘too strong’, ‘very abrasive’, ‘too aggressive’ or even sometimes derogatory remarks.

A young woman once told me how she heard some of her team members discuss a very senior woman leader in their organization. ‘If moving to senior roles means I will also have these remarks made about me, I had rather not aspire for leadership roles’.

How this impacts the gender balance agenda is the deeper question.

Catalyst captures this in their study ‘Double Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if you do, doomed if you Don’t’.

The report found that women leaders are either perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both. This impacts the leadership pipeline for women. It discourages women from being ambitions and encourages them to settle for mid-level positions, resulting in a dry pipeline in terms of women’s leadership.

Very subtly a choice is made.

So what is the solution then?

At an individual level, of course, it is important for any leader (male or female) to take cognizance of the environment and adapt to fit in. Coaching helps to a certain extent, for one to reconcile the dilemma and traverse this journey.

At an organizational level, it helps to set a culture of respect for all kinds of differences. I have known managers who upon hearing similar remarks bring it up in team meetings and convey a clear message that such remarks are unacceptable.

It is also the responsibility of each one of us to become comfortable with ‘strong’ women. I remember what one of my colleagues told me a few years ago: “Whenever I see a strong and powerful woman I think ‘Yay! Good for you!’ I actively scout for women like that for my team. I mentor them when I see that directness stepping on people’s toes, like I would anyone. But I am especially encouraging and motivating of strong women…we simply need more of them!”

Do you feel you are in a double bind, forced to choose between being likable and being authoritative? What are some active steps you can take to overcome this?

What are some ways you can help change this double standard in your workplace? How do you plan to be more aware of it?