Category Archives: Leadership and Management

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

The Honeyed Choice


Glimpses into the life of a working woman:

Scene one: Sitting up late into the night (morning actually) making a project report for a client, one of many such nights in the last 9 months. The project isn’t going as well as I originally thought it would; Feeling dejected, tired and wondering if it’s all worth it.

Enter Husband with Honeyed Choice: “Why don’t you slow down a bit? You don’t really have to work this hard. Take a break, enjoy yourself and relax.”

Scene Two: Catching a flight to New York for a client meeting; have to get back and then off to Hong Kong for a leadership conference. Running a cold.

Call from mother with Honeyed Choice: “Why do you have to work like this? Your husband is earning so much, isn’t he?”

Scene Three: Applying for the role of Sales head in my organization. Requires a lot of field work, working with dealers.

A well meaning senior colleague suggests the Honeyed Choice: “Why don’t you take a less heavy role? Something where you don’t have to deal with the harsher aspects of sales? And spend more time with family.”

Well intentioned advice in all the three instances, but the message that comes to me consistently (for many women, all through life’s turning points) is “You always have the choice to drop out of your career” or “Your career is not important”

This Honeyed Choice is always at the back of my mind; beckoning me alluringly into slow pedaling on my career; making me look at my career very short term; and taking non-career enhancing decisions.

When I was talking about this over a cup of tea, I remember a woman friend telling me “You know Kalpana, I am very clear that I don’t want concern that belittles or dilutes my aspirations; I want concern that supports & encourages me!”

“I ask for support whenever I make tough choices, and encouragement, when someone asks me to ‘take it easy.’ And when I am concerned for my niece, daughter or female report I say, “You are doing a great job! I am so proud of you… keep going! Take that tough role, and take care of your health too!”

Yeah. Tough Choices. Not Honeyed Choices. I like that!

“We can each define ambition and progress for ourselves. The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our personal passion, talents and interests.”  – Sheryl Sandberg


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

Read more of her articles at


The Myth of the Multi-Tasking Woman

Ask any woman what her key strength is and pat comes the proud reply, “Multitasking!” Ask any man what a woman’s key strength is and pat comes the approving reply, “Multitasking!”

I have seen women swell up with pride at the thought of being excellent multitaskers… and shrivel up with stress!

Let’s get one thing straight – there is no such thing as “Multitasking”.

Of course, there are many things on my mind right now, I’m writing this blog post, mentally planning a lunch date with my sister, wondering what I’ll have for breakfast, and gearing up for the workshop later today.

Am I multitasking? Not really.

What I’m doing is task-switching. As entrepreneur and author Gary Keller puts it, “Juggling is an illusion… in reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession.”

While it is true that women can divide their attention significantly better than men can, is it really beneficial like we think it is? Let’s look at some reasons why multitasking can be more stressful than beneficial.

  • A study in 2010 found that our brains can handle two tasks at the same time pretty efficiently, but add any more tasks to that and you’ll start making mistakes left right and centre, performing about as well as an eight year old. It may feel like we’re doing a lot of work but task-switching can reduce your productivity by 40%! That’s a big number!
  • Research has shown that people who regularly multitask have lower short-term memory or working-memory, which has a direct impact on creativity and decision making. Added to that, people who multitask are always on “high-alert” mode, leading to higher stress-levels.

“Multitasking is great in the kitchen when you are trying to time the chicken to be ready at the same time as the potatoes. But do not assume it is a great way to manage a workday,” says author and consultant Joanne Tombrakos.

In fact, many researchers believe that the reason women are better than men at multitasking is because they’re socially conditioned to do so.

Take the example of a senior woman leader who I met recently. She told me that she learnt to multitask only after getting married and having children, as she learnt to balance her work and the household. But before she knew it, her career had taken a beating.

“Multitasking is a myth we buy into, to meet society’s expectations of a good mother, a good wife, and a good daughter-in-law and our own aspiration for a good career,” she said!

I agree!

If we have to sustain and grow in demanding careers, we need to revisit this myth. I did… and got my husband to revisit it too!

So let’s get down to some serious myth busting, ladies and gents!

The Spectre of Sexual Harassment


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

In the flurry of activity around implementing the mandates laid down by the Sexual Harassment Bill 2013, I hear some disquieting voices, which could be working against the very intent of the bill.

There is no doubt that this is a much needed bill; a safe and inclusive workplace free of uncomfortable overtures, offensive language, unsolicited propositions, ‘non vegetarian jokes’, (as we like to call them in India) etc, is absolutely essential for employees to thrive and grow in.

Which is the intent behind the 2013 Bill.

However, what we hear on the ground when we work with organizations is disquieting to say the least.

A senior group of managers at an offsite:

“If hiring women means so many hassles, maybe we should re visit our gender diversity agenda!”

A group of leaders who were undergoing a mentoring skills workshop for growing women leaders:

“If I have to work closely with women, give feedback, understand and mentor them, at the back of my mind is the niggling fear always, that they might misunderstand some of my words/gestures.”

spectre-6 (1)

How can we address this fear psychosis, to enable all employees to understand and live the spirit of the law?

  1. Make it a culture agenda not a compliance agenda: The fear is more palpable, in my opinion, when organizations approach this as legal compliance. When it is projected and lived as a culture of respectfulness, it is seen in the overall perspective of inclusive cultures; and we actually begin to see support for the bill, since even many men are uncomfortable around these very same behaviors!
  2. Nip those ‘non veg’ jokes and uncomfortable behaviors in the bud: This is very critical; serious cases of sexual harassment, in most cases, begin with those ‘small’ behaviors, and if they are not nipped can embolden people to cross that line. As usual Managers & Leaders play a critical role here.
  3. Role model respectful behaviors: Of course, the most obvious, but seldom practised. I still remember, I was with some senior leaders finalizing the venue for our next conference and one of them cracked a joke about how the event organizer is ‘your girlfriend, man’ to another leader. Small stuff, big impact.
  4. Your Freedom Ends where Your Nose Ends: I do believe this is perhaps a little cultural. Helping employees understand that respecting each other’s boundaries means ‘Your Freedom End where your nose ends’ hits the nail on the head. Each of us has a different sense of what creates discomfort. The onus of understanding and respecting that vests with each one of us.
  5. Train the women to say no: Difficult one; especially when the unwelcome behaviors are exhibited by senior leaders. Women hesitate to articulate what makes them  uncomfortable, and in the Indian cultural context of gender socialization, it is a double whammy for women. But training helps; teaching them that they can stem this by using non verbals, and when necessary easy words can help.
  6. Make your organizational law inclusive: The law itself protects women; (note that is says Sexual Harassment of Women in Workplace Bill). However, when you make the policy in your organization, including both men and women under its ambit, adds to the spirit of safe and inclusive workplaces! Some organizations have made the bill most inclusive by even including same sex harassment under the ambit of the policy!

People are afraid the sexual harassment bill will be misused; I am afraid that it will derail what it seeks to support: more female talent in the workplaces! Organizations have to tread carefully here to ensure everyone benefits from the intent of the bill!

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?

Tiptoeing Around Differences


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

Okay lets talk differences…Diversity.

“Differences? Nah! I am more comfortable with similarities. Let me look for how we are similar so that I can build rapport.”

The moment we start talking about differences, there is discomfort. From the change agent who told me he does not like to focus on the differences between humans (“it is divisive”), to the manager who said he is drawn to team members who share his background/age/gender, differences continue to get pushed under the carpet.

What about women and men? Gender differences? “Oh no I don’t see them as different at all. For me, men and women are the same.”

Tiptoeing Around Differences

But the fact remains that I am different from you. My life experiences and the milieu in which I have grown up makes me think differently, take decisions differently, and problem solve differently. At an individual level we are all different, unique beings.

As Tracy Brown put it beautifully ‘Somewhere in the difference between you and me… is WE’.

And when I belong to a group, be it generational/regional/gender, that means I share certain ways of thinking and behaving with that group.

Take the way the millennials communicate at work. For them, the ability to be constantly connected to technology, their phones, their laptops, their tablets, means that they no longer feel that communication needs be limited to the office hours, changing the normal 9 to 5 hours previous generation were used to.

Let’s take gender. Research has revealed time and again how men and women are different. Barbara Annis’ pivotal book Leadership and the Sexes uses the latest brain-behavior research on gender to show how men and women’s brains are structured differently. These differences manifest in the way men and women negotiate differently, drive performance differently, and lead differently.

Mckinsey’s research uncovers how women leaders leverage some leadership competencies more than men.

When I tiptoe around differences I lose the opportunity to leverage these differences.

To my friends, the change agent and the manager, here is what I would like to say: Differences can divide… if we push them under the carpet.

But if we leverage the differences, respectfully and appreciatively, they can add tremendous value…to the team, to the organization…and to society at large.

Not surprisingly then, research has shown that diversity leads to better decision-making. When we are able to appreciate and explore different perspectives, we arrive at more holistic solutions.

We need to celebrate and embrace our differences, not deny and suppress them.

The entire drive for diversity rests on this principle.

Bryan Pelley captures this very aptly:

“I think the first important point is that I do recognize that there are gender-related differences that come into play in the workplace, and I’m comfortable acknowledging and addressing those differences directly…. I think a lot of male colleagues are uncomfortable recognizing gender differences and don’t want to call attention to them. It’s not necessarily that they aren’t supportive or don’t care, I think in some cases it’s actually motivated by a desire to treat everyone equally and not to seem like they’re coddling or belittling very capable women. I’m comfortable with the idea that treating people “equally” doesn’t actually mean treating people the same.”

I wonder if we are confusing differences in preferences and needs with differences in performance?

When we understand the difference between ‘equal’ and ‘same’, we realize that we are different but equal.

And the bottom line, performance, remains the driver to leverage the differences.

Have you had any personal experiences with diversity in your office place where it has been an advantage and helped your team solve a problem?

What are some steps you can take to ensure you embrace diversity in your office rather than shun it?

What are some ways we can articulate the advantages a different perspective can bring to your team at work?