Women at the top: leadership lessons

28 May 13
Few women in India have risen as high as Sheila Dikshit. Three-time-elected Chief Minister of Delhi, she took time out of her busy schedule to tell Satish Kaushal about her role and what needs to be done to enable more women to follow in her footstep

By Satish Kaushal | 28 May 2013

Few women in India have risen as high as Sheila Dikshit. Three-time-elected Chief Minister of Delhi, she took time out of her busy schedule to tell Satish Kaushal about her role and what needs to be done to enable more women to follow in her footstep

Delhi. Capital of India and vibrant melting pot of the historic and the new. A city of contrasts, rising population and dynamism that has, since 1998, been overseen by Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, now well into her record-breaking third term in office. Under her leadership, hers has been a city transformed. From higher environmental standards; investments in power, transport and infrastructure; and a deep and abiding commitment to democratization and transparency, it is little wonder that she is widely seen as a role model across the country. And she is confident that India’s long-term commitment to equality will help ensure that many women will be able to participate at the top table in the years to come.

“The Constitution of India has always provided equal rights to both men and women,” she says. “Education has been a great enabler in the development and empowerment of women — especially young girls — and it is helping women to come out of their closets and take part in changing India by entering fields like civil services and the corporate sector.” She explains that Indian women are rapidly proving themselves across many diverse sectors.

“Breaking the shackles of gender inequality, the women of India have proved their mettle in fields of administration, sports as well as the private sector because of their sheer competence and hard work,” she says. “India is poised for a leadership role in the next 25 years. This can happen only if more and more women join the civil services as they would be trained for an inclusive growth, in which women will play a pivotal, substantiate and a contributory role. Only then an inclusive growth can happen in this country.”

A lifetime in the arena

She is speaking from a position of both experience and authority. Chief Minister Dikshit has long championed the cause of women throughout her career. For example, in the early 1970s, she was Chairperson of the Young Women’s Association and was instrumental in setting up two of the most successful hostels for working women in Delhi. She also represented India on the UN Commission on Status of Women between 1984 and 1989 and, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, she along with her 82 colleagues were jailed in August 1990 for 23 days when she led a people’s movement against the atrocities being committed on women.

As Chief Minister she launched the “Stree Shakti” program, which entails capacity building among women by providing them frequent access to health care and medicine, training in different employment generation streams and financial aid for self-employment opportunities. In addition, Gender Resource Centers have also been set up in different parts of the city to enhance and encourage entrepreneurship among women. The Delhi Government also created the Department of Women and Child Development in 2007 and is currently running an array of programs that focus on women empowerment. But that’s not all.

“To help women take positions of leadership, we have increased the proportion of women from 33% to 50% in the municipal elections,” Dikshit says. “In our Delhi Ladli scheme, we give INR100,000 (US$1,840) to girls who are registered with us at birth, and then we cover all her educational milestones till she turns 18. However, I do understand that to empower women, we will not be able to achieve our objective by merely launching schemes. It is the mindset and the thought process that needs to be changed, which is a slow and continuous struggle.”

Indeed, there is little doubt that Indian women seeking to work and progress in the country’s public services continue to face substantial barriers to advancement. “Since the beginning of our civilization, women have always been considered as a weaker sex, capable of doing only household chores and taking care of the families,” points out the Chief Minister. “However, with women taking up positions of responsibilities, the mindset is slowly changing, though the acceptance of women in these positions has not been automatic and immediate.”

It transpires that many of these barriers are deep-rooted. “Sometimes, women are apprehensive about getting into politics as it is considered to be a bad profession,” she continues. “In many cases, even their families don’t permit them to get into politics. In this world, women have reached varied heights. In countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even India, women have got various opportunities and they have made it to the top, like Indira Gandhi. Politics is not a school which evaluates you on a defined ground or helps in career setting; therefore, the challenge is even tougher.”

The competition for places is also very intense, a sign, perhaps, of both India’s demographic shifts and the increasing realization that a career in India’s Government has much to offer the country’s youth — both male and female. “Taking up administrative services or politics demands a lot of commitment, honesty and determination,” says the Chief Minister. “An average 400,000 to 500,000 candidates appear for the civil services examination every year, where aspirants are required to complete a three-stage process, with a final success rate of about 0.3% of the total applicants.”

Looking to the future

Recent events in Delhi and elsewhere in India have shown that substantial challenges remain. With violence against women on the rise, and as the global media spotlight intensifies, the Chief Minister is very much aware there remains much work to be done. “It is very unfortunate and makes me feel miserable, particularly as a woman Chief Minister when we come across such incidents in the state,” she admits. “One reason for this scenario is that Delhi is a large state with a mix of people from different origins, cultures, religions, tastes and preferences. Another cause this can be attributed to is the lack of responsibility and capability of our police force. Our police force needs to be trained in assisting women’s needs in a cosmopolitan city like ours and not just looking after the law and order.”

With this in mind, the local police force is undergoing reforms in order to be more accessible to women in need of their help. “We are trying to bring them together and train them on improving their communication and people management skills,” she says. “What to speak and how to respond in certain situations is vital for our police force, especially in cases involving women.”

But despite these problems, the Chief Minister remains optimistic and supportive of persuading even more women to enter government ranks. “Given a choice, I would definitely encourage children to come up and be a part of the civil services,” she says. “The civil services have become much more important in the recent times with the interface between people and the Government becoming much more interesting and challenging.

“In Delhi, we have started the ‘Bhagidari System,’ which is an initiative of the Delhi Government to promote broad-based civic participation in local governance, and it has been made the root for all other development and welfare schemes. This program has been recognized by the United Nations and has been replicated and implemented by various other states of India through their various welfare schemes. The successful implementation of this program requires the ability to understand public needs, a high degree of innovation and willingness to adopt a problem-solving approach, which demands more and more young people to come forward and take the charge.”

Such projects — challenging, interesting and with the end result of enhanced service delivery to Delhi’s citizens — help explain the enduring attractiveness of government service to India’s best and brightest. And thanks to the leadership and successes of Chief Minister Dikshit, the door has been opened to more women serving in the future.

Satish Kaushal is Executive Director, Government Services, at Ernst & Young India. [email protected]

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