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Leadership coach Bhavna Dalal on how women can tackle sexism at the workplace, and much more

Published on:31 December 2020, 18:47pm IST
Sexism in the workplace is real, and even today, most women struggle with it. In an exclusive conversation, executive leadership coach and author of Checkmate Office Politics tells us all about how to handle sexism.
Geetika Sachdev
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Ladies, you too can reach the top. Image courtesy: Bhavna Dalal
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It may be 2020 and we may have progressed in several ways, sexism is not over as yet. Unfortunately, it exists in every area of our lives, even at the workplace, where women have to struggle hard to hold top leadership positions. 

Patriarchy and societal conditioning have left women feeling oppressed for generations. But slowly and steadily, they are coming out of their cocoons and fighting for their rightful place in the world. There are others like Bengaluru-based Bhavna Dalal, leadership coach and author of Checkmate Office Politics (published by Sage Publications), who are helping women navigate such situations at work effectively, and emerge much stronger.   

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Her story is equally inspirational—she turned into an entrepreneur in her 40s, and calls it her “career 2.0”. An engineer with an MBA from IIM Calcutta, she spent the first half of her life in software development, primarily working in the US, with short stints in South Africa and India. When she migrated back to India, she wanted to do something that gave her joy, fulfillment, and a purpose that went beyond material accomplishments.

In an exclusive chat with Health Shots, Bhavna shares her insights on how she faced sexism at the workplace, the typical challenges women face in the corporate world, and how “politics” doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. 

Sexism in the workplace

Having worked in different countries, Bhavna feels she has experienced sexism in various forms and circumstances. 

Right from working in South Africa at the age of 21, just after the abolishment of apartheid, landing in the USA alone with only a suitcase to founding and running a company single-handedly, I have seen it all. The general tendency is for people to think they can take advantage of women by undercutting their roles, projects, or remuneration without consequences,” she explains.

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Despite these struggles, she decided to turn the odds in her favour. As someone who has always been creative, nurturing, empathetic and action-oriented, Bhavna decided to follow her heart and become an executive coach. 

“The typical challenges I help my clients with are building executive presence, influencing skills, being more strategic in their thinking, communicating with conviction and clarity, leading high-performance teams, innovating, networking skills, and organizational collaboration. The issue of sexism often surfaces during women’s leadership programs and in several coaching assignments. Since I work with large global multinationals, leaders are aware and cautious of not being sexist; even then, several unconscious biases surface, realizing the need to shift their mindset to be more inclusive,” she adds. 

Tackling challenges faced by women leaders

“I help develop women leaders by bringing out assertiveness in them or sometimes helping them tone down aggressiveness. Not only do we have to minimize the conscious and unconscious bias, but we must also speak up and interrupt bias when we notice it,” says Bhavna.  

Educating people around the genuine need and benefits of diversity and inclusion is often part of my job,” she adds. 

Another critical aspect of her leadership training is making sense of politics, and that also happens to the underlying theme of her book Checkmate Office Politics. Politics in the workplace has often got a bad rap, with most people saying they want to stay away from it. On the other hand, Bhavna feels what’s important to understand is the difference that exists between good and bad politics. 

“Using politics for good is attempting to arrive at win-win solutions. Societal change comes from changing beliefs, and being open to and accepting of newer ways of doing things. What we can do is aid and abet in this process by being more experimental and non-judgemental. Research proves that communities at large benefit when women do well. There is tremendous cultural conditioning in the past, but women also must step up and take advantage of numerous opportunities that are now available. They must get comfortable with the idea of success. They have to overcome their fears of succeeding and being judged,” she explains. 

Women must get over the victim mindset, and instead work inwards to have a bigger impact on the outside, feels Bhavna. That will help them navigate these challenges, thereby making them grow personally and professionally. 

Journey to the top

“Women tend to be quite good at building and maintaining relationships naturally, and I feel they must leverage this skill. Where I often see women struggle more than men is in claiming and being comfortable with power. I recommend all aspiring leaders to get in touch with a grand vision for themselves, set goals, and then develop their leadership skills to achieve them. The first step to make politics work in your favour is to be clear on your values, beliefs, and fears. Next, be aware of the key decision-makers and influencers in your organization,” says Bhavna. 

Women leaders must enhance their emotional intelligence in addition to their business skills to get to the top. According to Bhavna, they must learn to comprehend and feel their emotions while also developing the ability to detach when required. 

“Growth requires you to come out of your comfort zone, which means taking a closer look at politics, comprehending the underlying power dynamics, and knowing how things get done in your organization,” she adds. 

The makings of a good woman leader

Although Bhavna feels it is crucial to invest in extra resources and efforts in women leadership programs in organisations, education is important for women. 

“The purpose of branding it as women leadership is to highlight a pattern of common problem areas that exist. I would like to stress that we must not create a polarity between the sexes. It is not to label that one gender is better at leadership than the other. Gender itself is now evolving and is more fluid. We cannot even put our genders in a box anymore,” she asserts. 

Bhavna has a piece of advice: she feels just the way everything has a masculine and feminine component, the same way leadership qualities can be divided into these two brackets. 

“The masculine characteristics include assertiveness, decisiveness, result, and task-based behaviors; meanwhile, feminine attributes are oriented toward empathy, creativity, and collaboration. For any leader, a balance of both these traits is exceptionally vital to be effective and successful,” she says. 

“I have observed seasoned and experienced leaders accomplish this beautifully. From this perspective, women tend to demonstrate feminine characteristics naturally. To become better leaders, they must learn to leverage both these aspects and play on their strengths while developing their weaker ones,” Bhavna concludes.  

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Geetika Sachdev Geetika Sachdev

An independent writer and journalist, Geetika loves sharp and fresh humour, just like her coffee! If not writing, you'll find her cafe-hopping and raiding the best book stores in town.