Submitted by: Lekshmi Nair

Indra Nooyi, former Chairman and CEO of Pepsico in one of her interviews, described how her mother made her go back to fetch milk at late in the evening after a hectic day at work. This was the day on which Indra was nominated as the CEO of Pepsico. Perhaps, the scene would have been entirely different if this happened to a man.  He must be hosting a party on a similar day.

Another interesting revelation by Sherryl Sandberg in her book called Lean In;

She once flew into New York for a series of pitches from private equity firms to get investment. During the first meeting in a corporate office high above Manhattan, it was going well. Then during the break, Sheryl asked for the women’s restroom. The guy stared blankly at her then turned to one of his colleagues to ask… ‘How long have you been in this office?’ Asked Sheryl. They’d been there a year. ‘So am I the first woman to set foot in this office in a whole year??’

At Sheryl’s graduation, there was a mix of male and female – but at the senior level she has noticed she is the only female. Where did they go?

A recent study by Catalyst shows that, the Higher Up the Corporate Ladder, the Fewer Women.

A 2020 analysis by Mercer of over 1,100 organizations across the world found a leaky pipeline for women in leadership:

Executives: 23%

Senior managers: 29%

Managers: 37%

Professionals: 42%

Support staff: 47%

All these studies clearly indicate a white elephant in the room, which no one wants to admit until recent years.

Ironically, IBM’s former CEO and Chairman, Ginni Rometty, one of my favourite leaders, once stated that she would not like to be called as the “First woman CEO” of IBM, rather she likes it to be the “CEO” of IBM. She stated that women employees, be it at senior or junior levels, must be judged on the basis of their work and not on ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

So, the question for many women who are at the leadership position is whether you want to carry a tag of “Woman Leader” or not.

Well, I have met many leaders who are proud to call themselves women leaders and many who do not want the tag and plainly refuse to be part of events where they are showcased as women leaders. In this article, I would like to bring in both sides together and see how and when one may find it useful to choose these tags in their career.

Journey to Leadership- Not a cakewalk

Journey to leadership is a long gruelling Marathon. At the start men and woman are equally fit and trained. Irrespective of the gender, all need to achieve unparalleled results, take challenges, remain growth minded and make bold moves to climb the ladder of success. Sponsors, allies and support systems are essential too to make it happen. The evaluation happens at the same scale for everyone. However, the marathon run is different when it comes to men and women in many scenarios. This is a very relatable picture shared by Mr. Anand Mahindra, MD of Mahindra business group.

As Sherryl explains in her book, the male runners get cheered on, “looking strong! On your way!”. The female runners hear “You know you don’t have to do this”, or “good start, but you probably won’t want to finish”. As it continues, external voices and internal voices question their decision to keep running. As they run towards the end, spectators start shouting “why are you running when you have children at home?”

In short, when one becomes a leader, although the paths travelled may be bumpier than the male colleagues, the scales never change, and they remain the same forever. As a leader, none would want that to be any lenient just because you are a woman. As Ginni said, the work should speak about themselves, not the gender tag. This remains sensible and meaningful when you look up and continue to grow.

The view is great from the top

A Harvard study found that the people who had reached the age of 40, only 56% of woman remained in the workforce and 90% of men.  This indicates that there is clearly a need to have a favourable condition for women to unswervingly pursue their career dreams. There is a need to put conscious efforts by everyone at the professional, personal, and societal fronts to make this happen. Here comes the significance of the tag “Female/Woman Leader”. After once reaches the cliff, they only look at the beautiful view from there, not the bumpy roads that they had left behind.

As for many women who are still on the same path or about to embark on that journey, they will be looking for right examples and strong role models to ponder. A LinkedIn survey indicated that 52% of female respondents said they never had a mentor because they hadn’t encountered someone appropriate. Yet in that same survey, more than half of the millennial women noted they were being or had been mentored by women.  For any woman professional, there are some questions a female mentor/leader ONLY can provide guidance on many situations based on their experience within the work environment.

These are some of the questions many more women of your generation and future generations would look up to successful “WOMAN” leaders for answers and guidance.

  1. How did you make it to the finishing line? Things that favoured you to be persistent to chase your dreams.
  2. How did you do the balancing act? While this may not be a question to a male leader, it is often asked to women leaders.
  3. Managing breaks: How did you manage the breaks due to your biological clock and bounce back to growth?
  4. Being authentic: How did you embrace your feminine attributes and the masculine attributes of your role to create a strong identity and remain as most authentic? Or is it true that one needs to minimize your femineity to be a successful leader?
  5. Does it really matter what others think of you as a leader? How did you get through the “think manager, think male” syndrome?
  6. Did you ever get benefit from allyship, mentors and sponsors in your journey? How did you choose your mentors and sponsors?

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
-Madeleine Albright, former (and first female) United States Secretary of State

One of the biggest challenges that we see today is not having enough support to women by women leaders. In the quest meet societal expectations to be a leader, people often lose their genuine self and ignore the need for it.  In the process, they forget the fact that there are thousand other women, who need frank and tested shares of wisdom from these leaders. There is no place for preferential treatment, nepotism and politics when evaluating the potential and performance. However, as a leader, being ready to give a hand to the less privileged and less motivated, to rise by sharing your experience will be the best thing as YOU can do.

Ginni Rometty, at a later interview mentioned that she realized that being a woman leader has a greater positive impact to cultivate growth mindset in many women, who aspire to be in the similar trajectory.

During my journey, I have had multiple opportunities to positively influence many women in shaping up their career. In my role as the India lead for Women in Security Excelling (WISE) in IBM, I had many instances where women in their mid-career stages often reached out to me for suggestions on how they can make it to the next level and many of them realized their dreams eventually. During my campus interview drives, it was a surprise to see that many girls from Generation Z had asked me some of the questions above. A few of them after joining my organization, reached out to let me know that my responses made them take a call on a technical career path. At times, some of my male colleagues asked me some of the above questions for their wives, sisters, and partners. All these were my ‘aha’ moments as a “Woman leader” in a less traversed path like Cybersecurity and technology.

You like it or not to be called a “Woman Leader”, there are thousands, who will look up to you because you are one. On the International Women’s Day, I proudly recognize myself as a “Woman Leader” and choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements.

** Note: My salute to many women leaders who made it a point to give back in a less traversed field in security; Dr. Ambareen Siraj, Lynn Dohm, Diana Kelly, Ludmila Morozova and many more.


Published by: Lekshmi Nair, Cybersecurity Expert, Thought Leader and  Evangelist

Lekshmi is a seasoned Cyber Security professional with over 19 years of experience in the field of Security, Risk and Compliance, Privacy, Data Security and Application Security. Lekshmi has avid consulting experience with global and domestic customers in Energy, Banking and Chemical and Petroleum segments. She lead multiple complex security solutions as security solutions architect and has played key roles in designing new service offerings in the areas of GDPR, IT Act, NERC CIP. She has managed large enterprise security delivery programs.

A passionate leader and a Cyber security evangelist, Lekshmi was the Chair of the Women in Security Excelling- India Chapter consisting of 600+ members. This forum work towards bridging the gender gap in Cyber Security space. Lekshmi is an ambassador of multiple initiatives for Diversity and Women in Technology within IBM and outside. She is the member in the Board of studies of some of premium engineering colleges. She is one of the founding member and General Secretary of Women in Cyber Security (WiCyS) India chapter. She is a regular speaker in renowned universities and forums and avid advocate of Cyber Security career. She was featured as Women security achievers in CISO Magazine, Top Women Security Influencers in India by Security Today and Wosec and Women of Influence Award by Executive Women’s Forum (EWF).