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The W Suite | We should not play the feminist card: Akshaara Lalwani

Adgully’s ‘The W-Suite’ series has been featuring interactions with influential women leaders in India, who share some deep insights on what being a woman leader means in India’s business landscape, the mantras to succeed, achieving work-life balance, pay parity and much more. 

Akshaara Lalwani, Founder & CEO of Communicate India, has always been known for breaking stereotypes. She started her career in banking but soon realised that communications was her calling. She then went back to the drawing board and restarted her career with a boutique communications agency, where she worked with a broad spectrum of brands including Disney, Union Bank of India, Italian Chamber of Commerce, NDS, Hikal Ltd. among others. With her competitive resilience, she rose through the ranks, servicing a multitude of accounts, personally looking into hiring, and driving business development becoming the youngest Account Director in the firm much before she founded Communicate India. 

At age 23, she started Communicate India with a single client. Today, Communicate India is one of the largest independently owned agencies. The business has grown leaps and bounds and has outgrown 6 offices. Communicate India now in its 8th year has serviced over 300 brands, has over 100 people, multi-location offices, and international alliances in the UK, MENA and SEA regions- fully independent and owned. Lalwani has also developed five new business verticals and continues to consistently grow the business by over 50 per cent, year on year. 

How would you define today’s woman leader?
We are talking about today’s woman leader, why should we categorically differentiate a chromosome? I do not believe in leadership categories or differentiation as male or female. By doing so, we are bringing the age-old biases of the glass ceiling back. Look around, most women leaders today are extremely gifted, equally capable and resilient to run any business as they should be – logically, ambitiously and with the necessary means required or adapt to strategy to swim in the face of crisis. 

What are the foremost attributes that women leaders in today’s business ecosystem must possess?
I’d talk more about leadership qualities attributed to a leader than a woman leader. Passion, resilience and the commitment – are my top three attributes that any entrepreneur should possess in today’s times. Above all, leaders must be very driven, focused and extremely dedicated to the cause by loving what they do, because this is the distinction of a leader’s resilience above all. 

In my belief, women are better equipped to see through more gender-parity decisions and discussions at the workplace. If you scan the industry today in certain companies or certain fields or even in the gig economy, women are coming out trumps heading all the significant positions across media, healthcare, hospitality, and finance or branding sectors. As a woman, dealing with stereotypes is the biggest challenge we face every day. We still have to put all that opinionated judgment and criticism coming our way aside and do our job as we got to do. It is also imperative that we remain constantly mindful of volatility, especially in terms of management expectations. Hence, I feel it is necessary to have the conviction to walk the talk even when you hit a roadblock. 

Despite the qualifications, aptitude and experience, why do you think we don’t see the expected number of women business leaders, especially when it comes to boardroom decision-making?
The narrative is changing today. Today, both men and women are much more aware to take equal and proactive responsibility of running a household, looking after the family or nurturing children. As a society we need to move towards gender parity. I’ve seen influential men taking a back seat to let their partner’s career thrive and this is a mindset issue where potential over status must be prioritised. 

This is really interesting. We are talking about gender equality, but we don’t know why we are talking about gender equality. Women come with lot of responsibilities. As Indra Nooyi mentioned, a woman is – a mother, a wife, a daughter and a career woman among a host of other roles. Biologically, fortunately or unfortunately, women give birth to children and often, have had to abandon their thriving careers to look after the baby.  The career breaks have not been very favourable. Why are there Gender discrepancies? To create a rift and imbalance! Why are women in the boardrooms? Is it merely a corporate governance gesture to have women represented? Businesses can do a lot to accommodate women leadership along with their personal growth? Why can’t businesses support women to have a child, support them in other ways, and cater for them in ways that ensure holistic growth? 

What more do Indian corporates need to do to encourage and groom women leaders?
For starters, don’t condition and confine women into being “yes” men. Let them have their own voice and live up to their potential. Be quick to appreciate their ideas and it will reinforce the message that they are valued. Women bring to the table an innate confidence in their work. They understand the pulse of the market and they have a more realistic perspective on matters, stemming from on-ground experience, which can be leveraged to create effective strategies for the clients. Encouraging them only results in them rising to the challenge and appreciation ensures resourcefulness. 

According to you, what are the Do’s and Don’ts for today’s women to break through the glass ceiling?
The glass ceiling is what we define to be. So, first and foremost, be limitless in your mind. Be what you want to be. Break out of your comfort zone. If there’s something new you want to try or learn, follow your heart, and live your dreams. Plan your professional growth around your personal growth. You don’t need to define yourself by what the society thinks of you. This holds true even in the boardroom. Even if an idea seems unconventional or disruptive, don’t hesitate to sound it off, you never know what it will result in. I believe in the classic “black sheep” ideology. Don’t conform to a boundary that others set for you. I’m as good at archery and badminton as I am with creating disruptive strategies for my clients. Be willing to take a risk and don’t shy away from a challenge. Playing to the gallery does not help. There is a toxic work culture. Look at businesses that appreciate you, regardless of gender. Evaluate where your career stands today and make your move. 

How acute is the gender pay gap issue in India today? What needs to be done to address this in an effective manner?
Competency should be the determining factor of compensation for work. This is our philosophy at Communicate India. Pay scales should definitely be equal for both genders across industries, based on merit, competency and performance. Also, women need to speak up for themselves. When they know they proven their value, they should not hesitate to ask for higher salaries, because there’s nothing greater than merit. Also, as an employer, invest in your employees with long term commitment. Compensation should be fair, and pay should be linked to performance. 

What are the five most effective lessons that you have learned as a woman leader?
We should not play the feminist card; we are doing nothing more than replacing the old boys’ club. We are in a dynamic time period,

  1. In business, forget gender – the best person for the job.
  2. Follow rule 1
  3. Follow rule 2
  4. Follow rule 3
  5. Don’t forget rule 1

How challenging has it been for you to maintain a balance between career goals and family responsibilities? What is your mantra to maintain that balance?
Our choices in life determine our priorities. If a woman is at that stage of her life and career, where she wants to start a family and take that sabbatical from work, so be it. We are no one to make her feel inferior that she is missing out on a career growth or make her conscious of that. If a woman has a thriving career, sometimes better than her male counterparts, there should be no impediment to remind her she has to slow down to raise a family. Family responsibilities can be mindfully shared between the woman and her spouse. As women, we have to own our choices. Self-awareness of your priorities as an individual and communicating it to their partner is the key to keeping the balance. Live in the moment and divide your time as per your priority. The balance can only be achieved by completely being in the moment and focussing on what’s important at that time. 

How prevalent are the instances of Sexual Harassment in workplaces in India? What should the industry collectively do to tackle such a serious issue?
Sexual Harassment is a very sensitive area for both genders, and it needs to be approached with an open mind and handled with a sensitive mind-set. Sexual harassment in my opinion is basically the result of a power trip gone horribly wrong where people forget the boundaries of space and consent. It needs to be seen as a humanitarian issue more than a gender issue and be treated with the gravity it deserves. Every organisation, small or big is already setting up internal POSH committees with the HR department to have a decentralised approach. If anyone feels they have been sexually harassed, then they need to speak with their HR or the POSH committee immediately. While the victim needs to come out and speak up, it’s equally important to nurture an environment which makes it comfortable for them to speak up. Till the final verdict comes out, we should not judge the victim but enforce laws which safeguard the employees’ interests. Remember that sexual harassment is a humanitarian issue, not a gender-based issue, it can occur even amongst people of the same sexes. Be sensitive and non-judgemental.


Also Read:

The W Suite | Indian Cos need to unfollow prejudiced model of ops: Divya Jain

The W Suite | Geeta Suthar’s 5 lessons in effectiveness of women leaders


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