Does Gender Matter More Than Talent? Kamalika Poddar on Workplace Biases and More: Women of Qua

She believes in equity and working hard for what you want. She asks questions and cooks up her own answers when not satisfied with the responses. She spent many boring lectures during her undergrad days, drawing up the algorithm for popular games, like Hanged-Man, Tic Tac Toe and FLAMES. 


Meet the curious Kamalika Poddar, Manager in Business Intelligence at Axis Bank, and LinkedIn Top Voice 2020.


Growing up in Chennai, she was the only child to a national level athletic father and Musically talented mother. Sports taught her that rules don’t see whether you’re a girl or whether you’re shorter and thinner than your competitor. It teaches you to roll with the punches, get up and shrug off the dust and fight on if you want to stay in the game.


On where she comes from...

Like every other person in Chennai, I did my engineering after school. Immediately after college, I joined a company in Chennai itself, and that's where I came across the first instances where people differentiate between a guy and a girl.


I was like okay, I can't deal with this sort of environment! I decided that things are going to be better if I do an MBA. But soon I realised things, unfortunately, are not much different.


When I got into Axis Bank, my boss was a lady, and people generally say women bosses do not like their lady employees and are mean to them. Luckily that was not the case for me and she has been a great mentor.


When it comes to business analysts, it typically deals with the number-crunching thing that people associate men with. That way having a woman as a boss was a great deal, not only from the technical aspect but also handling people - I learnt it from her.


On the beginning of things...


Choosing a career path is always a tough decision. What made you enter this field?


In my field, the most favoured options are consulting and banking. I didn't want to get into consulting due to the insane work pressure, so the next option was banking. And it so happened that Axis Bank was the first company that I was shortlisted for. Interned there, got a PPO. So it wasn't like I planned anything. I just knew what I wanted to avoid, not what I wanted.


What challenges did you face and overcome at the starting of your career?


While working in Chennai as a software engineer, the clients I usually got were from the Middle East. The unfortunate thing was that even though I was handling the clients, when it came to getting an on-site opportunity, it was passed on to some man because I am a girl. I knew the clients, often they vouched for me as well, but the fact is that gender mattered more, and not talent. This is also why I wanted to get out of that environment.


As a working woman in a male dominant society, was there ever a moment in your career where it really hit you - it is so much harder for women? What was this experience like?


It wasn't something that happened to me, but rather something I viewed. My ex-CEO was an amazing leader to work under. She literally ran everything with high equity and quality of life. But unfortunately, banking is a male dominant industry, so challenges were everywhere.


There were many incidents during her tenure that she handles quite well. She played a pivotal role in the entire rebranding process. She built up Axis Bank to be associated as an affluent bank. Despite all of that, when she wasn't given an extension, it made me realise how unfair this is. 


On her beliefs...

In one of your write-ups, you touched upon a segment of the cosmetic consumer market that "isn't too enamoured by the celebrity endorsements" and generally "does not subscribe to the 'fair is beauty' concept". As a brand that aims to elevate confidence in our consumers, we believe it is important to inculcate this in today's mindset. How do you think women can be allies to each other and make them feel comfortable in their own skin?


So new-age brands like Nykaa and Sugar are often coming up with new initiatives. Sugar for instance has a vlog showing that this is how you choose your foundation - it is not to make you look fair, it is to make sure that your skin is even tones. So these brands are constantly busting myths around what makeup should and shouldn't be. Micro-influencers also help build this kind of awareness.


However, on the ground, frankly, I see very little improvement in the mindset of people. When I came back home amid the lockdown many ppl told me, "Oh my god, you've tanned so much," and I thought to myself, my skin has never had a better glow than this! And that's what matters more.


This perception is seeing a gradual shift. People like you and I don't care about how fair or light or dark we look as long as our skin radiates a glow. But for that change to happen country-wise, we are still another generation away.


Based on what we've read, we believe you are a socialist. As a brand aiming to elevate confidence in working women, we do propagate the idea of women's financial independence or rather having the opportunity to decide the same. Having said that, what are your thoughts on socialist feminism? 


Firstly I'd like to say that feminism is very misunderstood. Many people who claim to be feminist think, "I deserve extra privilege," but no, it stands for equality. So there is a disconnect that happens.


In today's world also, we see a lot of women give up their careers to take care of the family. You don't see many men do the same. Unless we break that thought that the house and the children are a woman's job, we're going to see this exist everywhere. Men should be sensitive - "this is my house, these are my kids, and I am equally responsible."


Gender biases in the finance and banking industry are not uncommon. The gender pay gap has been an ongoing topic for some decades, along with several challenges women face in acquiring equal opportunities. While change is visible, it is still very gradual. What do you think is the root of this mindset?


I am going to be quoting something that everyone has been claiming as a very feminist move - The Zomato period leave policy.


People have been saying that it's a great move, the company is being understanding of issues women face, and so on.


In the long run, however, what's going to happen is that every hiring manager, while hiring a woman, is going to think, "she's going to take maternity leave and now once a month she'll take a period leave". Now you are already setting up the system to view women as a liability, not an asset.


When women are hired, one of the first questions they are asked is "are you married?", and if yes, then do they plan on starting a family. The manager is simply trying to assess that if they take her in this role, in a year she will take a three-month break, not thinking about the contribution she will make in the remaining year.


To even it out, I believe we should give men paternity leave. This way one will think that even the guy will have to take a leave.


On her learnings...


Being in the industry so far, what would you say have been some of your most crucial learnings?


Because I am on the business analytics side, I have to handle the business team quite a lot and they always need 10 things at the same time. Handling that priority and making them understand what you're going through - I think that's one thing I've learnt better than the people who joined along with me.


Stakeholder management is the biggest and most crucial learning for me, since the work we do, after a point everyone is just as good as the other person.

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