She remains ‘The Taj’: the ‘woman’ has arrived in our society

To mark the International Women’s Day, the Taj Group of Hotels organized an engaging seminar bringing reputed leading ladies from across walks of life to share their experiences, their hopes and aspirations on how the ‘woman’ is coming of age, literally, in our Indian society. The debate was anchored by ET, the television channel partners for the event. The host for the evening was Puneet Chhatwal, CEO and MD, IHCL.

Participating in the dialogue were H.E. Ritva Koukku-Ronde, Ambassador of Finland to India; Satyavati Berera, Partner, PWC; Ritu Garg, Chief Growth and Innovation Officer, Fortis; Sanjukta Parashar, Indian Police Service; Puneet Chhatwal, Managing Director & CEO, IHCL; and Nikunj Dalmia, Managing Editor, ET Now & ET Swadesh.

Here is a brief report.

It is about stories. It is about inspiration. It is about understanding what can be done next to empower the Indian women and make sure that India marches, then leaps forward to the $5 trillion dream what Prime Minister Modi has spoken about?

Nikunj Dalmia: But I have been looking at some data. Indian Hotel has never had a woman CEO.

Chhatwal: Hopefully, we will make progress there, but we have on our executive committee we have two very bright ladies and I have to say, although there are some men from the executive committee and also I think they do standout and one of them is sitting right here in the front and she heads our four verticals, which nobody else does. So that shows that something is cooking. It also shows that how multi-talented women can be. It also demonstrates that how many tasks at the same time they can handle.

Nikunj Dalmia: Tell us what inspired you to really take that first step forward, which may be a small step. But today it is looking like a giant leap.

Berera: Thank you. My story, for that people may not know is that I am a chartered accountant and I have worked in one organisation, which is PWC for the last 42 years. I am going to retire very soon. When I joined them, I was 20-year-old undergrad, with economics honours and wanted to become a chartered accountant. But at that time there were very few accountants in the profession and there were very few firms which would actually take trainees to be chartered accountants but hats off to PWC. You know, they took me in. So that’s when my journey started. And I think there were a lot of challenges. But I think, I guess I was smart enough to realise that this is how it’s going to be. I mean, there’s no point fretting about what is not in my control. There were boundaries. I couldn’t go to certain clients. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t do that. But I had a single mindedness that I do want to be in this profession and that’s how it continued.

I stayed with this organisation which has been very supportive. It has a great ecosystem.

We talk today about the DNA of any organization, but at that time I don’t think it was there in the vocabulary of any business house. I had a great time and got opportunities; got into different businesses & eventually got out of my comfort zone. I think I worked hard. I just feel so grateful and so proud of the whole organisation from where we have gone from, you know, 40 years and I’m so grateful that I am part of this whole journey of transformation of business houses in India.

Nikunj Dalmia: Ambassador, you come from a country which ranks very high when it comes to gender equality. What do you think needs to be done in India so that India can take that giant leap towards a five trillion economy?

Ambassador: Very important is the ownership legislation. When you have equal ownership legislation, it gives the possibilities for being economic independent for everybody. At the same time, we had already started to have a school system which was then promoted to be very equal in that sense for, for instance, I am probably having even longer career than you.

I was just thinking when I was listening, I never have thought that, that something would be limited in a capacity. We have just been raised in our school system. It has been really decades when I was at school. So, we were raised in the way that everything is possible for you and really everything is possible for everybody. And then we were making these rules and regulatory framework in a way that it was possible for women also to participate in working life outside of homes. We have boys and girls in the same classes.

Nikunj Dalmia: For the Iron Lady of Assam that how did she manage to achieve what she has achieved?

Parasher: Regarding my journey and how I got here. So honestly, my journey is not very remarkable. I come from a family which managed to send me to a good school. My mother is a doctor, and she had finished her medicine in 1971 and coming from Assam that even that wasn’t great achievement because her mother and her aunts were also very well educated. So, for me, I think for me that to even say how I got here I mean, it hasn’t been so difficult a journey, but yes, like everybody else, it is tough. It’s a tough exam that I sat for. It wasn’t my first choice, obviously. I was studying to be an academic. I strayed into an organisation where I was doing some research and I met some really well-meaning people who told me that I should sit for the exam. I sat for it; I cleared it. I joined the police service. And I’m sure you know that this is not something that you do completely out of your choice. I mean, you do say that, yes, you would work if you are given this job. But it all depends on your rank and everything else. So, I ended up in the police, and for some strange reason, I realised that I have an aptitude for it.

And I guess that’s where things clicked. And I have managed to kind of be here. But having said that, I have these three small principles in life, which is integrity, patience and efficiency. I work on them every day, and I think that is how I have reached where I have in my profession.

Nikunj Dalmia: Our story with Dr Garg actually begins with what healthcare providers had to do in terms of challenging covid times. The healthcare industry is one industry where the women workforce numbers are perhaps the highest in the world. The number is about 66 67%. How different was it during the covid time? How challenging it was during covid time. Especially when healthcare workers they had to stay for longer hours, long days, long nights and perhaps for, you know, not days, but weeks and months.

Dr. Garg: Thank you and thank you for the acknowledgement. It indeed was a very hard time. I was running Fortis Gurgaon at the time. It is one of the largest hospitals we had during Delta Wave. I think, you know, all of us, unfortunately, have been probably touched by it in some way or the other. And, you know, in terms of the workforce, the nurses are the backbone of any healthcare industry. Right? A nurse spends maximum time with a patient. Doctors come and go. The entire nursing force you would have women representation of 80% plus. That’s how the profession is. And all of them are young; probably in their 25s/ 30s or 35 yrs old. Now imagine being in a covid ward with your PPE suits on, with your family child at home, with the risk that you carry, with a guilt that you carry, you know, going back home and infecting your family and child. and I think that was one of the biggest fears. And I used to get inspired every single day by these women who were turned up every single day.

In Haryana, the government, wanted to start a separate covid hotel. And, you know, we partnered with Medanta and we started one of the first centres there. So there was a first team that had to go. At that time, it was too new. We didn’t know what it was. It was even before the delta wave and I had a nursing team, and I still remember that they went, you know, all of them, probably, probably hugged their families and they were here for a month. They didn’t even know what they were getting into. And their grit and determination was far more inspiring than many of us who come from very highly privileged backgrounds. And, we have in some way our own bubbles and a lot of support infrastructure that fortunately is there to back us up. And then there are these women who probably are not so privileged. And not one of them said that I am not going to do this.

Nikunj Dalmia: Ambassador, regarding G20. This is India’s presidency this year. And, you know we have listed women empowerment as one of the key focus areas when it comes to G20. How do you think the nations can come together on this?

Ambassador: First of all, I think the flexibility and the mindset is something which Prime Minister Modi is speaking when it comes to the climate change and the environmental issues, he’s talking about the mindset.

But I think here in when you are thinking about equality, you have to think about mindset as well. And, it’s at home, it is at schools and in the working places. So, my country has never been able to not be using all the talents. So, we have countries who are neglecting 50% of the talents of their population. And I just said that are these countries so rich that they can neglect 50% or what is happening in the sense? So, we I think we have to put this in really concrete terms that it pays off to include everybody. And I am not only talking about women and men, and third gender, I really speak about diversity.

Nikunj Dalmia: Dr Garg, I bring up the whole issue of women health. Something very, very basic.

Dr Garg: So, I think there are two things to it. One is this whole social milieu that has actually glorified the sacrifice you eat last, that your health is not important or that I have to take care of the child first or that I have to give food to them first. I’ll figure it out, I’ll go for my check-ups late. I think that is a fundamental issue, that we have this kind of society, where we do feel that, making such kind of sacrifices is to be celebrated. And that happens in most of the households unfortunately. I think we need to turn this upside down to say that the woman of the house has to be fit and healthy to take care of everybody else, and that her health is as important, if not more important, for the entire family.

And then there is a second issue, which is a little bit more practical on the accessibility to healthcare. So, there was a survey that was done by National Family Health Survey. I think it was released in 2022 or something. And there were about seven lakh women who were interviewed, it was a mix of rural and some of the urban, and then about 60% of them said that they don’t have access to healthcare. Some of the reasons that were listed were, of course, to the fact that you don’t have, enough women healthcare providers, in community centres and public health centres. And they don’t feel comfortable going to men doctors all the time.

And then there is this whole issue about is it safe for me to go there? Is it accessible to me? So, you have to address all these social milieu questions, for women’s safety, to be on board.

We know that 80% or about 70 to 80% of the women are anaemic. There have been certain programmes about making it anaemia free. And it’s very simple. You just need, like, one blood test and iron tablets. It’s as simple as that. And yet it’s not a priority. It’s not a priority for anyone. And the only way to solve is this one that the whole social structure about women’s health is as important as a child or a man. And then second, making these health centres accessible to them at multiple levels.

Nikunj Dalmia: As a police officer, when you look back at your career, what has been one most frustrating moment for you?

Parasher: It’s very strange. I actually have a reply to this one because and which is completely opposite. In my service, every time someone has approached me for any work to be done, what I hear is “agar police chahati hai toh kuch bhi ho sakta hai”. This is what I have heard every time. And for some reason, when someone comes to you and says this or if people approached the more senior officers and then we tell the juniors actually get it done, it’s surprising.

What I have noticed in the long run is that, in India, we haven’t really put as much effort required in institution building in the security institutions, especially in the police. And that has changed in the last few years. Maybe in the last decade or so.

Now there are police stations, and there is accessibility. People are able to reach there. And with the advent of the Internet and the ubiquitous mobile phone, which is there everywhere I think the police force has become, and policing services have become, much more accessible.

And because of that, I think more and more people are able to get the services that they need. And so there is nothing that cannot change. If you want to change it, you can do it.

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