Book Excerpt: Breaking Through India’s Male-Dominated Workplaces

The psychological pressures that Zia Mody experienced will be familiar to many women today, write Geoffrey Jones & Tarun Khanna.

A hammer and a gavel (Source: <a href="">Freepik</a>)
A hammer and a gavel (Source: Freepik)

Excerpted from ‘Leadership To Last: How Great Leaders Leave Legacies Behind’, by Geoffrey Jones and Tarun Khanna, with permission from Penguin Random House.

It has been said that women hold up half the sky, but all too often their opportunities and talents are held back by social constraints. Gender inequality is an almost universal phenomenon, but India is among nations that suffer the most from this problem. The 2019 Gender Inequality Index (GII) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) measures inequalities in human development (such as reproductive health), empowerment (such as proportion of parliamentary seats) and economic status (such as labour market participation). None of India’s BRIC peers shine in this ranking: out of 189 countries, China is ranked 39, Russia is ranked 50, South Africa 93 and Brazil 95. However, India is worse than all of them, with a ranking of 123. As per the 2019 GII, Indian women contribute only 18% to the country’s GDP—one of the lowest contributions in the world—and only a quarter of India’s labour force is female. Currently, only 13.5% of members of Parliament are women. The figure is 20% both in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in Saudi Arabia, which has pursued an unusually restrictive policy on women’s rights until very recently. In Norway, over 40% of people elected to parliament are women.

The selections in this chapter confirm the many challenges women have faced at all levels of society in India and elsewhere and explore strategies to improve the situation. The interviewees were among the first generation of women to break through the barriers in their professions, and those barriers were considerable. Prominent lawyer Zia Mody recounts that when she worked in New York early in her career, only about a quarter of the staff in her legal practice were women, which made her feel pressured enough, but the situation was far worse in the Indian legal system, where there were even fewer women. The psychological pressures and lack of confidence that she experienced will be familiar to many women even today.


Zia Mody is a founding and senior partner of AZB & Partners, a leading law firm in India. Inspired to go into law by her father Soli Jehangir Sorabjee, the former attorney general of India between 1989 and 1990, and again from 1998 to 2004, Mody began her career as a young lawyer in New York City at the firm of Baker McKenzie. Mody worked her way to becoming one of India’s top corporate lawyers and successfully grew AZB & Partners from a small boutique firm into a major firm with more than 400 associates across India. Fortune India ranked her number one in the list of the most powerful women entrepreneurs in both 2018 and 2019.

Interviewed by Tarun Khanna in Mumbai on Feb. 14, 2017.

Interviewer: Were there a lot of women when you worked at Baker McKenzie in New York between 1980 and 1984?

Zia Mody: About 25%. Not too bad, but not what it would be today. And my senior, Norman Miller, he told me there was no pressure. But of course, there was! Here I was this foreign student, but my stint in New York definitely reinforced my ability to stay the term. Coming back to India was a struggle because you were in court . . . with 100 men, maybe one woman, two women, who would actually argue rather than follow. I was very nervous and therefore this was a very defining experience for me—to give up, or not to give up. I had three children, by the way, while I was arguing, so a lot of choices, guilt 24/7, nervousness about the boys laughing at me, and worry about what the judges were thinking if I hadn’t got it right and that it would somehow get back to my father. But I think all in all there has never been any great moment when I wanted to give up the law. So I would say, you can still find success and be happy, even if you lose sometimes in court. I remember the first case that I lost. I was weeping and then I was telling my father, ‘But I am right, I know I am right, the judge is wrong!’ And he was quiet on the other end of the line, he was in Delhi, I could see him smiling. He said, ‘But someone has to lose, and you can go and appeal and you can argue first.’ I think there were a lot of just natural little moments. I wouldn’t say there was one big bang revelation.

Interviewer: I remember reading that someone advised you when you came back to India that to start your career as a woman lawyer you should do free cases?

ZM: Yes, so when I came back as I said there were no mergers and acquisitions, and I was a young junior and juniors never really got to argue the cases. And there were so many juniors, how do you stand out? And the only way you stand out is to get the opportunity to brief a senior, get good matters, and then slowly start arguing. So my senior basically told me that for the first year I should not charge. So if I was for free, I got more work. If I got more work I could demonstrate more capability. So that was the virtually free one year.

Interviewer: Can you speak about how you have helped cultivate women lawyers in AZB & Partners?

ZM: They are very special to me, and all the men know that. So I think the fact that I am a woman and there is leadership from a woman at the top suddenly makes it easier for our women. So what do I do actually, in real terms, rather than just the esoteric ‘I love women’ thing? I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to this part of life. Many women who are working with us obviously go through the lifecycles of marriage and motherhood. These are our two crisis points when we want to give up the profession or give up what we are doing. And so I have a sort of a checklist now. When someone says she is getting married, I sit her down, say here is the checklist, come back to me, tell me I am a genius, tell me I know everything, because this is exactly what’s going to happen. And so I offered guidance about your infrastructure and how are you going to deal with it. We discussed questions like are you with your mother-in-law, are you not with your mother-in-law, do you have to fight with your mother-in-law, is it a sin to be friends with your mother-in-law, why don’t you make people who can help you your friends and your allies. The first child is the worst time for a mother and so we have our little AZB babies, and I think the best thing that you can do is to nurture the woman through that difficult period, which is not much. It is sometimes six months, it is sometimes nine months, it is sometimes a year, it’s whatever they need to get their head comfortable. And then you know you don’t have to judge them like every aggressive male, they bring a lot more to the table in different ways. So if the guy is doing twelve deals, if the woman at that time is doing not twelve deals but eight deals, it’s okay. And if she feels she is respected, and if she feels you are not doing charity to her, she is fine. And the men get it because we have invested years in this resource and she stayed there because she is bright, she is committed, she has the DNA of the firm, she holds our letterhead high—why would we lose her? It’s just stupid. So when somebody who is in a position of leadership says that I guess most people listen.

Interviewer: So how many women do you have now in the firm?

ZM: 50% of partners and maybe a little more as associates.

Interviewer: We often hear about the difficulty of work-life balance. How do you think about work-life balance either by force of example or as you see it play out with the women who are so beloved to you in your firm?

ZM: So I don’t stop saying that my example is a wrong example. I personally think in hindsight, at the tender age of sixty that I am now, that I overdid it. I think that I did not balance it enough. I don’t think there is such a thing as work-life balance, first of all. To start with, it is how much balance. So I think that today’s women funnily enough feel the guilt more than maybe my generation did. My generation, maybe, or your wife’s generation, had that sense of wanting to achieve because maybe their mothers did not have that same opportunity. I think my mother lived through me, I had to do everything that she couldn’t do. And so I get that there has to be a balance, as always, but the balance is imperfect. If you have to be a thorough professional, if you want to be seen as one of the best, what is the enemy? The enemy is time, and who gets the short end of that stick? Your family. So I guess when you are older you say sorry more, you take more holidays, but then by that time our children have grown up. So I think the work-life balance story, I think in any country, probably is a difficult choice.

Learnings from Zia Mody: Mentorship is key to advancing the professional careers of women.

Geoffrey Jones is the Isidor Straus Professor of Business History, and Tarun Khanna is the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, at the Harvard Businesss School.

The views expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.