The women’s history month and conversations about inclusive workplaces makes this a perfect time for reflections and candour around the momentum for gender diversity in Indian workplaces. Optics on this agenda are great and many organisations are embracing the equal opportunities movement by including gender diversity. But those ahead in the spectrum have been announcing returnee programmes, employee resource groups to support women and women development programmes to groom women for future leadership roles.
These are all well-intended agendas, but appear to largely underperform on building the momentum required for true inclusion or impact. The activity and efforts often struggle with the potted plant syndrome of best practices, failing to create the elusive equal opportunities cultures they are aspiring for.
Some senior women in a leading organisation were recently asked to reflect on which key lines on the business plan they were contributing to, and which critical projects of strategic importance were they working on that year. It turned out there were no responses in the affirmative if they saw their roles through these parameters.
“How do I guard against the soft bigotry of low expectations when I am hiring a returnee candidate?” This was a question from a male senior manager from a leading organisation, when asked to include women returning from career breaks needed to take care of children.
A senior woman professional aspiring to a CFO role in her organisation admitted to not having any say on her own personal finances. She was alluding to how our social architecture validates women for being self-sacrificing, serving others, persisting the confusion of not leading personally while aspiring to lead others in the workplace. The CEO of a leading organisation expressed concern when a senior woman director on his board had not spoken up in the first three board meetings. When asked, she admitted to not finding the space to speak up in a room full of men. She was provided the support, but found it difficult to break in despite her seniority.
It’s obvious despite efforts, overall the gender equality and empowerment agenda appears to be underperforming in many parts, especially on how it manifests in workplaces. There appears to be a confusion between the optics and the real manifestation of equality in terms of opportunities & power, intentionality vs methods for accomplishing this, as well as mistaking diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) activities for accomplishment of DEI cultures.
It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that — especially in patriarchal and collective societies where marriage, child-rearing and inclusion in the marital home are significant milestones for happiness — our understanding and outcomes from this agenda may require tempering. This means moving away from western benchmarks to focus instead on what may be authentically gratifying in our ethos.
Women empowerment is defined as promoting self-worth, the power to make choices and the right to also influence social change for others. Pause for a moment to ascertain on how much of this journey is external and how much of this manifests inside-out through reflections. Clearly, there is considerable space for inner journeys, inner dialogues, inner reflections to transform the stories women tell themselves as women, norms & paradigms women set themselves up for to feel validated. The authenticity and intention on how women want to contribute, the undeniable expectations women have from themselves on child & elder care, are perhaps an admittance of the work required to create an ecosystem to enable contributions in the way in which they may have imagined.
Here are some ideas to consider for organisations seeking to sustain and win in the gender empowerment and inclusion journey and for women seeking to contribute and grow in the workplace…
* Culture change: DEI is culture change interventions and must be treated with seriousness. Entrust this to a guiding coalition of leaders & experts who can drive this as a top-down culture change agenda. DEI is not a series of programmes or a patronising effort to get viewed as equal opportunities employer. Embarking on this agenda is to agree to question, reflect our deepest values, beliefs, assumptions, conditioning, mindsets and be prepared to have these called out when we interact, explore, make decisions for the business
* Accountability: The flexibility and support to life transitions like marriage and motherhood cannot be supported unilaterally by offering flexibilities and absence without orienting diverse talent on the responsibilities and accountabilities that come with flexibilities offered. The spirit of equity must be extended to all by clearly thinking through work accountabilities. People managers and team leaders must be groomed on how to offer this support without compromising shared accountability for performance
* Job sharing: Where two equally qualified people are hired for a single position, do half-time and share the compensation for the job. This may be a great way to manage productivity by offering two women who are handling life transitions to manage their careers while offering them time flexibilities to manage children or elder care. This has been well-tested with positive experiences on productivity and support to the careers of women professionals
* Build leaders: Women career advancement must not be driven by numbers to show premature results and outcomes. Genuinely build women leaders to navigate the realities of business
Ask real questions
Stop asking questions like ‘How many women do we have in our organisation? How many positions have we earmarked as diversity positions? What is the percentage of women we want promoted this year? Do we have women leaders to showcase to new hires or on our websites?’
Instead, ask ‘How many women do we have in business roles? How do we create platforms to enable women to lean in to contribute? How many critical business agendas are women in our organisation contributing to? How many women do we have in future successor roles? How many women are truly high-performing and showing the ability to take on next big roles? How are women in our organisation contributing to the value-creation journey? How can we help women manage life transitions through motherhood beyond the six-month maternity breaks? How does our organisation support professional women who are home to offer elder care, to contribute in gig formats — insourced/outsourced, contract, project executives, as vendors and consultants, etc?’
Change questions to change answers
Given the demographics, gender diversity is undoubtedly the opportunity for building inclusive cultures to prepare to integrate other diversities. This momentum will come from using insights from our realities, by not putting the cart before the horse, creating authentic support needed to raise children and families, and preparing women to contribute to real value-creation journeys in business.
(The writer is CEO, Capstone People Consulting)