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Saving gender diversity of your workplace

December 16, 2020

Media & Communication Strategist
Former Journalist and Anchor, NDTV, CNBC India

Let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we? Have organisations done enough to retain their women talent through the worst pandemic in our living history?

Barely. A recent analysis by McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that female job losses owing to the pandemic are about 1.8 times higher than male job losses rates, globally.  This figure should be extremely troubling for leaders of organisations committed to gender diversity. And not all of it cannot be attributed to the high job losses in sectors like hospitality and retail which employ a larger number of women. Companies across sectors are witnessing this worrying trend. I personally know of large organisations in India’s real estate sector who have lost an overwhelming number of their women managers and leaders in the past 6 months. The magnitude of gender inequality in the corporate world was significant even pre-COVID. According to ILO statistics of 2019, women made up 39% of the workforce globally. In India that number was as low as 19.9%. Imagine where this data will settle if corporates do not take immediate action to stem the widening inequality.

Here’s a quick dive into solutions discussed by some exemplary women leaders who were part of a timely discussion organised by GRI Club on “Women in Leadership, Building Resilience”. Any conversation on building resilience does sound hollow unless we figure out a way to keep women employees from quitting.

Take the risk of discriminating in favour of women

There are implicit invisible screens that a woman will face in her professional life. Recognise this and stick your neck out to discriminate in favour of women employees. With generations of patriarchy ingrained, we all know child raising, elderly parent care, home management responsibilities fall on women more than men. There is a greater need to handhold women employees, especially at a time of a crisis like this pandemic, or during their midcareer which usually coincides with the time when they start on the journey of motherhood. Provide them flexibility and support and do so without malice, without a grudge and without labelling them as “difficult”!  Simple things like giving women employees an opt out of meetings scheduled during lunch hour and after 6:00 pm, can go a long way. Salesforce India Chairman and CEO, Arundhati Bhattacharya told us, her company has taken a call to make all Fridays free from internal meetings, to lighten the day for something critical on the home front.  If team leaders put their heads together, they are bound to come up with several solutions. Some small, some bold. Almost two decades before it became mandatory for organisations of a certain size to provide day care facilities in India, NDTV, the media network had an inhouse creche run by trained staff and a Doctor on duty. That organisation has never struggled with gender diversity or with women leaders in charge of high stress work such as news media.

Create a mental and emotional support system

There is a distinct difference between leaders who mark gender diversity as an annual target for their HR to fulfil, and those who actively spend time to understand and help resolve a quitting women employees’ problem. Unless the act of a resignation from a capable woman in your team does not spur you the team leader,  into carving out time from your busy schedule to sit with her and delve deeper into where the real problem lies, you are paying lip service and nothing more.

Harsh observation? Perhaps. But I want to nudge your consciousness on this one. Within the organisation, observe and see if there are enough safe spaces for women to express themselves.  You can build in a buddy system, assign a confidante, a counsellor, a mental wellbeing expert as Lata Pillai, Group President, Yes Bank spoke about.  This can help women and even male employees get through a particularly trying period.  Sometimes all that a woman struggling with a setback needs is an empathetic hearing from a person who understands and handholds them, till they can recoup.

Break the stereotypes

Then there are stereotypes which need a deep thought by leaders. Citing Arundhati Bhattacharya again, who narrated an interesting story. During her early leadership role at SBI, she found that women managers were avoiding the mandatory rural posting which was hampering their growth.  She, like other leaders, assumed women managers were not taking up rural postings because they did not want to be away from their families, until she decided to ask them a simple “why”? Guess what Arundhati discovered? Women were avoiding rural postings because people in rural India hesitate in renting out rooms/homes to women living by themselves. SBI went on to institute the policy of renting chamris (a company guest house) for their women managers posted in rural India and small towns.

The pandemic has already broken the biggest workplace stereotype; if employees are not physically present in the office 9 hours a day 5 days a week, they are work shirkers and not productive enough. We now know the place of work is irrelevant. Output is the only benchmark. This is a great opportunity to bring talented, qualified women back into the workforce, according to Anita Arjundas, former CEO of Mahindra Lifespaces, and current Board Member, KREA University. Work from Home (WFH) can be the most powerful tool for driving gender diversity in the post pandemic world. Ask any talented woman who has quit her job to prioritise family and home. She can easily fit in 5-6 hours of work a day, if allowed the flexibility of shorter hours plus WFH.  As Anita added, organisations need to take a leaf from the highly efficient gig economy. Break up large roles and parcel them between several women and you will most likely get better quality of output. Women score high on sincerity and their commitment to deadlines.

Women! Ditch the self-criticism

The world will take time to change. It is... that. But what is stopping us women, from unnecessarily burdening ourselves with being perfect? Let us accept, we fall terribly short on “letting go”.

Lower expectations of yourself and of everyone around you, especially your equal half. Being a soccer mom is no longer fashionable.  Instead, you need to master the skill of getting your spouse/partner, your children and significant others living under the same roof, to pitch in with their fair share and keep the household running, smoothly. Free up your time for self-care and smart networking.

Men at the workplace race ahead for three reasons – they don’t share the workload equally at home, they believe in the power of networking and make time for it, AND (it’s a big and)  they have more than an adequate sense of self-worth which makes them fight for their promotion and raises. We need to get at par on all three.  Especially the bit about raises. Women get paid $0.81 for every dollar that a man makes for an equivalent role, even in 2020, according to a PayScale research. This gender pay gap is another reason why the woman in a family is pushed to quit in difficult times while the man gets to keep his job.

Final word

For the minority of us, who have managed to keep our careers together and risen the corporate ladder through motherhood, self-doubt and crises, I have only one thing to say– we could not have done it without a boss and mentor who cared enough to be our cheerleader and wouldn’t let us quit!  Mine were both men.

I rest our collective case.

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