Article: IWD 2024: Industry leaders on how to champion gender equality

Strategic HR

IWD 2024: Industry leaders on how to champion gender equality

On this International Women’s Day, insights from industry captains underscore both the steps taken and the ongoing challenges in fostering inclusive environments where women can thrive.
IWD 2024: Industry leaders on how to champion gender equality

International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 every year globally to celebrate and recognise the contributions, progress, and achievement of women in various fields. The day also reminds us to introspect at an organisation level to support women and help them thrive in the workplace.

According to the 2023 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org, women's representation is yet to keep pace. The UN defines gender equality not only as a fundamental human right but as a necessity to have a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. Despite representing half of the population globally, they continue to be underrepresented. The persistent gender inequality stagnates social progress.

According to the UN, on average, women in the labor market still earn 23% less than men globally and women spend about three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men.

Inclusion at organisational level

To recognise the significant contribution of women and encourage their participation, organisations have reworked policies to support them.

“We acknowledge that the diverse needs of individuals require different levels of support or resources to achieve equal opportunities. The goal is to establish a workplace where everyone, regardless of their background, gender, abilities, or any other characteristic, has equal access to opportunities and is treated fairly,” says Arppna Mehra, VP-HR, Global DTS & HR Head-HARMAN India.

To support women candidates returning to work after a career break, HARMAN India runs an equitable platform for women to apply for open roles at the organistaion. Also, they have a Maternity Engagement Program named AMIGO to support women during the difficult times of motherhood by giving moms access to resources, reintegration programming, and chances to interact with other mothers within the organisation. Besides supporting women, HARMAN also runs LGBTQ+ awareness campaigns to build an inclusive workplace.

Maria Rajesh – CHRO, Embassy Group, says that they believe that true inclusion involves actively seeking out and amplifying voices that might otherwise be marginalised. “It entails creating an environment where every perspective is not only welcomed but actively sought after. We value and embrace the diverse contributions that each person brings, leveraging these differences for innovation and progress. It's about nurturing a culture where diversity isn't just accepted but embraced and celebrated, fostering a more vibrant, dynamic, and successful community for all."

Nabamita Banerjee, Head of Human Resources, TATA Starbucks, believes inclusion is embracing diversity and fostering an environment where every voice is heard, valued, and respected. “Our focus lies in creating a culture where our partners feel empowered to bring their authentic selves to work, contributing to a collective sense of belonging and shared purpose.”

Challenges for women

Women grapple with unconscious bias, less pay for the same work, the unequal division of unpaid care and domestic work, and discrimination. These are the huge barriers for them to flourish.

“It is evident that women often find themselves, mainly in India grappling with the dual pressures of professional responsibilities and family priorities. Recognising this challenge, we focus on creating a supportive ecosystem that empowers women to achieve a harmonious balance between their work and personal lives,” says Archana Krishna, Cofounder and CHRO, Simplilearn.

“It is important to foster a culture of empathy and understanding within our organisation, by encouraging open communication and mutual support among team members, allowing women to feel valued and respected in the workplace. Additionally, providing mentorship and professional development opportunities to help them advance their careers and achieve their full potential must be taken care of. To cultivate equality, we wholeheartedly embrace a merit-based approach to advancement, ensuring that women have equal opportunities to excel alongside their counterparts,” Archana adds.

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Role of leadership in fostering an inclusive environment

To foster an inclusive culture that empowers women to thrive professionally, Kishore Poduri, Managing Director and Country Head of HR at DBS Bank India, suggests creating a council led by senior leadership. “To enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, DBS Bank India has established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council led by senior leadership. This council is dedicated to improving representation across genders, abilities, and generations while fostering a psychologically safe culture and engaging diverse talent communities.”

Kishore also mentions a proactive role in designing and implementing policies to empower women professionally and cultivate a supportive, inclusive environment.

“DBS Bank has implemented a comprehensive talent development approach structured under EEE (Education, Exposure, and Experience). This framework includes various initiatives such as regular career interventions, mentoring, job shadowing, and targeted programs aimed at equipping female employees with the necessary skills for career advancement.”

DBS Bank has also offered access to women leaders to external leadership development programs, including the 'My Persona Women Leadership Development Program,' designed to prepare early to mid-career women for future leadership roles. Women in the High-Potential (HiPo) cohort actively benefit from tailored career interventions such as mentoring and executive coaching, aimed at supporting their development and progression within the organisation. In 2021, the bank launched the "Lean In" initiative to establish social learning communities, fostering mentorship and growth opportunities, particularly among women at DBS Bank India.

With a comprehensive maternity policy, work-from-home support for employees with newborns or newly adopted children up to six years of age, along with supplementary benefits for caring for family members recovering from critical illness or injury initiatives, and policies, DBS Bank India aims to create fulfilling career paths for women, enhancing their participation in the workforce and maximising their potential contributions.

For Shraddha Pradhan - Head Human Resources, ICICI Lombard, the most important thing that the leadership needs to do to foster an inclusive culture that empowers women to thrive professionally is to bring in ally ship at the senior levels where they take punt on the women talent & support them to deliver great results. “The journey to this should start early through mentoring from the start, investing in coaching on building EQ at the leadership levels, inspiring & challenging them to take up roles which have been traditionally a male dominion. This then has to be augmented by leadership becoming the talent broker by seeking career choices of these women & connecting them to the right opportunities in the organisation & be their sponsors on the journey.”

The change starts with the leadership, says Ravi Tangirala, Head of MassMutual India. "By showing openness and acceptance, leaders can help eliminate fears, biases, and inequalities. That includes specifically addressing workforce gender parities and recruiting women in tech to support our business."

Fostering an inclusive culture that empowers women to thrive professionally requires a multifaceted approach, but one key aspect is leadership commitment, believes Gunjandeep Kaur, Director of HR Business Partner at Model N.

"The number one thing leadership must do to foster an inclusive culture for women in the workplace is to promote gender diversity and equity at all levels of the organisation," says Gunjandeep.  According to her by establishing clear and measurable goals, reevaluating and revising existing policies to be more gender-inclusive and creating a culture of respect through personal example and active intervention against bias, leaders can cultivate a thriving work environment. Supporting employee resource groups focused on gender diversity and providing awareness training for all employees further empowers individuals to contribute to a more empathetic and supportive workplace. Finally, actively seeking and utilising feedback, particularly from women, allows for continuous improvement and ensures policies remain truly inclusive. This comprehensive approach, championed by committed leadership, paves the way for a more equitable future where everyone feels valued and empowered to contribute to the organisation's success.

Leaders should role-model inclusive behaviors to their teams, says Lakshmi R Rajagopal, Head – Diversity and Inclusion, Fidelity Investments India and they can do this effectively by understanding their strengths and addressing their self-biases. "When leaders begin to realize their unique value proposition, they are immediately able to assess their strengths and those of their teams as well, and work towards honing them. This ensures that they are able to give intentional and specific inputs for growth to their teams, especially the women, rather than general advice that would be of little benefit."

Initiatives for women

For Kashish Daya Kapoor, Head - Human Resource, NEC Corporation India, Equality & Inclusion is intentional, not incidental. “We recognize that advancing gender equality and inclusivity is a strategic business imperative that holds the power to transform organizations by unlocking the full potential of our workforce and contribute to nation building through unparalleled innovation.”

One of the key initiatives that NEC India has invested in, says Kashish which specifically benefits our women employees, is a comprehensive focus on leadership development programs like EMPOWER and LEAP. “These programs are designed to equip middle and frontline managers and nurture emerging leaders within our organization. In 2023 alone, we graduated 100 leaders through these programs, with over 18% of participants being promoted to larger roles. This effort has significantly contributed to the increase of women's representation in leadership positions, surpassing our diversity goals for the year.”

 Highlighting the initiatives for the benefit of women employees, Meeta Gutgutia, Co-Founder FNP, says that besides Maternity leave and flexibility, we offer curated health camps and awareness sessions, pink leave or menstrual leave, financial independence, leadership, work-life balance, mental health, and upskilling programs to them to increase their learning and knowledge base. “Pay equality and women in leadership roles are also our focus areas to support women in the workplace.

Boeing, a prominent player in the aerospace sector, focuses on building an ecosystem of excellence and growth for its women employees, and not merely offering a benefit to attract and retain them.

According to Ajay Sharma, Executive Director – HR, Boeing India, equal pay for equal work is foundational to their commitment to equity for all. To support women employees, Boeing has invested $2 billion in offering tuition assistance for employees through the Learning Together Program. This initiative helps employees continue acquiring professional certifications/degrees while they are on the job. Boeing also offers Technical Fellowship Program for its technical workforce and Return to Flight program to enable equitable job opportunities to people on long career breaks for varied reasons.

“We acknowledge that the way to gender equality is by working together towards it in partnership, hence we focus on gender partnership as a core value and utilise our strengths towards building allies that have men and women partners in fostering an inclusive workplace. We work towards welcoming more women in STEM through our longstanding partnerships with industry and academia. Our recently launched Boeing Sukanya Program supports the entry of more girls from across India into the growing aviation sector. The program offers opportunities to women from across India to learn critical skills in the STEM fields and train for jobs in the aviation sector,” says Ajay.

Over the past two years, says Nabamita, Tata Starbucks has helped improve the lives of more than 2000 young women from underserved and economically backward communities by sponsoring their skilling in the QSR/retail industry, creating pathways for employment opportunities, and enhancing their livelihoods. A few key initiatives are –TRRAIN Her which provides vocational training for underserved young women in retail and food and beverage, aiming to train 2,000 by 2024, with on-the-job learning opportunities at Starbucks stores across the country.

Tata Starbucks also has a collaboration with Vidya India where partners invest their time and effort in imparting essential skills to women entering micro-enterprises, that have impacted over 1000 women, equipping them with skills such as customer centricity, food preparation, coffee brewing, and nutrition.

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Topics: Strategic HR, Diversity, Employee Relations, #HRCommunity, #InternationalWomensDay, #SheMatters

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