Article: IWD 2023: Diversity in leadership is a must to build equality in the workplace, says Deepti Varma, VP, Amazon Stores India

Diversity

IWD 2023: Diversity in leadership is a must to build equality in the workplace, says Deepti Varma, VP, Amazon Stores India

On this International Women’s Day Deepti Varma, Vice-President, People Experience Technology at Amazon Stores India and Emerging Markets feels that a culture of inclusion can be achieved by encouraging and hiring for social and cognitive diversity to boost employee engagement in a hybrid workplace.
IWD 2023: Diversity in leadership is a must to build equality in the workplace, says Deepti Varma, VP, Amazon Stores India

While equal opportunities are essential, they are not enough to achieve true diversity, equity, and inclusion, says Deepti Varma on International Women’s Day (IWD). She suggests that organisations must also address the systemic barriers and biases that exist in the workplace and create an environment that supports and values all employees.

What are the building blocks to ensure both social and cognitive diversity, as well as create a culture of inclusion in a hybrid workplace? 

In today’s hybrid workplace, a culture of inclusion can be achieved by encouraging and hiring for social and cognitive diversity that boosts employee engagement thus, creating safe spaces in which collaborative and innovative ideas are allowed to emerge. To build, enable and promote cognitive diversity, organisations can engage in strategies, such as 1) hiring for skills and competencies, rather than education or experience, that gives access to a wider pool of talent, which naturally enhances the chances of finding candidates from diverse backgrounds; 2) hiring candidates who are a culture add by looking for talent that brings in a fresh perspective instead of hiring for a culture fit by considering people who share similar ideas as the employees already on the team; 3) providing employees with continuous learning opportunities that helps them to constantly innovate, solve problems and develop new ways of thought; and 4) creating a safe working environment that allows cognitive diversity to flourish by authentically integrating it into all aspects of company culture so that employees feel free and safe to share ideas, and suggestions for alternate routes.

At Amazon, we constantly look for ways to strengthen our workplace culture that provides equal opportunities for a diverse workforce. Ensuring social and cognitive diversity, as well as creating a culture of inclusion, we have adopted a comprehensive approach that incorporates various building blocks. Right from talent scouting to hire, The company has implemented tools and mechanisms that deter recruiters or hiring managers from gravitating toward others that look, act, and think like themselves, which is a form of unconscious bias. Job descriptions are drafted in a manner ensuring no sentence or the way the role is defined reflects the preference for any bias. A bias buster mechanism called ‘Conscience Keeper’ involves a neutral person, who calls out biases in the reviews, interrupts biased discussions to ensure parity and equity in talent processes. We also recruit a diverse workforce by developing partnerships with universities and organisations that serve underrepresented communities. It also promotes job opportunities through job boards that cater to diverse communities and can eliminate biases in the hiring process.

To engage with employable youths with disabilities as part of Amazon’s diversity and inclusion agenda, we signed a Letter of Intent (LoI) with the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Ministry of Social Justice, and Empowerment. The MoU aims to provide skilling and employment opportunities through Job fairs to tens of thousands of PwD (People with Disabilities) across the country.

Our smart assistance on-boarding processes with Alexa has helped new employees navigate through Amazon’s culture and understanding other information in a simpler way. Our in-house tool ‘Connections’ helps measure and improve employee experience as they respond anonymously to a question or two each day on a wide array of topics, including safety, workplace efficiency, workplace culture, leader preferences, work styles, and more. Flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, flexitime, also helps reduce barriers for employees who have unique needs.

Amazon also encourages the formation of employee resource groups (ERGs) to create a sense of community and provide a platform for underrepresented groups to voice their concerns and ideas. Overall, these building blocks can help companies  create a culture of inclusion that values both social and cognitive diversity in its hybrid workplace.

How has the concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion got redefined over a period of time?

Diversity Equity & Inclusion plays a critical role in ensuring that employees have equitable experiences in the workplace. This means creating an environment that is inclusive and values diversity, where employees feel respected and have equal opportunities for growth and development. The umbrella of DEI has grown significantly over the past two decades and is currently striving for growth in a myriad of capacities to benefit more cohorts. Initially, the focus was mainly on providing equal opportunities for women in the workplace however, over time, the concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion has expanded to include a broader range of factors, such as, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability and even within these factors, organisations have extended to develop and enable access to promotions, upskilling, growth into leadership roles or lateral growth opportunities etc.

Today, with the help of people experience and technology, organisations can create and promote a positive employee experience, ensuring equitable outcomes, incorporating diverse perspectives in technology design, addressing bias in talent management processes, and creating a culture of belonging by using technology to facilitate communication, collaboration, and connection among employees.

Some of the initiatives that we launched for increasing women representation and providing them opportunities for growth and development are –

  • All-women delivery stations across India, which are fully run by women
  • WINS (Women in Night Shifts) is a program that enables Amazon to give equal opportunity for both men and women to work in night shifts. Since many States in India prohibit the employment of women in night shifts, Amazon India has been proactively engaging with government authorities to enable night shift operations for women across its sites in India.
  • All-women Virtual Customer Service (VCS) Center enables women to continuously leverage their skills, strengths, and capabilities, from the comfort of their homes.
  • Provision of ‘Mother’s room’ in every office location for nursing mothers to accommodate their lactation needs.
  • Work flexibility to new mothers whereby managers are educated and encouraged on the importance to be sensitive to the requests of new mothers to work in specific shifts and understand travel limitations owing to the need of attending her child.
  • Childcare Benefits to new mothers through access to a network of childcare centres, such that employees can select a childcare center as per their requirement and avail themselves of their services at a subsidised rate. Amazon also supports women employees with daycare costs for up to two children.

We have also launched various learning programs specially curated for women transitioning to leadership roles at Amazon India that focuses on up-skilling women employees to take up bigger roles in terms of responsibility. Some of these programs are – ‘Pinnacle’ which is a leadership development program for high performing women at Amazon aimed at building an internal pipeline of diversity leadership for the future. Another leadership development program for women is ‘Catapult’, launched in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning in 2021, is a curated learning program for mid-level women managers. Its curriculum comprises of 3 elements - expressing leadership voice (leading self), leading with an enterprise mindset (leading business) and strengthening network (leading organization), while other mentoring or experience sharing mechanisms at Amazon are ‘Sheroes’ and ‘Amazon Catalyst Program’.

Advancing gender equity in the workplace is a complex and multifaceted issue that involves a range of challenges. These challenges are deeply rooted in societal norms and expectations, as well as organizational policies and practices, and can be difficult to address. In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on creating a more inclusive workplace culture, where everyone feels valued and respected, regardless of their background or identity. This has led to the development of various diversity and inclusion training programs, unconscious bias training, and employee resource groups at Amazon such as Women@Amazon and Glamazon besides other affinity groups.

While equal opportunities are essential, they are not enough to achieve true diversity, equity, and inclusion. Organisations must also address the systemic barriers and biases that exist in the workplace and create an environment that supports and values all employees. At Amazon, the concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion has evolved from a focus on equal opportunities to a broader emphasis on creating an inclusive workplace culture that values diversity and promotes equity for all employees, including women.

While the responsibility for building an inclusive environment rests with every colleague, the leadership or Board has a critical role to play. What are the efforts that Amazon has made to create an environment of growth and development for women and others?

Gender equality is one of Amazon's priority areas, and we work across all businesses to identify people who are passionate about diversity and inclusion. It is everyone’s priority to continuously think about inclusiveness. At Amazon, leaders have both a moral and strategic responsibility to promote gender equality within the organisation. India's female work participation rate was just 25% for 2021, according to federal government data, among the lowest for emerging economies. For every woman, 98% of the inequality she faces would be caused by discrimination because of gender. The remaining 2% would be because of education or work experience, the report said.

Equality cannot be built into an organisation’s culture unless the leaders are diverse, because that’s where it starts influencing the policies, thinking, behaviour, etc. With the change in time, women are now becoming an integral part of the team, as they are upskilling women employees and taking on bigger roles and responsibilities. Women's equal participation and opportunity at work better reflect our customer base. Customers come from all walks of life. The more the make-up of the organisation reflects its customers, the more likely it is to communicate effectively with them.

In the last few years, we have focused our efforts on women, and driven more rigor into efforts to increase women’s representation in the workforce. From including DEI metrics to leadership goals and introducing mechanisms to track parity in top tier ratings and promotions for female employees, to remote working options to enable Virtual Customer Service centre, Amazon has focused programs aimed towards increasing the representation of women in the workforce. 

For instance, we ensure that 50% of resumes are from women for any given role, without which we don’t move forward with the hiring process. One of the key challenges in advancing gender equity is unconscious bias, which are subtle and often unintentional biases that people hold towards others based on their gender, race, age, or other characteristics. These biases can impact how people are perceived and treated in the workplace and can create barriers to gender equity. As mentioned above, to address implicit bias issues, especially at the hiring stage, Amazon runs dedicated programs and have tools and mechanisms in place to offer leaders effective ways to address them. Job descriptions are drafted in a manner ensuring no sentence or the way the role is defined reflects preference for any gender bias.

We also ensure that our initiatives provide growth opportunities for women at each stage such as:

  • For helping new mothers’ transition back to work with resilience and empathy, Amazon has a Ramp Back program.
  • AmazeWIT Circles: a unique networking and learning event for women from the technology space to connect, engage, educate and make them industry ready for careers in technology.
  • Rekindle: Amazon’s initiative which provides a launch pad to women, who have taken a break in their career due to any personal circumstances. Through this initiative, Amazon aims to provide opportunities and support women who require assistance to professionally re-integrate and resume their corporate career.

How do you unleash talent, ensure that your organisation has representation from multiple points of view, and how has diversity helped the company achieve its goals?

At Amazon India, we foster a culture that is conducive to growth and offer people equal opportunities to unlock their full potential while empowering them to do more. Our commitment to equality stems across all communities of talent including focused efforts around women, LGBTQIA, military veterans and the differently abled, amongst others. It is this diversity of thought that enables us to deliver continuous value to our customers and is also aligned with our mission to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. It is up to us to build an inclusive culture where individuals feel safe, valued, and supported to share their unique perspective. While Diversity, equity and inclusion are good for business, this commitment is based on something more fundamental than that –it is simply right. With this in mind, we continue to focus on providing individuals from different backgrounds, demographics, and social strata with equal access to opportunities and resources enabling them to expand their horizons.

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Topics: Diversity, #WomenofChange, #PowerWomen, #SheMatters, #EmbraceEquity, #DEIB

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