Article: This year was not about just awareness, but about affirmative action: Vieshaka Dutta, Publicis Sapient


This year was not about just awareness, but about affirmative action: Vieshaka Dutta, Publicis Sapient

In this exclusive conversation with People Matters, Vieshaka Dutta, Director – DEI, Publicis Sapient reflected on the the need to learn ‘what’s not to be done’ and highlighted how Publicis Sapient is enabling the shift from exposure to awareness to action in building an inclusive working environment.
This year was not about just awareness, but about affirmative action: Vieshaka Dutta, Publicis Sapient

Vieshaka Dutta is presently Director - Diversity Equity and Inclusion at Publicis Sapient.

With over two decades of illustrious and diverse industry experience with brands in the likes of Publicis Sapient, FICCI, Intel, Accenture and Ola, among others, Vieshaka has handled a variety of HR portfolios including HR programs and operations, organization effectiveness and design, Diversity and Inclusion and CSR. 

An SME in the field of organization effectiveness, inclusion and diversity, employee engagement and cultural transformation, Vieshaka is focused on evolving the experience for people at workplaces.

Over the years, she has coached and supported people in under-represented communities, while facilitating community groups on social media, namely, Working With Pride (WWP - An India network of professionals promoting Diversity and Inclusion and LGBTQI at workplaces), Single Parent Friends ( An informal India network of Single Parents) and Super Mums of India (A large network of Mothers).

In this exclusive conversation with People Matters, Vieshaka reflected on the several experiences that guided her journey as a DEI leader, the need to learn ‘what’s not to be done’, and highlighted how Publicis Sapient is enabling the shift from exposure to awareness to action in building an inclusive working environment.

Here are highlights from the interaction.

What have been the highlights of your journey as a DEI leader? What were some milestones that guided you towards that journey?

There are a couple of instances that stood out in my professional journey that gave direction to my path as a DEI leader. There were three significant instances including: 

  • A biased leader who discriminated against and rejected the CVs of two women on the grounds that they were of a certain age and likely to get married and have children soon. 
  • When I moved to another organization some time later, I joined what was referred to as a ‘women friendly’ organization. When I told my boss within three months of having joined that organization - with a little bit of trepidation that I'm carrying and I will be going on maternity leave - I actually said to her - I don't know if it's good news or not. And she said, ‘Of course it is good news, why are you even wondering?’ I then realized the conditioning that I had come with, that being off on maternity leave is something that somebody was supposed to feel bad about in a career zone. 
  • The third incident was when just before having my child I was going through the whole phenomenon of mother's guilt, wondering if I can have a career at all, because I didn't want to not be a hands on mother. And I had a counselor ( assigned mentor) at office who said something that changed my life. She said that nobody can give 24 hours to a person, even if it is your child. If you are able to figure out the quality time - the time that really matters with your child - with other things that you want to do, then it's absolutely okay. ‘Because that is what anybody else will be able to give to anybody else.’ I made it the mantra of how I handled motherhood and my career. 

When I became a new mother, I was also undergoing counseling which made me a much more equipped parent and I started using some of that work at office as well through parenting community support at workplaces. With the parenting work at the workplace, I saw that a lot of women who were in a good space in their careers, did not want to have children, or delayed motherhood owing to the shadowing question on their commitment. That’s where the mantra came in again and I was able to share my learnings with them. A lot of the people in my team resonated with the thought and started thinking that this could be a way of having it all. I would think that this influenced quite a few lives, because these women reach out to me, they've shared their life journeys about how they then went on to have children and their own experiments and unique arrangements to make it all work for them. All of these are very important parts of my DNI journey. 

A key aspect of my journey is also the learnings I have had around ‘what’s not to be done’.

From being ignorant about what’s important for different ethnicities, to making fun of people in belittling ways and playing the humour card, to not being inclusive of who can make it to out of workplace team connects and more. Observations around such nuances made me conscious about are we doing what we are saying? Maybe the majority does not engage in such behaviour, but if some of your senior people behave in that way, then that's the norm that other people can behave in that way 

These were some of the incidents that shaped my career journey in this space.

What are some microaggressions that leaders and teams must address in the virtual working environment? How did the last fifteen months impact Publicis Sapient’s approach towards creating awareness around inclusive behaviours?

We've gone beyond just awareness. This year was not about just awareness, but about affirmative action, and that's what we are focusing on. What I did as a leader in the last fifteen months is I pushed this organization to talk about things and do things that are uncomfortable. 

In the context of equity, not everybody is in an equal space during the pandemic. Women were definitely more badly impacted than others during the pandemic. Domestic violence numbers were going through the roof. Keeping that in mind, last April, we had done a session on Mental Health focused on women.

Domestic violence was also a workplace topic because the same women who are going through abuse and very difficult circumstances in their relationships, intimate partner relationships and in their homes, will also be working in offices.

So we conducted sessions to equip them. I can't say that everybody was aligned from day one, or everybody even understood why. But the organization allowed us to do that. And then the number of people who started opening up to the conversations, who started reaching out to the organization that had done this work, and became a part of our support network, that just went up. Since the session was gender agnostic, it helped many. 

Had we not experimented, we would have never known. And this is something we've done throughout. We also had a lot of trainings around inclusion. In February 2020, we introduced the concept of human stories, where people spoke about their own stories. As a leader, you may not know about these things and it may not occur to you intuitively. Leaders have this blind side that ‘This is not happening in our own organization. Whatever you are telling me, it's happening somewhere else.’ So there are people who said that this has happened to me, and that was one way of overcoming that blindside. 

We also did theater based or drama based workshops, where certain situations that happen in workplaces were presented in a non-threatening way. The moment those situations were actually narrated - and these were very well researched in the organization situations - people said ‘Yes, I know this happens’ and became much more cognizant. That's our base sensitization training which is going out for masses and has received a lot of really good feedback, good attention and participation. 

When the second wave of the pandemic hit, all the in-person experiments we were planning could not happen. So we started going digital in a very big way and started using extremely creative ways of raising awareness. For example, during Pride Month, we had animated infographics hitting somebody's mailbox every two to three days on microaggressions that the community faces. 

Every year we experiment and find out some different innovative ways of bringing to light topics of microaggression. And we go beyond the regular unconscious bias topics. Last year, we spoke to people about domestic violence, this year we brought in the topic of casteism, colorism and even religious diversity having an impact on the workplace. We also conducted trainings to create our very own mental well-being ambassadors, who were trained on how to coach people, and do initial supportive conversations. We equipped people on how to handle conversations on the ground and these programs were very well received and very highly attended. 

We also worked towards building resources. For instance, to support new mothers who are navigating virtual working and motherhood together for the very first time, we created playbooks and guides to provide the support in-person conversations at the workplace would often offer pre-COVID. We are now also working on guides for fathers. 

We are talking to a lot of people on having coaches at the workplace to balance deliverables and empathy. We did the same around LGBTQ inclusion awareness. And that’s where action comes in. It was not about come let's learn about what is LGBTQI. It was now assumed that you would have done your homework of having learned from the resources, so what is the affirmative action you could now talk to your team about?

It was not the DEI leader who spoke and did sessions around different parameters of inclusion. There were people within the team, the leaders within the teams who did the sessions, and they were encouraged to do it. 

So it was lesser about awareness not only because we've done the sessions, but we've shared resources where you should easily be able to become aware. The organization maturity has moved and we are assuming you will be aware. It's now a part of your responsibility to be aware, while we will coach you how to action on it. That's where the movement has been.

For anyone in the early stages of making their organization diverse, equitable and inclusive, success metrics are core to map progress and identify development areas. What parameters would you recommend them to track? How does that evolve for DEI leaders who have been in this space for some time?

There is a different maturity model for different organizations. Benchmarking against other organization is not always the best thing to do because an organization is like an individual, it has its own personality, it has its own pace, it has its own pros and cons, and strengths and weaknesses. DEI is a topic which is always going to be about people. How ready are your people? What is the business maturity? What is the HR maturity and leadership maturity? What is the exposure?

There is exposure, then there is awareness, then there is action. You need to measure what is it that you want to do in each of these.

Don't pick everything, pick some things and make a mark. The more important thing is to pick one topic and go deeper. So what would be the success metrics? It is to ensure that, if you say I will do a lot of work on lgbtqi but you've not done your work on gender now that won't be the right thing. So have a little bit of that acumen. But once you have done something in gender deeper, then you can actually move on to lgbtqi or people with disabilities or anything else that you feel the organization has a little bit of appetite and bandwidth for. 

Once the above is clear, the success metrics can be looked at in two stages:

  • Programmatic stage: This stage talks about the different programs you plan for. What is the coverage for people? How many people are you able to reach out and influence? It's very important to get their input on what have people taken back from it? How has it improved? Listen - a lot! That will give you the success metrics in terms of this is where you started, and this is where you went in terms of people's mindsets. 
  • Systemic stage: When you move from programmatic to being more systemic, that's when you measure this is where my systems were. For instance, from maternity leave to probably including surrogacy, adoption leave, parental leave, medical termination of pregnancy, etc, etc. This is the depth DEI efforts need to focus on. 

If you were to look at what is the success measure, every stage has a slightly different success measure. But it's very important to sustain.

The key word would be sustain and grow from there or go deeper from there.

Once you have done all this, and you are in a space like our organization in terms of DEI success which is more action oriented, we focus on measuring accountability through designated individuals. We measure where they are in an inclusion continuum in terms of mindset, whether their mindset has shifted or not and there are tools to do that. 

It's difficult to measure DEI anyway, but it's more difficult to measure as the maturity model grows. The numbers are important, because how else will you move the needle. There needs to be some goal to work towards. What’s important to keep in mind is that while we need to measure, but the measurements would be different.

What would your advice be for D&I professionals and champions across hierarchical levels, to accelerate the inclusion journey while keeping it sustainable and impactful?

  • The first thing is to have your ears on the ground. It is very important to be very close to people, especially the ones who are venting out and who are deterrents. Listening to deterrents is very important because you know what can go wrong. And it helps you accelerate that journey, because you know the work we do when we listen to deterrents is much more wholesome than the work that we would do with supporters. If you heard somebody telling you that this is not going work, ask why and then address it in some way. This makes a far better quality program than working with only your ideas and supporters. Everyone will have their blind side and this is a good way to catch your blindside. That is part one. 
  • Secondly, you have to invest in your own motivation and learning every day. Not every one of us has a connection or an experience with individuals from underrepresented communities. So learn about the various groups, talk to them. Only when you feel that fire about what this is about, having spoken to multiple people, giving them the spotlight, that's when it's more authentic. It's very important to keep learning and being on your journey. It is very important that you measure yourself. 
  • Thirdly, one has to be brave, because this is never going to be a very comfortable journey. You might have people who are willing to support you, and that's your fallback net. But not every work environment is very conducive. You might even have all the sets of things that you need as a base, but the people around might not be correctly intended. So it's very important that you be brave and to persist in discussions that you feel are important to have at the workplace. 

Don’t try to solve everything today or tomorrow. Don't lose your steam, because this is a long haul, this is always going to be a long one.

Any D&I journey is planned for three years; it's not planned for six months to a year. Only programs are planned for six months to a year, but a journey is planned over three years, and only after three years can you take cognizance and say this is the shift we've done. If your people are not willing to spend those three years, then know that this is going to be a rockier ride than what you would have thought, because it's a journey, it's a human journey, you can't speed it up. 

As a D&I professional, even in the worst working environments that I've had - where I didn't feel D&I was a conducive topic, it was probably a checklist topic - if you keep doing your work and you are listening, you have your ears on the ground and you are enabling change one person at a time, you will have these life experiences of people coming back and telling you how it changed their life. Not every HR professional or business leader will have those moments where somebody tells them that something they did changed someone’s life. This is what keeps me fueled, that there is one person whose life changed. Not every profession will give you that fulfillment.

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Topics: Diversity, Culture, Leadership

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