Odgers Berndtson, a leading international executive search firm, organised a round table dialogue of women Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) from prominent organisations to understand and discuss how gender diversity is adding value to their organisation and some common unconscious biases present in the workforce of corporate India today.
Unconscious bias at workplace
International Women’s Day this year, gave the perfect background to discuss how a woman’s professional journey can be impacted. Though India is considered a powerhouse of talent, we still cannot claim equal gender diversity in the best of organisations. Change can only be driven from the top. “At Schneider, we have positioned diversity, equity & inclusion as a leadership agenda. We have seen our women ratio increase by 15% in the last three years, and profitability has increased by 15 points. Though not completely, but gender balance has been one of the important contributing factors to the increased profitability & efficiency,” says Rachna Mukherjee, Chief Human Resources Officer, Schneider Electric, India & South Asia.
Talent Management & Unconscious Bias
Facing gender bias at the beginning of the recruitment process itself can be a challenge, especially for young mothers trying to get back to the workforce. “Thyssenkrupp is in an EMC industry/business and we face similar struggles to maybe the automotive industry, wherein to find women managers with the required technical background for remote locations is a challenge. We are also making efforts to sensitize team members during the hiring process. The kind of questions one asks while hiring candidates should be gender neutral. How a question can make an impression about the organisation, in the mind of a potential candidate, needs to be highlighted. A lot more can be done in this aspect to remove the unconscious biases,” says Shillpa Chabria, Director HR India, Thyssenkrupp Industries India.
“Unconscious bias is one of the biggest challenges we continue to face, especially in the industrial sector in India. It is seen in something as basic as language used in meetings, or in conversations while hiring candidates. When one is talking about hiring a leadership position, one always hears ‘him‘ and not ‘her‘. To train people to look at basic things such as language, is the starting point in the journey of gender inclusivity at the workplace,” says Priya Chakravarty, Senior VP – HR, Essar Capital.
There are steps being taken by organisations to block gender bias that can creep into processes. This begins with identifying the biases that might be at play which leaders are often unaware of. Having small group dialogues, role plays at work and choosing champions for the cause from within the team itself, are some of the steps taken by organisations to identify unconscious bias at the workplace.
“We are shifting to technology to ensure every job description is gender neutral. We use tools to automatically remove words that are commonly associated with men such as aggressive, high-flyer, energetic etc. so that women are not discouraged at the beginning of the application process itself,” says Dr. Shilpa Kabra Maheshwari, Executive VP & Country HR Head, Siemens India.
Having women in mid to senior management positions, creates a healthy talent pipeline for women to reach leadership roles. Finding women with the right skill set can be a challenge especially in sectors that can be called to be part of the old world economy. The 2020 Global BoardEx report in collaboration with Odgers Berndtson revealed that only 18% of board members were female in listed companies on the BSE Sensex. This compares to a global average of 27% amongst the 26 indexed companies. Mentorship programs, that help women opt for lucrative roles and get sufficient guidance to plan their career graph, have been steppingstones towards creating a talent pool of women for leadership positions.
“Unlimited is our philosophy and our approach to diversity & inclusion. We are committed to having consistent dialogues with our clients and actively engage with the broadest range of candidates so that we access the most diverse talent pool and recruit the best leadership talent,” says Dr. Prasad Medury, Managing Director, Odgers Berndtson India.
“Lodha firmly believes in meritocracy, and as an overarching culture code, we ensure that the group makes all efforts to hire, groom and retain talent. We hire the best talent and women civil engineers are encouraged to join Lodha in construction teams. But women GETs often face challenges in convincing their families who are mostly based in remote locations in Maharashtra and aren’t aware of the ways of working at our construction sites. As an HR initiative, we organised a parents’ meet to address their concerns, invited them for a day’s visit to our corporate office and at our construction sites. This exercise instilled confidence amongst the parents regarding the participation of their children in the profession and also increased the brand reliability for Lodha. Certainly a positive impact, we now hear parents from these towns encouraging their children to entrust upon their careers with us,” says Janhavi Sukhtankar, President – Human Resources, Lodha group.
Steps to Tackle Unconscious Bias
An important question a leader needs to ask is about company policies being able to support the women in the team. Women have been noted to drop out of the workforce as soon as one of the 4M’s kick in – Marriage, Mobility of the spouse, Maternity and Medical care of elders. A small shift in the mindset of organisational leadership, in terms of commitment in this regard, can have a huge impact in retaining women in the workforce.
“The aim is to create inclusive workplaces, inclusive allies & inclusive mindsets. Therefore, our initiatives around D&I are centered around authenticity, modernisation and crafted with a competitive advantage. For example, our women colleagues in the sales function need to travel to small towns and remote places. We have taken a simple yet effective initiative around washroom hygiene. ‘Pee Safe‘, a toilet hygiene initiative, comes in the backdrop of women finding it difficult to go on their market visits across remote locations. Childcare support is another life stage that organisations need to partner with employees on. We offer to bear expenses not only of the daycare center’s but offer the expenses of a nanny at home if our women managers prefer their child is taken care of at home,” says Nimisha Das, Director HR, Kellogg South Asia.
The Silver Lining
Though the road to achieve gender diversity & even equal pay seems long, there are a few sectors such as the technology sector, that have been the torchbearers for India Inc. Having flexible work hours, programs that focus on mental well-being etc. some organisations had the necessary arsenal in place to help their team cope well when the pandemic hit. “At Mastercard, we’re committed to cultivate diverse talent across the company as we build a globally dynamic, engaged and balanced team. We have close to 30% female representation at senior levels and approximately 40% of our global workforce is female. Also, it’s essential for our business that we foster a workplace where all employees feel valued, respected and empowered to reach their greatest potential. That includes equal pay for equal work and I am delighted to share that we’ve achieved gender pay equity at Mastercard on a role-to-role basis. Women at our company earn one dollar to every one dollar men earn. Our aim is parity across all measures and a culture of decency – we call this the Mastercard way; it is something we do not compromise on,” says Priti Singh, SVP – HR, South Asia, Mastercard.
A few organisations have collaborated with schools to educate students on the importance of gender equality. Organisations have been successful in bringing clients & vendors on board to drive diversity & inclusion. It was mutually agreed that HR as a function can support in ensuring correct policies and the general culture of the organisation is gender neutral & promote inclusiveness, but it is up to the leadership to own & drive the change. “At Marks & Spencer, the International Director is the global sponsor of Inclusion & Diversity (I&D). So I&D is not only an HR agenda for us. HR as a function anchors the inclusion & diversity agenda by integrating it in the employee lifecycle through processes, guidelines, policies and enables a gender-neutral culture. But the business case for why diversity is important & how you integrate inclusion in your business processes, though comes easier for the fashion retail industry, has to be with the senior leadership,” affirms Mukta Nakra, Head Human Resources & Sustainability, Marks & Spencer India.