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Is your company's female talent MIA? You might be the problem, and it's time to make amends

Binjal Shah
3rd Aug 2016
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It was 2015, and there were seven men and just one woman in the business class of a 9 pm flight from Mumbai to Delhi. Kanika Tekriwal, CEO and Founder of JetSetGo, one of India’s first and largest marketplaces of private jets and helicopters, came to be in this situation after a series of rather unpleasant happenings. A disgraceful put-down in a boardroom earlier in the day, where she was considered aggressive for putting forth the same suggestion her male colleague was lauded for, had set the tone for the day.

Her observations were backed by international numbers: amongst G20 nations, India beats only Saudi Arabia, a country that doesn’t even allow its women to drive, in participation of women in the workforce. At a miserable 5 percent of women in its boardrooms, India is at the very bottom among the BRICS nations.

Kanika, limited by her own experiences until then, was jolted awake. “I carried with me a sinking feeling over the next few days, just thinking about how many women have not been given the chances that I had been, due to an algorithm of biases, ideologies, and roadblocks prevalent in our country.” And she wasn’t one to be a spectator to this debacle; she was ready to be a changemaker. Women constitute 37 percent women of her company’s workforce, and Kanika was geared up to see this through to the end. Earlier this month, she declared her battle to dethrone these deep-seated biases by embarking on a mission to make JetSetGo’s workforce absolutely gender-balanced by 2017, and here, she imparts the key observations, inferences, and strategies she will employ in her tryst with the glass ceiling.

Companies gender equal

1. Identify the symptoms

Start with a simple headcount. While complete gender equality is the goal, given the prevalent mindset, if women constitute anything less than 40 percent of your workforce, in all probability, your company is a proponent of the status quo prevalent in the outside world. This could either be by not being proactive in fostering an inclusive environment, or by not being mindful, educated, and competent enough to spot the signs and take responsibility. Either way, you are a part of the problem, and must get to the bottom of this disparity. Start by evaluating which of the rungs in your company is the most devoid of women. Every echelon with missing women comes with a different cause-effect relationship, and must be addressed with a different course of treatment.

2. Start from the bottom

 a) Cast your net wider

Start at the entry level; is this gender gap a pipeline problem, an ideological one, or a vicious combination of both? A dilemma is that women are known to dominate the classroom, but are conspicuous by their absence in an office and its boardroom. For starters, scour for places and methods through which you can access a robust pool of female talent. There are various colleges, forums, and organisations that are doing half the work for you by organising leadership training workshops and sessions to make women career-ready. Access these pools to make not only inclusive hires to check the box, but also qualitative hires, to genuinely increase your company’s economies, as various studies have suggested. However, closing the deal requires not just making an effort in finding the talent, but making an impression while hiring them too, bringing us to point number two.

b) It is now time to interview the interviewer

Kanika feels there is no lack of access to female talent. “I don’t believe there is a barrier to accessing female talent. Most employment agencies and portals have massive talent available. But, the criteria surrounding men and women vastly differ. Not very many men are asked about their family lives or their personal future plans at interviews.” This interview experience can throw women candidates off. In London, there are strict laws against interviewers asking women personal questions about their marriage and motherhood plans. In India, however, interviewers overstep various boundaries. Seeking intimate details of one’s life is one thing, but interviewers tend to jump to conclusions about their competence and level of commitment, even before the candidate gets a chance to make her case about her work. Check this phenomenon; perhaps monitor the interviews or train and sensitise the interviewers, if such biases exist.

3. Mid-town madness

a) Policies > poaching

If you notice that the entry-level base of your employees is half-n-half and healthy, but the air thins as the rungs advance, rethink and reinvent some of your policies. The pay gap is no Loch Ness Monster — it is real and may have been rearing its ugly head in your workplace, scaring off your talent before you can advance them up the ladder. Employees talk, and employees swap notes. Take conscious efforts to compare the pay scale of your different-sex employees at the same level, and make sure it is at par.

Wittenberg Cox opines that catching your talent young, and training them for leadership roles while they are still in their 20s is a great idea, compared to waiting until they are older. The current batch of millennials are doing everything a few years early in their lives. Most of them have got kickstarts in their careers when they were starting college, and are already as competitive and competent as the older generation was by the time they got to their 30s. The high-potents should also be honed when they are “young and free” without the responsibilities of family, and the baggage that comes with experience in the corporate world. Make sure the training programmes and mentorship opportunities identify female talent and coax them to participate.

Kanika Tekriwal
Kanika Tekriwal

“I think it is very important for leaders to publicly start speaking about the importance of having women at work and the talent they bring in. This will open up conservative minds and make working environments more conducive for women, and encourage them to seek promotions and ask for their due,” says Kanika.

Many mid-level managers are also at the family planning and motherhood stages of their lives, and flexible work opportunities along with truly well-thought out maternity policies could make it or break it for them. Women are dealing with a whirlwind of guilt and separation anxiety during this phase in their lives, as societal pressure increases manifold. Empathy from the workplace will guide them through this difficult phase, but superficial and insufficient policies could exaggerate the demons in their heads and reinforce the idea that maybe they aren’t supposed to have it all. “Not surprisingly, the enabling factors necessary to encourage young women into the workforce are lacking. A mix of healthcare, education, and work-life policies are all needed. In the Indian context, safety of women employees needs to be implemented along with giving them a voice to voice their concerns,” says Kanika.

Note that we haven’t elaborated upon the need for policies that directly ensure the safety of your women – a sexual harassment cell, conveyance for graveyard-workers, and vetted security personnel and employees – for they are a given, and are an item on the rudimentary check-list for any company aspiring to be just and fair.

b) Women leaders and women role models

When Jan from Corporate conducted a leadership seminar for the women at Dunder Mifflin, the initially disinterested and unmotivated group of women soon realised that her ascent to the top wasn’t an anomaly, but a fully achievable feat – because she was gunning for the part since the day she joined, and that they should start picturing themselves as leaders too.

Closer home, my friend working at Citigroup India sees the swanky 14th floor of their office occupied by as many women executives as men — all of whom hold their positions with an air of confidence and authority — and has no trouble visualising herself in the corner office someday and is already working to that end. But the friend who works at another conglomerate, where all the partners are male, is already feeling helpless and unmotivated to perform, knowing only too well that it may go completely unacknowledged and unrewarded.

It’s important that the role models of your women employees look like them. If your decor has quotes by leaders, make sure the women greats reach your mantelpiece, too. If your leadership is addressing a conference, make sure the women of merit have something to contribute, and aren’t denied the dais.

4. Top level: a tale of retention and returnship

They say the glass ceiling that exists for women in corporates is anything but gone, and it only thickens as you go up the rungs. Are there any tell-tale signs?

I personally believe the glass ceiling thickens because there are lesser women in the race and often the decision makers are men. Only 2 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women bosses; it doesn’t take rocket science to guess why. It definitely has more to do with the mindset boardrooms function with .

When SEBI instated the rule that every boardroom in India Inc contain at least one woman director lest they bear a lofty fine, the ensuing scurry could easily have been avoided had the companies created a robust pipeline of competent women through tireless honing, training, and retention. Most companies brought on women poached from other organisations, or resorted to tokenism and appointed wives and daughters on the boards at the eleventh hour, and had to work towards bringing them up to speed about the company’s policies, culture, and operations from scratch.

Another colossal loss of talent is the lack of returnship programmes for women who wish to return to work after a career break to take care of their filial responsibilities. Many women lack the confidence after being out of touch, and fail to find an entry point back to the world they know best. Instating returnship cells, or collaborating with existing ones to validate the concept and show your support is crucial.

And even as returnship mechanisms are put in place, workplace banter around the concept of shaming needs to be checked – as women return from short breaks and resume at their post, and even when they return after longer sabbaticals. The air must be cleared around the notions that antagonise the woman who “received too much leeway,” “got to take a long break while the rest of them worked hard,” etc. through sensitisation programmes that explain the motherhood penalty that most women pay, and how helping women rear their family until the status quo changes is the collective responsibility of a company, as part of society.

5. Lastly, a cultural cure for all levels

Kanika still remembers the time when she was the last person to enter the board room and an individual requested her to get some coffee for everyone, automatically assuming she was the secretary instead of the CEO of the company that was presenting. This phenomenon also extends to women whose designations are known, but are still made to run errands in the office as it is seen as something that comes naturally to women.

“I was once told I am aggressive whilst putting my point across but when a male counterpart put his point across in the same manner he was considered passionate,” Kanika recalls. Stereotypes in your mindset swiftly trickle down to your lexicon at work — like calling an ambitious woman a ‘bitch’, while hailing the same qualities in a man as his ‘leadership instinct’. We are at a stage in the women in workplaces movement where people are either walking with their blinds on, or they end up “walking on eggshells,” like the women in a survey conducted by Annis opined. Misogyny and condescension is how the former manifests, and chivalry is the precipitation of the latter. Men being ‘nice’ to their women (and not the men) by opening doors and offering to pay for things, besides leaving the women feeling patronized, also alienates them. Trying to make women feel ‘special’ at work in gendered ways is not the solution — simply making them feel equal and included is the need of the hour. Inviting women for everything from golf to smoke breaks to that drinking session is the men’s responsibility, even as accepting remains the women’s, where they will have to reconcile with a lot of internalised shame and taboos, to seize the chance.

In conclusion, Kanika doesn’t recommend making hard and fast rules for employing a fixed number of women, because that may lead to a compromise in talent. She feels long-term planning is a more realistic and meaningful approach, that would heal the rot, rather than chopping it off.

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