Ishani and Chryslynn of Serein are positively changing work culture, dealing with sexual harassment and taking diversity beyond the two genders.
In the backdrop of the blog (now removed) by Susan J. Fowler on Medium on the challenges she faced while working at Uber, the din on sexual harassment in the Indian startup ecosystem seems so much more amplified. The moot question is: If a company like Uber, which has so many resources at its disposal and processes in place, could not address the problems of its employee, what can smaller companies do? Evidently, a lot.
Using the Uber story, Ishani Roy, Founder of Serein, a Bengaluru-based consulting firm that is using a data-driven approach to diversity and inclusion, reached out to 300 startups and small businesses in Bengaluru asking them to form the ‘PoSh Committee’ and offering to provide training for the members as well in the hope that Indian startups can learn from the missteps of their Silicon Valley counterparts.
YourStory spoke to Ishani to understand how startups can deal with sexual harassment and put policies in places that help drive diversity and inclusion.
What started as a social platform for peer-to-peer mentorship aimed at women returning to work after a break, took on a new appeal when Ishani realised that to achieve diversity in the workplace companies needed inclusion. This required a 360-degree approach, including forming sexual harassment committees, having unbiased interview processes, and formulating policies that would make both men and women feel included and valued.
In November 2015, Ishani met Chryslynn D’Costa, her partner, through a common friend. Chryslynn was doing extensive work on breaking gender norms and addressing sexuality as well as understanding privilege. This made Ishani realise the need to look at diversity from a fresh perspective. Diversity that went beyond the male-female gender, is research-driven and sustainable in the long run. Chryslynn joined Serein and she now leads their research and content, focusing on diversity and inclusion.
Using data to challenge unconscious bias
“By achieving team collaboration, faster turnaround of the product, growing effective leaders are goals foremost on any company’s agenda. Combine that with the ability to hire top talent and having policies to keep them longer, Serein resolves people’s and organisations’ challenges through practical steps every day,” Ishani says.
Using behavioural economics to meaningfully impact the inclusion and diversity space, the duo started with a single question: how can we use current research in organisational behaviour and gender studies to address unconscious bias and help companies rid the processes of all bias?
But what are these unconscious biases? Ishani shares her own example. The 36-year-old, who was born in Calcutta, has grappled with gender ratio her entire life since she opted for STEM. She majored in Mathematics from a US university and holds a PhD from Brown University (2010). “When I started out as a mathematics major in the US, women made up around half the class. By the time I had earned my PhD, the ratio was about one out of 10. In my first job as a female bioscientist at the University of Oxford, I comprised merely a quarter of the workforce in my field. And when I moved to India as a research scientist, that number dwindled to 12 percent,” Ishani says.
When this skewed gender ratio was clubbed with a maternity break, the challenge of sustaining a career while being a mother magnified. “It revealed to me how society, as well as workplace, defines parenthood for the male and female gender, and it not always helps in the path towards parity.”
But it’s not just the numbers; the perceptions too are hard to change. Says Ishani,
“There are studies done at Harvard that show that men are tenured at a higher rate than women, unconscious bias being one of the big reasons for women getting lower pay than men at the same position.”
Another common misconception is that diversity means lowering the performance bar, which, she emphasises, is not the case.
Serein covers all sizes of companies, small and large, and they have solutions that are specifically geared towards early-to-mid-stage startups, from data analytics firms to gaming companies, and have worked with ventures in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi.
Ishani and Chryslynn work closely with the founders and the HR heads to gather data about the company and while doing so they look at all kinds of differences–gender, disability, religion and caste and language barriers too. Armed with the data they leverage it within the organisation to formulate applicable models that can implement, measure and monitor parity across organisations. The small team of 10, comprising data and social scientists, partners with lawyers specialising on LGBT issues in the workplace, and recruitment specialists who understand diversity hiring.
One of the latest trends in this space has been the focus on increasing gender diversity and the number of differently-abled persons at the workplace. “Conversations are also starting on diversity with respect to social variables such as class, regional differences and language,” Chryslynn adds.
Challenges startups face
The startup survey that Serein conducted after the Uber episode revealed the lack of awareness on some of the mandates and the correct way to implement the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women (POSH) in the Workplace Act.
“For example,” says Ishani, “Founders of early-stage startups assume that they need to have a policy in place or a complaints committee only when they have hundred or more employees.” Even all-male startups need to comply.
The law mandates all companies with 10 or more employees to formulate a written company policy on sexual harassment, training of employees and formation of IC Committee. There is a penalty of anywhere from Rs 50,000 to losing licence for non-compliance, which most companies are not aware of.
Ishani also points out that many organisations are not aware that the Vishaka Guidelines are now preceded by POSH Act. This means it is not merely a guideline anymore but a government mandate with proper definitions of harassment, confidential clause and legal implications of non-compliance.
“In our extensive campaign it has been very encouraging to see many company leaders and founders going beyond the mandates to meet often or conduct town halls to discuss culture,” says Chryslynn.
Creating and measuring impact
The team has worked with over a dozen startups till date, and their toolkits on dos and don’ts on POSH and workplace safety have been used by more than 60 startups across India. Ideally, their association with the organisation is for a year.
To measure impact with the forward thinking companies Serein implements a tool called ‘inclusion coefficient’, which measures diversity, equity and mobility within an organisation. “When a team is aware of what is being measured it holds all stakeholders responsible for the success of the policy. Good diversity policies help in building a pipeline but continuous measurement promotes an equitable culture and ensures retention.”
Tying it to ROI means that customers can automatically see value in it.
Ishani adds, “To us impact is also when a young technologist who had attended our session a year ago writes to us about the effect of the bold steps we had implemented, or a seasoned manager taking meticulous notes on how to scientifically de-bias his recruitment process so more people like his star hire (a woman) can be part of his team.”
Founders and VCs
Founders too play a crucial role when it comes to startups. From the inception, it is values that the founders believe in that sets the tone, work atmosphere and openness for all employees.
According to Ishani, one of the positive outcomes of increased media coverage of incidents like those at Uber and others within the Indian startup ecosystem is that it has made venture capital firms proactively advise their portfolio companies to think about building an open and equitable culture from the very beginning.
Diversity and inclusion checklist for startups
Ishani and Chryslynn share a quick checklist for startups and here is what it includes:
Use data to measure your diversity initiatives: Most diversity initiatives fail or lose momentum because they are not being measured. Measurement implies that the leadership is actually concerned about the cause of diversity and employees are more likely to feel accountable for a diversity initiative.
Training the internal committee: Merely constituting an internal committee on paper does not guarantee an inclusive culture. Often internal members are not trained on the law and procedure to deal with a complaint. It is also difficult for employees to report an incident if they do not have faith in the internal committee or on their ability to carry out a fair enquiry. It is recommended that the internal committee meet every quarter to discuss company culture, amendments to the law and review the company policy.
Sensitisation of employees is a must: It helps everyone understand what constitutes sexual harassment, not just physical form but even a sexist joke or a WhatsApp message can be verbal and non-verbal forms of harassment which makes a workplace unsafe and not inclusive.
Ishani says, “Employees are often not aware that sexual harassment can take place outside the office during an office party, or offsite and that action can be taken under this Act when sexual harassment occurs at these extended workplaces. Awareness sessions help all employees report forms of harassment more easily and understand that there is an informal (dialogue and conciliation) as well as formal redressal mechanism (formal inquiry).”
The idea of positively changing the work culture such that companies and people can focus on what they do best is their key motivator.
They sign off with this food for thought: “In the course of our work, we encounter both extremes of the spectrum–from individuals who have dealt with harassment and discrimination at the workplace to founders who genuinely care about building an open and fair workplace. We recognise that the reality is somewhere in between.”
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