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Unlearning stereotypes with Divya Gokulnath: How can we overcome unconscious bias and move from exclusion to inclusion?

YourStory recently spoke to Divya Gokulnath, CEO and CO-founder of BYJU’S, to understand how we can unlearn stereotypes and foster an inclusive work environment.

Unlearning stereotypes with Divya Gokulnath: How can we overcome unconscious bias and move from exclusion to inclusion?

Friday March 17, 2023 , 7 min Read

Gender stereotypes and biases take root in people’s minds as early as childhood. Many of us are not inherently biased by choice. We are unconsciously conditioned by the sum of our environments, education, and upbringing. This is the unfortunate reality in which cultures are created and societies are formed.

By acknowledging that we are all biased in some way or form, we can take a step towards breaking these biases.

To commemorate Women’s Day, YourStory spoke to Divya Gokulnath, CEO and CO-founder of BYJU'S, India’s fastest-growing edtech organisation, on the conscious and unconscious biases women face, what we can do about them, and the way ahead.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

YourStory (YS): Organisations claim to be open-minded and unprejudiced, but unconscious biases often creep up on us. What are some of the conscious and unconscious biases women face in professional settings?  

Divya Gokulnath (DG): Despite the growing case for an empathetic and inclusive workplace culture, biases continue to exist within organisations. Gender biases such as microaggressions or a lack of representation in leadership positions can influence hiring and promotion decisions. Then there is maternal bias, the bias that women who have children are less committed to their jobs or less capable than those who do not have children.

Many of these biases are subconscious, and based on stereotypes and attitudes that we have developed over time. They may be completely unintentional.

Whether conscious or not, biases have a detrimental impact on employees' experiences, leading to feelings of exclusion that ultimately hinders the company’s success.

To combat these biases, action-oriented gender-neutral policies must become an intrinsic part of organisations from inception, rather than as an afterthought. As women, it’s time we played our part in fixing the broken rung. 

YS: Existing stereotypes often lead women to believe and function with them. How do we tackle these biases and embrace unlearning?

DG: This is mainly due to cultural conditioning, which leads to internalising societal norms and stereotypes that hinder progress. It can manifest negatively as fear of failure or success and self-doubt. To address these biases, it's crucial to identify and acknowledge them, and actively challenge and question these beliefs.  

Addressing such biases requires a multi-faceted approach that includes education, awareness, and creating a supportive and inclusive workplace culture. It involves challenging deeply ingrained attitudes and behaviours by creating a culture of inclusivity and respect. Equal opportunities for growth and development, such as mentorship programmes or leadership training, can help women build confidence and combat self-doubt. 

YS: How have you created a safe space for women to grow and support one another? 

DG: Diversity is our greatest strength at BYJU'S. We are committed to promoting an environment where all employees feel valued, respected, and supported. I'm proud to share that women have a 33% representation on the BYJU’S leadership board and 40% in the entire workforce. 

We’ve implemented specific programmes to support women. We offer regular training and development opportunities to all employees, with a particular focus on supporting women in leadership positions. 

Beyond our internal initiatives, we have employed 12,000+ women teachers from across the country, enabling them to teach students in any part of the world with technology. Many of these women are qualified teachers who had to give up their jobs due to domestic responsibilities or location constraints. However, we are bringing these women back into the workforce and empowering them through mentorship. 

YS: Diversity, mentorship, and support networks are critical for women’s professional development. What do you think about this?

DG: Serena William’s powerful words - “Every woman’s success should be an inspiration to another. We’re strongest when we cheer each other on- capture an important facet of BYJU’S work culture. We are a workplace where women support women, at each rung of the organisation. 

Growing up in a household surrounded by fearless and powerful women has influenced every aspect of my life and helped channel my passion into action. At BYJU’S, there are provisions for period leave and childcare leave, the latter for both parents, and a back-to-work integration programme for women returning to work after maternity leave.  

Collaboration over competition is a mantra I follow — at home and work. I have always believed that it is only through collaboration and raising each other up that we can dismantle the stereotype that women don’t support other women.  

YS: How do we solve the paradox of women being skilled, but unable to find a stable place in the workforce? 

DG: Progress has been made but there are still many systemic barriers that prevent women from achieving equal success. Solving the paradox requires a multifaceted effort from employers and society at large. 

Firstly, implicit bias and discrimination often hold women back in the workforce. Policies that support gender equity and fair pay need to be more commonplace. Secondly, women should be provided with equal opportunities for advancement, mentorship, and networking. Additionally, many women face challenges in balancing work and family responsibilities. Flexible work arrangements go a long way in helping them balance their personal and professional lives. These initiatives are the essential building blocks to solving this paradox.

YS: Studies show that women are no better at multitasking than men, but end up doing much more in a short period of time. What is your advice to women entrepreneurs striving to do it all? How can they set boundaries and not burn out?

DG: Women often push themselves and have a lot of internalised pressure to perform every single time. This often happens because we are trying to tackle unfair stereotypes. As an entrepreneur, you must learn to compartmentalise. It is the ability to compartmentalise, prioritise, and focus enough on each area to achieve incremental progress that's most important. 

For me personally, setting artificial boundaries and giving my 100% to what I am doing has been extremely critical to ensure I am not overwhelmed. Whether it is managing my work or my family, there are two things I won't compromise on — spending quality time with my kids and working out for 30 minutes every day.

We need to be bullish about the goals we set but flexible in how we execute them. 

YS: What is your message to young women entrepreneurs in India and what they can look forward to in the coming years?

DG: I’ve always believed that entrepreneurs must be defined by the courage of their convictions and not gender. We can build an equitable future only when we remove the prefixes of men and women and focus on building leaders.

Having said that, the wheels are turning. We are seeing a better representation of women in boardrooms. In the past year alone, we saw a continued rise of women shattering barriers across spectrums — in Droupadi Murmu India saw its first tribal woman president, and the success of Falguni Nayak-led Nykaa’s IPO has paved the way for more women-led businesses. Madhabi Buch is also scripting history as the first woman chairperson of SEBI. These icons have overcome layers of generational biases to keep us hopeful for the future. 

I envision women not waiting to get a seat at the table but building their own tables, removing their gender-tinted glasses, and making incremental changes that will last for decades.

Macroeconomic challenges may impede the ecosystem, but it is the inherent conviction, passion, and resilient spirit of entrepreneurs that will help us emerge stronger.