EQUITABLE WORKPLACE - Over to women leaders

The pandemic has come as a positive disruptor of workplace gender equality. It's time for women leaders to build the next-gen gender-balanced leadership team

EQUITABLE WORKPLACE -  Over to women leaders - CIO&Leader

"We men" must change—male business leaders often stress while urging their male colleagues to do their bit for making the organization an equitable place for both genders. The light-hearted banter makes a very relevant point about the role of men in making it happen.

Not all women are convinced. Many allege that it is not the workplace where the significant gender gap exists. Even though they have to traverse some distance, modern organizations have changed a lot to bring in gender parity. Some industries like IT services have led the way.

The big gap, they allege, lies not at the workplace but in the home. While women and men are treated as equals in many offices and at home, women are expected to take most responsibility.

Like many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have changed that equation.

Does that sound surprising? Several studies say that the pandemic had negatively affected the working women as the support system to do the job efficiently had collapsed entirely. A study by Mckinsey revealed that post-pandemic, one in four women employees left the workforce. Another survey by Deloitte, titled Understanding the pandemic's impact on working women' revealed that 89% of working women saw their time and daily routine changing due to the pandemic, with 92% indicating that these shifts have had a negative impact. The Deloitte study also showed that satisfaction with their productivity, motivation at work, and work-life balance dropped significantly for women in the TMT sector. And they dropped by huge margins. Percentage of women who rated their 'productivity at work' as good or extremely good before the pandemic fell from 74% to 49% in 2021. Similarly, the most relevant parameter in this discussion, work-life balance fell from 70% before the pandemic to just about 32% in 2021. 

Yet, some women leaders see a silver lining. They say that it has paved the way for a profound shift in caring responsibilities. It proved to be a lasting leveler for gender relations in the domestic setting. Men have now started devoting more time to housework, especially in families where men and women both are full-time workers.

"Men in the families have started accepting that household chores are not limited to women. If the family lady is outside for a meeting, it's perfectly fine for a man to take care of the home", says Neeti Wahi, Group Chief Information & Digital Officer at Sterlite Power.

She says it is not just needed to balance home and career for women. "This balance was required among the partners to have a happy and healthy life," she said while stressing that the pandemic did accelerate this.

Not everyone fully echoes this view, though. Says Supriya Dutta, Consultant- NSEIT, "Yes, there has been a shift in the mindset, but not everyone is lucky enough to enjoy this kind of support. With pandemic, women have grappled with a "double shift" of household responsibilities, mental health challenges, and a more difficult remote-work experience."

She says these burdens come on top of structural barriers for working women, including being the "only" woman in the room and playing an allyship role for others in the workplace.

She has a point. Women did take on extra work during the Covid pandemic. They have adjusted their schedules and efficiently navigated work-life challenges. Hopefully, with a bit of help from the partners, it will have a long-term positive impact.

Some women leaders believe that organizations have a role in ensuring household chores get equally shared between partners. To foster a culture of allyship, organizations must inspire their employees to be allies in all spheres of their lives.

"What could be the better time to do this than the post-COVID business recovery time, when the learnings of our lives are still fresh with us," asks Meetali Sharma, Head-Risk, Compliance & Information Security SDG Software India Pvt Ltd.


Barking the wrong tree?

All the discussions about women in the workplace often center around numbers. How many women are employed in the industry? Though an essential primary indicator, numbers are not the right indicator of how equitable the workplace is.

Take, for example, the share of women in the Indian IT industry. It is about 34%. In a country like India—and in comparison to the output of technical institutions- which is a significant factor affecting these numbers—it is not bad.

"Technology continues to be a high growth sector globally, and historically the sector has been dominated by men. However, this is slowly fading away as many companies and organizations are hiring deserving women for STEM roles. With the right exposure and mentors, a sustainable ecosystem of skilled women workforce can be created within the industry," says Shalini Nair, CTO & Co-founder of Ennoventure.

Sakshi Vidur, Director, Enterprise IT Security, Philips, adds, "Gender inequality and a lack of professional prospects for women in the tech domain are particularly prevalent in the developing countries. I feel the issue is that enterprise technology is still more of a perception problem. People don't see technology or even security as a viable career path for women because tech still is often considered a very masculine profession. Girls should opt this not that kind of notions are engraved in their minds way before they acknowledge their strengths and skills- the reason we see hardly one or two women in boardrooms."

That precisely is the problem.

There are very few women in the boardroom. And that affects everything downwards.

Numbers and special recruitment drives were significant. But probably, they are not as important today to address the overall issue of an equitable workplace as they were, say, a decade back.

Numbers alone cannot change the situation.


Why women leadership is essential?

If today's workplaces have many things stacked against women, it is not so because every man is a misogynist.

In their evolution over hundreds of years, men have dominated the workplaces. The way the workplaces work has also catered to the needs of men. In other words, it was not an intentional bias but a quantitative bias that has made the workplace more optimized for men. It is not designed to exclude men deliberately. We need some changes in the workplace to make them more comfortable for women.

How can that be achieved?

Ostensibly, it is only women leaders who can make that happen. How many men really know what women want, as a woman leader quipped? And someone like Freud admitted as much.

Only women leaders can influence the decisions to make the organization more equitable for women. While it may be partly about raising their demand, it is mostly about presenting a more mature and emic view of women.

Role of women leaders

"There is much we can do as women leaders to create an inclusive space at work - using gender-neutral pronouns, being sensitive to the needs and situations of other women colleagues, amplifying women's voices to ensure that their opinions are heard, or even creating forums where such conversations can be had safely. This ensures open and focused dialogue that emphasizes real change, not just for women but for the entire organization," says Sakshi Vidur, Director, Enterprise IT Security, Philips.

Experts suggest that the best way to boost the visibility of women in tech roles is to make them feel that tech is not a male-dominated industry. Moreover, having key women in senior leadership roles will undoubtedly encourage other women to join the tech industry. Fortunately, women are increasingly holding the top and apparent positions in big tech companies

In addition, "We also help them upskill according to current trends and markets for a positive progression in their career path. This would help us encourage professional women and their talents to create a culture known for providing equal opportunity and respect," adds Auti Saritha Nilesh- Global CISO, UD Trucks.

Many women leaders agreed that being a leader, the onus lies on them to ensure that organizations have the right balance of men and women workforce, especially in odd areas where they can recruit as many females as possible.

"Increasing workplace diversity requires an overall shift in an organization's culture, which is often easier said than done. Leaders play a critical role in establishing and promoting workplace culture. Employees look to leaders to set the context in which they will function within an organization. They need more than just words from leadership; it requires action and the embodiment of these values. Women leaders can do a lot to make this happen," added Auti.

While leaders drive a cultural change within an organization, it does not solely revolve around changing follower/employee attitudes; it also involves self-reflection and personal transformation. Leaders should first identify and understand their feelings and biases toward diverse populations to understand what they will face when working with their employees.


Mantras of success

While there are many challenges that a woman faces in her career as a leader, what are the significant setbacks a female leader faces as told by Supriya Dutta, Consultant- NSEIT – "One of the most significant challenges of leadership is shouldering the responsibility it confers. Part of that responsibility is to deal with those aspects of yourself that can keep you from being an effective leader. That's not easy, but the rewards are great. With females, scenarios are more complex, as they have to balance themselves on the personal and professional front. And those who are and will be able to balance this act shares a higher percentage of being successful in their career.

Then, of course, is adapting to the continuous changes and learnings that technology is bringing every day. With that said, one cannot miss on healthy body and spirit. As a woman, you always have ten battles to fight at one time, so always keep your spirit and head high."

Adding to the success mantra, Vidur says, "Women in general, when they are doubtful of anything, tend to keep quiet while men on the other side will speak with confidence even if they know much less than their counterparts. They enter tech at a lower rate than men and leave at a higher rate, resulting in male-dominated teams.

"Don't feel ignored if you are not heard. Be confident and learn to voice your opinion and put your thoughts upfront. Diverse talent is an essential element in every innovation process, yet many companies are still failing to foster equitable and inclusive working environments that enable diverse voices to be heard," added Vidur.

It's time to move beyond the "think manager, think male" mindset that penalizes women on their way up and atop the corporate ladder.

 "No one is going to come and make a change for you. If you want to see some changes, you must be that change, and if you have that continuous learning path- there are lots of possibilities and opportunities by which you can have that presence in the boardroom," adds Sharma.

"There is no shortcut to hard work. Performance speaks for itself. The ball is always in your court. Please don't expect someone to spoon-feed you. You will get the directions and advice, but you have to catch the bull by its horns and take the plunge nobody else can do that on your behalf," says Wahi.


The way ahead

"It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing components. Women today are not looking for superiority, but they are looking to be equal in every sphere. Equality in terms of respect, opportunity, and visibility are the three major steps towards the sustainability of this balance," concluded Auti.

It has taken years of patience, perseverance, and battling the minds of men and women, which have led to this shift, but the cultural change is still partially finished work. Professional women still face many challenges at the workplace that impede their career – be it gender bias in the workplace, career advancement, limitations on the type of jobs women can hold remain palpable difficulties.

We are at an inflection point. With no end to the pandemic currently in sight, organizations need to step up to meet this moment and its specific challenges, or we risk facing a significant setback in our pursuit of reaching gender parity across the global workforce.

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