Corporates should focus on bringing more women in the workplace: Renu Bohra

Corporates should focus on bringing more women in the workplace: Renu Bohra

“I lost my job, but my partner didn’t. We had to raise our first baby alone, but at least we had each other.”


 The above lines truly reflect the kind of pain and emotions that several women employees went through amid the pandemic. A greater percentage of women than men lost their jobs when organisations were forced to lay-off during the pandemic’s initial wave, and when they re-hired, they resorted to hiring more men than women.


In conversation with Human Capital, Renu Bohra, Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO), DB Schenker India, shared her views on issues plaguing women at the workplace in the backdrop of the pandemic as also the way forward for organisations to overcome bias and bring in more women into the workforce.


Jutta Urpilainen, the EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, has said, “Women and girls are in the frontline of the pandemic and must be put in the driving seat of the recovery”, highlighting the fact that women have been the hardest hit during the pandemic. However, the economic crisis amid the pandemic resulted in ‘shecession’. What must be the strategy adopted by the HR organisations to overcome ‘she-cession’ in their organisations?


The “she-cession” has been witnessed both in the organised and unorganised sector. Women, being primary caregivers to the elderly and children, were forced to give up their jobs. This has adversely impacted them and put their livelihood, overall wellness, and self-esteem at risk. It is reported that not only education of a generation of young girls got derailed in the last two years, but also physical wellbeing in places where the mid-day meal provided at schools was the prime source of food and nutrition. Now, as things are opening, it is important to put women “in the driving seat of the recovery”.


The hiring focus of corporates should be to bring more women in the workplace. This is not as simple and actionable as it sounds, since it is not the top priority of recruiters and hiring managers who are under pressure to fill the sudden surge of vacancies to fuel the engine of business growth. Here, a strong leadership conviction is necessary. Exploring new and innovative channels including non-government organisations (NGOs) to reach out to women candidates, as also Training partners, can help to bring up the learning curve. I have come across some interesting initiatives like the much-talked about bringing women homemakers to the workplace through a planned on-the-training programme.


The pandemic-driven job losses resulted in more women losing their jobs. Also, jobs that are emerging are not going back to women even in female-dominated domains such as retail, hospitality and leisure. Therefore, how can companies ensure that women are given preference when it comes to hiring? 


Well, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution one can recommend ensuring companies give preference to women when it comes to hiring. It begins with leadership conviction as well as walk the talk by the leaders. On an operational context, mandate on diversity hiring target is a good place to start with. This goal should be a shared goal so that collaboration can be arrived among recruiters, HR, hiring managers and business leaders. A clear focus on building internal women talent will help in integrating many people practices and would ensure long term sustainability of such efforts.


Deloitte’s global study of ‘Women @ Work’ released in May 2021 revealed that more than sixty percent wanted to quit their jobs given the physical and mental stress amid the pandemic. How do you believe organisations can enable women to continue in the workforce?


It is said that one should never let a crisis go waste. It is time to assimilate the post-pandemic learnings and use them as an opportunity to design equitable workplace and workplace practices. Let us address the key factors responsible for ‘she-cession’. We need to immediately look at our workplaces: Is it supporting women? Does it incorporate flexibility in working time? Does it attract and engage women talent? Are our workplace practices of hiring and selection bringing in more women?


A good point to start could be from the job description document and the job advertisement to ensure it is not favouring one gender in terms of language and competences outlined. Managers play an important role as they are a prime touch point and the window of company culture to the employees. Sensitising managers and training them to be fair and empathetic, and at the same time, ensuring that they are not patronising. Unconscious biases need to be addressed. The other day, I was in an external panel discussion of a networking group on industrial security practices, and I was dismayed by speakers constantly referring to the Security Manager as “he”.


Equally important are the forums for constant dialogue with women employees to understand their needs and then designing people practices responding to their work-life needs. Engagement surveys do help. There is a need to address overall wellness and building resilience including mental, physical, emotional, social, and financial resilience. However, focusing on empowering only women will not change things and reaching out to families and communities is important for sustaining change.


A study by McKinsey & Co and Sheryl Sandberg through LeanIn. Org for several years revealed that there were less chances of women in entry level positions to get promoted as first level managers. This led to the creation of the widely used term “broken rung”. How can organisations get rid of the “broken rung” which has been further impacted by the pandemic and enable greater Diversity and Inclusion among the workforce?


I would say by addressing the very reasons of “broken rung”, one can get rid of most of it. It is commonly seen that at times in the name of diversity, women are hired and assigned “support” roles in industry which are nothing but thankless roles. And these roles are thankless because most of them are not measured effectively by appropriate measures, even if they be qualitative in nature.


What is interesting is that on many occasions, while women in “support’ roles are praised profusely for their contribution, when it comes to reward or recognition, these roles are termed as easy, ordinary, office-bound and generic. Therefore, to address “broken rung”, the visible and high-profile role line roles need to be assigned to women. The myth around “support role” need to be broken by acknowledging they are in fact business enabling and business partnering in nature.


It has been revealed in a study by McKinsey & Co. that in spite of women leaders going the extra mile amid the pandemic to ensure that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion goals are met in the organisation, many of them have not been suitably rewarded for their efforts. This has led to disengagement with several women leaders leaving the organisation. How do you believe that companies should render support to such women leaders?


One of the best ways by which companies recognise and reward employees is by way of offering them bigger and challenging roles. While other monetary and non-monetary rewards play an important role, I believe promotion to a new role is one of the best form of rewards, as it helps both the individual and the organisation. Research says that women raise their hands only when they are 100% confident. As mentioned in the book “How women rise” by Sally Helgesen & Marshall Goldsmith, women are reluctant to claim their own achievements.


However, it does not mean they do not have same aspirations as their men counterparts. They may not ask or negotiate this as good as men do. This is also one of the reasons women get lost out on prize postings, timely promotion, fast career growth, and other avenues, which results in their disengagement. Companies need to design their interventions keeping all these aspects into consideration. Job shadowing, mentoring, and coaching programmes should be rigorously followed through by role enhancements and promotion avenues for women. When women transition to a new role, engagement and support needs to be continue through Buddy or ‘champion as manager’ programme.


Allowing women employees to take some time off to tend to their personal and domestic issues has not been high on the agenda for many organisations. Given the pandemic, women employees have been forced to quit their jobs to look after their children or those ailing in the family. What measures do you believe need to be taken by organisations to ensure these women continue in their jobs?


I think it is time we acknowledge that women play a unique role in our society. While women have taken multiple roles and achieved huge accomplishments in fields ranging from science & technology to medicine, law, management, art & literature and so on, our household jobs are still primarily run by women. It will take quite some time as our society evolves. We cannot wait for such an equity to arrive and need to act.


It is important to acknowledge and give women due credit, but more than that, we need to design workplace practices around this fact. So, how do we do this? First and foremost, flexibility is the key. In my role as HR, I have personally come across and successfully handled cases of well performing women employees who were on the verge of resigning due to certain family circumstances.


The unfortunate part was that families were rigid, and instead of exploring solutions, they were exerting moral pressure on these women to quit. So, the onus came on managers and HR to work around and bring new adjustments for win-win. Instead of letting such employees go, when the full-time job was worked around, what I found that in a span of 18 months to 2 years, such employees could successfully manage her family commitment and come back to full time job. If companies really value women and their contribution, they should be open to be flexible and explore new solutions, rather than viewing situations with a tunnel vision.


Sexual harassment at work, long hours of working, lack of physical and psychological support from their families, cognitive bias etc. are some of the multiple reasons for women to remain dis-engaged with their employers and also for quitting their jobs. What are the measures that can be undertaken by companies to ensure women remain committed to their jobs?


It is important to explore the reason what makes people, whether women or men, remain committed to their jobs. The reasons would surely be more than one, and may vary from person to person, but one thing which is found mostly common is that jobs should be engaging and purposeful. Companies should provide a workplace (or work environment in the era of hybrid working) which is physically and psychologically safe. We need to build a trust-based work culture. An important element of trust-based culture is fairness which is defined by equity, impartiality, and justice.


Companies should employ mechanisms to measure and monitor fairness through engagement surveys and diligently following though the survey results. It is important to find out whether women employees experience the workplace in the same way as their male counterpart. This holds the key to find how gender-agnostic the workplace and workplace practices are. I have seen many companies are doing quite a bit of addressing cognitive bias through training interventions. What about structural biases which may be embedded in the policies or processes? They need to be acknowledged and addressed. While we strive to build equitable workplace, we must be cognizant that most of the women go back to their homes where families may not be supportive. Can we build some channel to influence their domestic situations? The answers are not easy. We need to have a more holistic approach and it is possible.



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