Women In Today’s Workforce

Women In Today’s Workforce

Organisations benefit more when they diagnose the culture and understand how the informal network and way of working is interfering in the progress we want to see around diversity.


The last couple of years has seen a disproportionate impact on the female workforce. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated this phenomenon, higher attrition amongst women employees across countries is not a new trend. Most organisations have created many strategies and interventions to manage the ‘broken rung’. So, what are we missing as we create these approaches?


From my perspective, organisations create interventions that address the symptoms and not the root cause. Our organisations are microcosms of society and reflect the values, beliefs, experiences, and personal truths of every employee. Unless we grow some of these perspectives at a fundamental level by creating an alternate point of view to open the minds of our employees, we will be unable to make a paradigm shift that enables a culture thriving in diversity.


A few days ago, I had the fortune of interacting with the first woman miner of the country. Her belief in her aspirations, the ability to diminish naysayer noises and perseverance to break through in a male-dominated industry was remarkable. I admire the organisation providing this platform for her to shine and facilitating her growth by providing newer challenges in domains that were a ‘no go’ for women. It is the will of the individual, the support by the organisation, consistent leadership actions with diversity as a key fulcrum of growth in the organisation and the culture of acceptance by its employees that has made this possible. Why is this so hard to attain in many of the other organisations and what are the key ingredients of success?


A Long Road to Success


Shifting paradigms of the culture around diversity is a long journey and may be compared to preparing for an Olympic event that takes many years of hard and consistent work. The results of these preparations show a small but continuous improvement in performance and may not be visible over a short period of time. It involves:


• Physical workout: Working on each and every muscle to gain strength and overall fitness. Organisation hardware i.e. tweaking every practice, process, policy and ritual to attain the desired results


• Balanced nutrient intake: Organisation software by ensuring every employee has the ability to reflect in their own space how they are embracing diverse thoughts, experiences, skills and individuals through their day-today interactions and decisions


 Increasing self-confidence: Providing inputs to women’s talent to make them believe in themselves and their abilities and continuously enhancing it


• Sharp coaching inputs: Leaders and managers walking the talk every day vs. reviewing progress intermittently


• Visualising your goals: Clarity on where you would want to be and charting the path to success over a period


• Measuring progress by keeping a record: Understanding how you are doing vs. milestones created and understanding what needs improvement- physical workout, nutrient intake, self-confidence, or the coaching inputs?


When an athlete is preparing for success, he/she is also supported by the larger ecosystem around him/her. In organisation parlance, this involves working with distributor networks, supplier systems, employee families and communities. This change programme delivers suboptimal results when it is driven as an initiative or is seen as an over and above activity while running the business. Outcomes are better when it is weaved into the operating rhythm, practices, and rituals of the organisation. Involving every employee in the organisation to drive small incremental changes in their own sphere of influence is key to making this sustainable.


Pitfalls of Current Approaches


We have come across great practices in organisations leading to healthy results in this space. Yet, this phenomenon is difficult to replicate in others. Why? Here are some common pitfalls that I have come across through my experience that led to the dilution of many of our efforts:


• Leadership sponsorship: Sponsorship alone does not work. I have seen organisations flourish when leaders make this part of the DNA by communicating often around the need for diversity, challenging the status quo of the organisation and consistently shattering beliefs by breaking stereotypes. I recall one such instance where the MD of the organisation I was working with me asked me, “When I look at colleges, I see most top students are women in our field. Where are they in my organisation?”. What was good for business is how the organisation functioned, embracing diverse leadership styles and leveraging the strengths of each other. No focused interventions were required in this context.


 Creating councils to achieve desired outcomes: While this approach may have worked historically, we need to move beyond it. In today’s agile world with technology enabling crossdialogue across our organisations, a more inclusive approach involving different strata of the organisation will yield better results.


• Training organisation around diversity: The issues around diversity need to be experienced and imbibed, leaving space for individuals to internalise it without making them feel defensive while attending theoretical and intellectual sessions. Each one of us at some point has felt excluded in some setting or the other. Can we remind people of that feeling to make them understand how we may be making others in the organisation feel through our actions and behaviours?


In couple of organisations where I have worked, a theatre-based approach has yielded great results enabling open dialogue which helped address the elephant in the room. Carpet-bombing of these programmes ensure the message is sunk deep and wide in the organisation is highly effective. The methodology and key messages need to evolve every year, lifting the understanding of the need for diversity and what it takes to make it succeed. This will help us re-shape the beliefs, values, and personal truths of each employee, enabling newer experiences.


• Excess emphasis on policies and practices to drive change: When you sow a seed, you need to prepare the right ecosystem for the seed to flourish like a plant. This involves working on the soil nutrients, watering the plant, providing adequate exposure to sunshine and pesticide treatment etc. For the women workforce to flourish, the ecosystem of the organisation needs to be right. Policies and practices are akin to watering the plant and may not be sufficient by themselves.


• Following the fad: Many organisations have taken pathbreaking steps to introduce new measures with an aim to attract and retain more women talent and these have been applauded by the industry. Such practices work for certain audiences and in a certain context. Adopting them ‘as-is” in your organisation with no due diligence around the needs of your talent, the supporting systems required to make them work in your organisation may result in dissonance instead of celebration. One needs to be mindful while following the fad.


• Policy and Practices Diagnostics: Auditing your policies and practices to mitigate biases that creep into any system is a must. Organisations benefit more when they diagnose the culture and understand how the informal network and way of working is interfering in the progress we want to see around diversity. Many tools have emerged to help you uncover these subtle nuances; Organisation Network Analysis (ONA) is one such tool that is emerging in this space. A comprehensive strategy and a roadmap addressing the universe of your organisation is paramount to making women successful in your organisation. Success breeds success!

Leena Sahijwani is a dynamic Human Resources leader with 25 years of experience across various industries and HR sub-functions having worked in various organisations like GE, Tata Group, GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, Aon, Sun Pharmaceuticals and Accenture. She is experienced in leading organisations through growth, business integrations and cultural transformations. A progressive thinker, Leena is keen to solve tough business challenges and build teams to create organizational impact.


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