10 May 2018

The NHRD evening discussion on 29th March 2018, was on the subject of “Breaking barriers” with the aim of  not only having better representation of women in the work place but also ensuring more women are in leadership and decision making roles in the organization. The speaker, Dr Saundarya Rajesh, Founder President of Avtar career creators and FLEXI Careers India, worked for an MNC for many years, took a break to fulfill family responsibilities related to motherhood and then returned to float Avtar, an organization that addresses the economic and social vulnerabilities of Indian women.

The objectives of the organization include (1) Helping women contribute to India’s GDP (2) facilitating white collar jobs (3) Creating career intentional girls studying in 8th to 12th class (4) Mentoring programs for skill development (5) Career coaching and intentionality training. Thus the audience could not have hoped for a more accomplished and suitable speaker to discuss the topic, given her ground level exposure to both the corporate and social sectors.

Generally, when the subject of gender diversity and inclusion of women is discussed, there is a tendency to paint a dismal picture of the plight of the ‘weaker sex’ in a male dominated society. Dr Saundarya, however declared right at the beginning of her talk that she would like to focus on the ‘ Good news’. This meant focusing on the progress made so far in the journey; on the glass half full rather than on the glass half empty.

Saundarya advised the audience not to be swayed by perceptions. While it is true that a lot more needs to be done for improving gender diversity, this is true not just for our country but the entire world. In fact, in some matters, the Indian working woman is better off when compared to her counterparts in other countries. As for example, a pregnant woman in India gets maternity leave of 26 weeks while it is only 12 to 14 weeks in Switzerland. The pay gap between male and female employees in India is mainly due to aggregated breaks taken by the women . In UK there is a pay gap of 57% in favour of males.

While the rights of Indian working women are protected under the  Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, there is no such law in the US. In such situations, they have to approach courts under  Civil Rights Act 1964 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. In India, of the number of working women, 34% are managers. As against this, in Japan although 46% of workforce comprise of women, only 9% of them are managers.

 One of the major challenges for maintaining gender diversity in an organization comes from the fact that many women take a break during motherhood but find it difficult to return to work even if they wish to. They find that the opportunities are not available to them and even when they get work; it is at a lower salary than what they were drawing at the time of the break. The primary initiative of Avtar has been to spearhead the movement for more women getting back to work after a break. Saundarya convinced corporates that women who had taken breaks were more likely to stay on the career track longer and were a source for highly skilled personnel. The journey of engaging “Returning” women professionals began in July 2006. She said that the scenario presently is very promising with around 100 companies coming forward to develop policies for taking women back for work after a break.

Towards sustaining the movement, Avtar has programs for coaching and counselling organizations to develop a Gender Inclusion plan. An online platform  www.avtariwin.com has been created for the guidance of women wishing to get back to work after a break. Saundarya has developed a simple profiling method, which helps women to assess their own employability and readiness level for re-entering the workplace. She devised an easily implementable Career-Enabler system to prevent women from aborting their careers.

Further, Avtar launched awards for the “Best companies to work in India for working mothers”.  Accenture, Deloitte, IBM, Earnest & Young, Proctor & Gamble, TCS, Schneider Electric etc figured in the list of top 10 companies. The speaker acknowledged the contribution and support of HR professionals in this regard. She said that more barriers pertaining to working women can be broken with the support of HR. Avtar has also instituted ” Male ally legacy award” to recognize individual contribution of male leaders who have mentored women professionals into leadership. The winners of this award include Mr Kannan of  Pepsico, Mr Krishnamurthy of Pega India, Mr S.V. Nathan of Deloitte and Mr Dasgupta of Johnson & Johnson among others.

The leaders championing the cause of diversity and inclusion exhibit the following behavioural characteristics:

  1. Bridging: They develop kinship with various talent segments
  2. Bonding: They serve as role models for their mentees inspiring them to become champions themselves

An important barrier faced by working women is bias. Saundarya  termed the 12 types of biases “the dirty dozen” and said these cause a  reduction in the womens’ work force participation ratio. Therefore, it is most essential to act towards removing bias. She said that there is a marked change in the attitude and confidence of the working woman of today when you contrast it with the women of a decade or two ago. She shared an experience to prove this point. In an earlier time, when she asked groups of women, which board game they would like to play, they chose snakes and ladders. They saw their lives as having more downs than ups- “One never knows where a snake is hiding and in which form or person it will come to pull you down or dash your aspirations.”

On the other hand, the millennial girls of today are very clear of their capability and where they want to go. They do not have a victim mindset. They understand that they are working for a business and are aware of the contribution they are making, There is an intentional career mapping and the career break is taken in full awareness with an intention to return back to work.

Saundarya finally shared her own story as a working woman who took a break in early 1990s. She said that after a point, playing the role of a mother and home maker, she began to feel restless with a desire to contribute productively. She did various things till she finally founded Avtar. Since then, she has not looked back having had the satisfaction of providing solutions and touching positively lives of 2,50000 women in the Avtar network. In the words of the speaker, “I was the change I was looking for”.

Avtar is not only engaged in finding solutions to problems of adult women but have taken up an ambitious project under the name and style of “Project Putri”  in Tamil Nadu for skilling 10,000 girls studying in class VIII to class XII, from underprivileged families. The Avtar Human Capital Trust has a tie up with over 100 schools with the focus being on “making young girls career intentional” so that they are strong enough to combat social problems that particularly girls from weak economic backgrounds face. The project aims to transform women as economic entities contributing to nation’s development. It is based on the motto “Passion results in transformation”  

The topic for the evening viz “Breaking barriers” was holistically discussed from all angles whether in terms of diversity in a corporate working environment or preparing young confident women who can make up the shortage in requirements of trained women employees. The talk was followed by a lot of interaction with an engaged audience.

I conclude this post with an observation of the speaker, based on a study done at Sodexo on the impact of diversity and inclusion – “In the unit in which gender diversity was enhanced by increasing the number of women employees, there was consistent performance, more productivity and increase in profitability. However, for this to happen there must be a minimum of 47% women employees.” Saundarya clarified that the balance is the key for effective performance .If the percentage of women is a lot higher than men or vice versa, the performance and results are adversely affected.

Isn’t that (Study results) a great reason for corporates to partner with Avtar for an important cause and for mutual benefit?

Name: Rajeev Moothedath   
Present Designation: Director
Company: Niche Learning Services Pvt Ltd

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