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Inspiring inclusion to bridge the gender gap

We spoke with women leaders on fostering gender inclusivity and the ways they are shattering the glass ceiling at their workplaces

Inspiring inclusion to bridge the gender gap
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

‘Inspire Inclusion,’ the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, focuses on inspiring everyone to understand and value women’s inclusion to forge a better world.

It calls for action to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create environments where all women are valued and respected.

A key pillar of ‘Inspire Inclusion’ is the promotion of diversity in leadership and decision-making positions.

Press Insider spoke with women leaders, seeking their perspectives on fostering gender inclusivity, the challenges they encountered in leadership positions, and the ways they are shattering the glass ceiling.

1. Pratyusha Vemuri, founder and CEO of raptorX.ai

Fostering inclusivity for women in the workplace involves creating a culture that values diversity and promotes gender equality. It requires implementing policies that support work-life balance, providing equal opportunities for career advancement, and ensuring that women have a voice in decision-making processes. By actively addressing unconscious bias and promoting inclusivity, we can create a more equitable workplace where everyone feels valued and empowered to contribute their best.

As a woman in leadership, I’ve faced challenges such as gender stereotypes and lack of representation. To overcome these challenges, I’ve focused on building a strong support network, honing my skills, and advocating for gender equality. I’ve contributed to change by mentoring other women, promoting diversity in leadership, and championing inclusive policies. Through these efforts, I aim to inspire other women to break barriers and pursue leadership roles.

2. Khushboo Jain, co-founder and COO of CarePal Group

At CarePal Group, we deeply value diversity and inclusivity. Currently, women make up 36% of our total workforce, surpassing the average representation of women in the India Inc workforce across sectors, which stands at 26%. One of the key contributors to gender inequality in the workplace is unequal pay for work of equal value. At CarePal Group, we are committed to upholding the principle of ‘equal work, equal pay.’ We prioritize equal treatment for all employees and have implemented a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment. We firmly believe in providing equal opportunities for career advancement and growth. There is no glass ceiling for women who demonstrate ambition, zeal, and productivity at CarePal Group.

As a female leader in a male-dominated sector, breaking barriers is challenging. Medical Crowdfunding was once foreign to many in India, especially in healthcare. Educating and persuading about healthcare crowdfunding has been tough but rewarding. Start-up execution poses diverse obstacles, yet offers valuable learning experiences. Perseverance, grit, and innovation drive us forward. Passion to make a difference and the mission to save a million lives keep us motivated. I proudly stand as the first female co-founder of a crowdfunding platform in our country.

3. Suja Pramod, head of digital assets, Fidelity Investments India

I value the unique contributions women bring to the workplace and stress the importance of fostering inclusivity and diversity. At Fidelity Investments India, we actively support women through initiatives like the ‘Resume’ program, which is focused on providing women on a career break an opportunity to re-enter the workforce. By providing tailored resources for our associates, we empower women to thrive in their careers. Some of the important ways by which we can promote gender inclusion include developing role models, advocates for women, and having more women leaders who understand and help other women to lean in and bring new perspectives to the table. We believe inclusivity not only benefits individuals but also promotes innovation and productivity. Fidelity Investments India is committed to championing inclusion, ensuring every woman has an opportunity to succeed in her career journey.

Navigating leadership as a woman involves overcoming gender biases and balancing professional responsibilities with societal expectations. These challenges have shaped my leadership style. I am also grateful for the unwavering support of my family and employer. At Fidelity Investments India, consistent support from my leaders, along with opportunities to undertake different roles and wear multiple hats have given me broader perspectives on leadership and empowered me to reach my full potential. Embracing resilience, I’ve been able to navigate complexities, building enduring relationships and keen problem-solving skills. Fidelity’s commitment to inclusive leadership has enabled me to drive positive change, contributing to a more inclusive workplace.

4. Ravneet Pawha, vice-president (global alliances) and CEO (South Asia), Deakin University

“As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2024, we look back at road that’s long and a stance that’s hard-won. The empowerment and inclusion of women in both social and professional settings have moved beyond ethical imperatives to strategic necessities for communities to achieve their full potential. We are at the cusp of empowering women to ensure the collective progress and development of modern societies across the globe. We must move as one to embrace differences, take down barriers, and make gender inclusion not a challenge but a reality.”

“Reflecting on my 30-year journey as a woman in the dynamic landscape of international education and committed participation in the India- Australia knowledge partnership corridor I’ve traversed a road marked by both transformative challenges and change. I am grateful for a supportive network of mentors, peers, and a professional team that has helped me overcome hurdles to achieve my goals with integrity and values. Currently, my leadership ethos revolves around setting a powerful example, championing accessibility, and fostering inclusivity in the realm of education—an indispensable instrument for empowerment. My efforts are also channelled towards mentoring the next generation of leaders, persevering championship of equality and limitless opportunities for all to shine and all members of the community to feel a collective sense of purpose for betterment.”

5. Rohini Nair, co-founder and partner – corporate and private equity practice, ANB Legal

As a co-founder of ANB Legal, a women-driven law firm and being part of the core team, we make conscious efforts to ensure that our women teammates get opportunities to independently interact with the clients and handle varied matters of the Firm. It is not only about onboarding more women at workplace but also giving them a sense of independence such that they are in the position to run our Firm independently without our (co-founders) support. I have personally observed that flexibility at workplace often fuels ambition/commitment of women towards the workplace and also boosts women to pursue their ambitions.

In today’s era, while women have made in-roads into almost all the functions traditionally dominated by men, it is quite unfortunate that women in leadership often face bias, lack of representation, and work-life balance issues. Time and again, we have handled such situations by being extremely firm and emphatic on the values, culture and sense of commitment we hold towards our work and the Firm at large. As women, we hold empathy towards our people and our intuitions really go a long way to tackle obstacles that come our way.

There is no force more powerful than a woman determined to rise. There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish. Everything is within your power, and your power is within you. I dedicate this to my mother and others who have been epitomes of inspiration.

6. Laina Emmanual, co-founder and CEO, BrainSight.AI

Inclusivity to me is a business imperative. If I have to make products which works for different disorder conditions, different genders; then it makes sense to include them in the team in the leadership positions. I don’t think I can observe and filter the world like a guy. And vice versa. So it just makes business sense to ensure we have the correct people in the team listening to the market.

I think most challenges are internal –

How to maintain a balance between being nice (which I inherently like being, maybe due to conditioning) and taking harsh decisions.

How to fund-raise and ensure that the person in front is going beyond the stereotypes of me being a woman, of me being a first-time founder. I think I have developed coping mechanisms around each one of them, a very fine bullshit radar of knowing when a person is devaluing me for being a woman, versus when it is because I am a first time founder. I walk away from the first, I empathize with the second.

How have I contributed to change? Our team has equal ratio of men and women. I think people are very supportive of each other’s way of working. We have men who are stoic, men who are emotional, women who are expressive, and women who don’t express at all –  all of them have learnt to work with each other’s style of working. I love the culture we have built at BrainSight, I am very proud of it, and it has all been super intentional.

7. Aishwarya Malhi, cofounder at Rebalance and Rebalance Angel Community

Women are often over-mentored and under-estimated. I think more than just including women in all important rooms, it’s more impactful to create opportunities for them to exercise decision-making even from their early days at the organization.

Women who start up or join the C-suite work twice as hard to prove themselves, whether it’s executing a project or raising investment. The only thing that counters it all is self-belief and the ability to strengthen your network of believers, sponsors, and cheerleaders over time.

8. Aishwarya Jaishankar, co-founder and COO at Hyperface.co

Inclusivity is not driven by a few token acts like having a women’s day event. It is driven by hiring the right people who empathise, building a culture that is inclusive at heart and being thoughtful in ensuring inclusivity everyday.

Being a woman in corporate board rooms or in startup world has entailed encountering mansplaining, being ignored on the room or simply being told you are a mother so can we count on you. I believe it is superlative execution and being updated about your industry that makes a difference. Bring passion and ownership of the highest degree and no barrier can stop you.

9. Kajal Shah, co-founder and CEO, Dreamfly Innovations

Fostering inclusivity for women in the workplace is pivotal, not just as a matter of fairness, but also as a strategic necessity for organizations. Embracing diversity and cultivating an inclusive environment for women gives manifold benefits like enhanced decision-making, holistic way of approaching a problem, heightened innovation, and discipline in work culture. We as women also rely more on intuition and gut instincts in decision-making, complementing traditional analytical approaches. This can lead to innovative solutions and the ability to seize opportunities that may not be immediately obvious. It is important to provide women with equal opportunities and empower them by encouraging them to pursue challenging roles for advancement in leadership roles. I believe that by championing inclusivity, promoting a growth mindset, and providing flexibility for work-life integration, we can create a culture where everyone, regardless of gender, can thrive and reach their full potential.

I am a second time tech entrepreneur in the dynamic spheres of electric mobility and energy. An instrumental chapter in my entrepreneurial story involves leading my first deep-tech hardware startup in the mobility space for a remarkable nine years, culminating in its successful acquisition. Throughout this journey, I pioneered a micro-innovation work culture and championed responsible micro-leadership, setting a unique tone for organizational dynamics.

Historically my field as an entrepreneur or a technologist has been a male dominated area. Particularly when addressing pivotal topics like business strategy and finance management in boardroom settings, my voice was often not acknowledged. Managing external relationships with vendors, customers, and investors presents its own set of hurdles, marked by constant confrontation that occasionally fuels self-doubt.

In the face of such challenges, I’ve gleaned invaluable lessons. Trusting and utilizing my business instincts has proven paramount, and I’ve come to understand the significance of networking and seeking help when needed. Continuous upskilling has been a priority, understanding that knowledge and skills contribute significantly to credibility.

As a woman navigating the entrepreneurial landscape, achieving work-life balance has been a formidable challenge. However, meticulous time-work planning has allowed me to carve out personal me-time amid the demanding professional landscape.

My journey, marked by resilience, innovation, and strategic acumen, stands as a testament to the possibilities inherent in technology-driven entrepreneurship in India. It is my hope that this narrative inspires and resonates with those aspiring to make a meaningful impact in the ever-evolving landscape of technology and business.

10. Mahua Bisht, CEO of 1to1 help

There are many visible and invisible ways in which women can feel excluded in the workplace. Addressing this requires a comprehensive DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) strategy at all levels. Organizations should adopt flexible work policies, offer childcare, and tailor programs for women’s personal and professional transitions. Senior leadership can actively promote equity through evaluating women’s participation and representation in teams and departments but also through smaller things such as organizing networking events around women’s schedules. Managers should ensure transparent communication and actively combat unconscious bias.

Almost 50% of working women in India leave their jobs to take care of children; of the women who do return, only 16% go on to hold senior leadership positions as per a Genpact Centre for Women’s Leadership study.

Some of the challenges women face include: unequal stressors, a “second shift” at home for women who face an unequal burden for caregiving for children or extended family, postnatal distress, and career interruptions for family care. These lead to slower career advancement, reduced earnings, and fewer leadership opportunities. Overcoming these challenges meaningfully requires organizations to not only create supportive policies for senior leadership to promote gender diversity and focus on work-life balance as well as managers to foster an inclusive environment but also for organizations to offer well-being support and ensure there are tailored interventions for women at key junctures of their personal and professional life.

11. Piali Dasgupta, senior vice-president for marketing at Columbia Pacific Communities

It’s amusing how the “inclusivity and diversity” conversations take centre stage only around the week of Women’s Day. After that, we are back to the same things – female-unfriendly work cultures, poor female representation in boardrooms, sexism at work, and pay parity, even when every credible report in the world is urging companies to hire more women in leadership roles.

Women, even today, work twice as harder, and need to constantly overachieve to prove their worth. It’s exhausting, unsustainable, and unfair. But nothing much changes, and we are just sent home with chocolates and flowers on Women’s Day!

Even today, women leaders in most organizations fall prey to casual sexism. An assertive, outspoken woman who is unafraid to say “no” or disagree with a man’s opinion, is hastily labeled “bossy”, difficult,” “rude” or “arrogant.” It’s happened to me all my life and to several women I know. Frankly, we are tired of fighting sexism and being mansplained by men at boardrooms, who happily interrupt when we are talking and challenge our points without any concrete data/facts.

I have tried educating senior male leaders in a lot of organizations on why this is incorrect and qualifies as sexism. Some have understood, while others haven’t. But I am happy knowing I at least spoke up.

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