KUALA LUMPUR – Born and brought up in the Indian state of Punjab, Neeti Mahajan started her career right out of college. Aligned with her field of study, she took up the position of a Geographical Information Systems Engineer in New Delhi. Her first brush with the finance industry came in the form of a quality officer for GE Capital just two years later. A couple of years down the line, she joined HSBC, where she now serves as the Global Chief Administrative Officer for COO and Digital Transformation, Wealth and Personal Banking.

Her two decade-long journey at HSBC began in the payment operations domain. Since then, she has held a number of key roles in the group’s operations in multiple geographies, including postings in India, United Kingdom and Malaysia. Before being appointed to her current role in June 2021, she was the Managing Director for the Global Service Centre in Malaysia and the Global head of Workforce Management since August 2017.

A passionate advocate of gender balance at the workplace, Neeti has pioneered the “Career Comeback” initiative at HSBC, helping female professionals resume their career post-sabbatical. She has also been at the forefront of the organisation’s COVID-19 response and making it ready for the imminent digitalisation of the workflow. She speaks* to Women Icons Network about the challenges and solutions in bringing gender parity into the workplace.

The Challenges

Gender parity issues start with the prevalent gender stereotypes wherein the role of women in many parts of society is still perceived as the home maker, primary caregiver and responsible for running the household, feels Neeti. “Despite more women graduating from schools and colleges at higher rates than men, the number of women starting and staying at formal jobs is significantly lower than their male counterparts. It all comes down to the need for a change in mindset if we want to address this challenge, both at the workplace and society at large,” she says.

Being a part of the social construct, she asserts that managers and leaders need to call out bad or unacceptable behaviour when they come across it instead of waiting for things to sort themselves out. Leaders, she says, need to show courage, be bold and make sure issues are addressed swiftly and with constructive feedback. It also helps to keep an open mind and avoid judgement as several times, people have blind spots that prevent them from seeing a problem with their beliefs or behaviour until you specifically point it out, she thinks.

At the organisational level, she believes that the change will begin with acknowledging that there is a gap in gender representation at layers of organisation. She insists that creating systematic and visible interventions, linked to business priorities and board level commitment are needed to address the issues after identifying them. It also needs the organisation to build the right culture, learning and talent programs, even tie it to scorecards and objectives in order to have measurable and quantifiable means to track their progress, she adds.

Nurturing Female Talent

Neeti has helped develop and lead several initiatives that have helped create as well as nurture female talent in the organisation. The results of the Career Comeback program under which a returnship called ‘Take 2′ is being run to bring women back into the workforce after a sabbatical, has been extremely successful. It has successfully onboarded hundreds of women in their operations and tech teams across Asia. Besides, there are also talent programs run by HSBC like the Accelerated Female Leadership which not only aids in building a talent pool ready for higher responsibilities but also equips them with the knowledge needed to thrive in those roles.

“It’s very important to have female role models. Growing up, I had role models such as Steffi Graff who was smashing all records in the tennis world. At work, I was working with senior female leaders at the top of the organisation,” she recalls. Such examples give young women a lot of inspiration to keep going when things get tough, she feels. After all, they can always motivate themselves by reminding themselves ‘If she could do it, so can I’.

At the same time, she believes, women need to speak up and not hold themselves back when it comes to demanding fair compensation or a raise. This is another area that leaders, especially women in leadership roles, can lean in and support the female talent pool to be more assertive.

Male Allyship

Praising the social media campaigns like #HeForShe, Neeti feels that men play a significant role in ensuring gender balance and gender parity, at work and at home. On the domestic front, they could help remove gender stereotypes by taking actions like cooking a few meals in a week, taking care of school runs, helping with chores and childcare.

“Parenting needs to feel like a shared responsibility to the kids. This will only happen when they see parents playing an equal part in supporting the family and the home,” she thinks. The sharing of responsibilities, she feels, needs to be visible in making decisions regarding the family and finances on a day-to-day basis with both partners having an equal voice.

Once this mindset seeps into the subconscious, it carries into the workplace, too, she says. This will help ensure workplace decisions are not biased by gender stereotypes rather based on meritocracy, she explains. “Men can also play a big part in being sponsors and allies. They can demonstrate model behaviours at work on this front for others to follow suit,” she adds.

The Solutions 

Despite the significant progress made in terms of gender parity, Neeti insists, we still have several glaring gaps. She even recalls a study that said the corporate world would take decades to achieve gender equality at the workplace. “Addressing social and workplace issues in parallel might help us get there quicker than that,” she believes.

These include equal rights to education and ensuring women enter the workforce after school. For the latter, she suggests that governments of nations could form a charter to ensure every kid is financially ‘equal’ irrespective of gender. Industry can help by working collaboratively towards the common goal of addressing gender equality at the workplace through initiatives like cross industry mentorship of women.

While several challenges have been created by the pandemic in this regard, she advises people to keep a positive outlook, look for the silver lining and remember the good things they were able to harness out of a bad situation. Enlisting the positives in her life in the last couple of years, she is happy for the opportunity to spend a lot more time with her daughter as she didn’t have to travel nor commute for work. This also enabled her to devote time to activities like yoga and cooking meals for the family, things she rarely did before. It is important, she insists, to keep a positive outlook, take time to reflect and be grateful for what we have.

*Views expressed in this article are personal opinions of Neeti Mahajan and do not reflect the views or opinions of her current organisation.