Naina Subberwal Batra, CEO, AVPN

Growing up in a well-to-do household in India as an only child, Naina Subberwal Batra did not experience gender discrimination until she started working. Throughout her early life, whether it was in her all-girls school or the women’s college in the United States, was she ever told that she couldn’t do something on account of her being a female. This bubble burst once she stepped into the real world.

She is currently the CEO and Chairperson of Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, Asia’s largest social investment network. Prior to this she held a leadership role in the consulting firm The Monitor Group. She also co-founded Group Fifty, an art curation service that would take the works of contemporary Indian artists directly to the audience.

In this interview, she speaks to Women Icons Network about how deep-seated gender inequality is in our society, how it can be improved and other aspects of a working woman’s life.

Vulnerable at Work

Naina cites the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 to say that despite the increased number of skilled women professionals, one can neither see women having higher participation in the labour force nor getting greater opportunity for leadership positions. “We would have assumed that with greater education attainment, women and girls would be able to better compete in the labour market. This reveals that there are deeply entrenched issues in our system that we need to tackle,” she informs.

She explains this statement through examples of how women are advised to deal with crisis situations. Girls who experience sexual harassment are taught to keep silent for the fear of not being believed or having consequences to bear. Women are often told to take back their complaints because it will adversely affect men who are viewed as the principle breadwinners. “Unfortunately, this is as prevalent today as it was when I joined the workforce,” she declares.

Things get more complicated in the social sector, where the perpetrator can easily hide behind the cloak of all the good work they have done. In such cases, the victim is often made to feel that they are bringing a ‘good person’ down, shares Naina.

According to the Center for Global Development, 75% of the workforce in nonprofits are women. However, only about 18% of the largest Non-Profit CEOs are women, and they earn up to 8% less than their male peers. If we look across the largest foundations today, we find that they are almost all led by men.

Gender Inequality

Gender inequality, Naina believes, is a complex, behavioural issue that intersects with many different issues, and is further complicated by other forms of discrimination including ethnicity, caste, poverty, religion, and more. This complication often means women themselves, unknowingly, become perpetrators of gender inequality, she says. She thinks that the key to avoid this is to be aware of our blind spots and have the courage to challenge our status quo.

“If we want to begin chipping away at workplace discrimination, we need to move beyond our individualistic stance, and instead, stand in solidarity, and hold each other accountable,” she suggests.

The ongoing pandemic has tipped the scales further. When the pandemic struck, women experienced greater workplace vulnerability and job losses than their male counterparts across, Naina points out. Women also wear many hats, as employees and mothers, and these different roles take up much energy and time, leaving very little time for rest and recovery, she adds.

She informs that before the pandemic, it would take close to a century to close the global gender gap. “Today, it would take 135 years for the world to achieve gender parity,” she says. She insists that we need to put women at the centre of our recovery strategy if we wish to ever see real progress towards equality. In Asia, very few countries like Laos and South Korea are seeing progress towards gender parity.

Change is Happening 

Pointing out that a large proportion of wealth has been traditionally controlled by men, Naina believes that things are changing for the better.  “A greater number of women entrepreneurs, both in rural and urban areas, are coming to the fore. These MSMEs are a huge driver of many economies, yet, they often struggle to gain access to finances,” she further informs. That’s why gender lens investors are so important, in ensuring women entrepreneurs – who often face greater financial barriers than their male counterparts, she adds.

She shares that it is projected that Asian women will add more than $1 trillion per year to their total wealth in the next few years. Many of the women who acquire this wealth, she says, use it to uplift others in their communities, utilising it to empower fellow women.

In fact, this trend was so prevalent that AVPN recently launched the Asia Gender Network, which brings women philanthropists together to move their capital towards improving gender outcomes in Asia. “In about 3 months, we have 30 members across 13 markets. It’s exciting to see how these women are taking the opportunity to speak with one another, share what they are doing to support women communities, and collaborate with one another to scale impact,” says Naina.

With all these developments, she feels, there is an added responsibility that falls on women in positions of power and authority. They need to take charge in order to create systems change and change the status quo in terms of improving gender balance at workplaces, she thinks.

“Use your voice at work to speak up on issues to empower the next generation to do the same. Unless and until we leverage our position to advocate for ourselves and set our demands, we will not only lose the chance of demonstrating the value of who we are, but also lose the chance for the people working for us to be the best versions of themselves,” she advises all women leaders. However, Naina believes that while asserting their individuality, women must still play our part as community members and builders.

At the same time, men could make a conscious effort to not let their subconscious bias dictate decisions and call out their peers on biasness and gender stereotypes, she suggests. They can also help, she adds, by providing women with more opportunities to grow and advance, making it a point to balance gender representation in leadership roles, and advocate for women when they are underrepresented. “We need men to be willing to make space for women at the workplace, and listen when we are speaking,” she says.

Power of Networks

Naina feels that the power of networks and ecosystem builders is often understated as their impact is not easily quantifiable or immediate. This makes it difficult for others to understand its value.

However, she believes that the pandemic has revealed the fruits borne out of years of ecosystem building work on the ground. “We have established boots on the ground, and built trust with different stakeholders, so that, when faced with an issue as complex as COVID-19, we were able to very quickly garner the resources we needed to take immediate action,” same explains.

The Asia Gender Network (AGN) floated by AVPN, which was launched in March, is the first Pan-Asian network committed to mobilising capital for gender equality, she shares. The Network has over members from across 13 Asian markets. “All of them are championing critical causes to improve the outcomes for women and girls in Asia. Using Asian capital rooted in Asia and backed by influential female Asian leaders, the Asia Gender Network is using its resources to amplify initiatives and scale solutions for some of the most neglected or underrepresented sectors that the region faces,” she informs. The causes include anything from female entrepreneurship to girls education to eradicating modern slavery.

AVPN also hosted its own Gender Lens Investing (GLI) series, co-hosted with Investing in Women and held in Indonesia and Vietnam. The series explores how gender lens investing can build resilience against the pandemic and support economic recovery in Southeast Asia.