KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia based ADA, one of the largest companies in the data and artificial intelligence firms in the world, took the Gender Equality Pledge last year. This included extending maternity and paternity leaves to employees, flexible work arrangements, compulsory unconscious bias training and two new employee growth initiatives.

In fact, the company has focused on creating an equitable work environment for employees since its inception in 2018. They have been trying to close the gender gaps consistently in the ten countries where they operate. By 2020, 49% of the company’s employees were women, as were 46% of the new hires that year. 38% of the leadership roles in ADA were held by women in that year. CEO Srinivas Gattamneni tells Women Icons Network how the company worked towards achieving these metrics, systemic gender disparity, challenges and solutions for achieving a gender neutral workplace.

Equitable Workplaces 

Srinivas insists that having a gender diverse and inclusive workforce is absolutely critical to the company’s bottomline. Aside from the talent and skillset that they bring to the table, they also offer their unique points-of-view and perspective, he says. Diversity in opinions, life experiences, and cultures adds nuance to our thought process and the work that we deliver to our clients.

Since ADA has offices in ten different countries across South Asia and Southeast Asia, diversity in the workforce is a way of life for the organisation. It also necessitates building a safe space where people of all genders, cultures, and beliefs feel empowered and a sense of belonging.

“We believe we are what we measure, so the first step for us was to put measurements in place for the gender breakdown of our top leadership, new hires, promotions, and the team across all 10 markets. The ratios serve as a benchmark as we continue to strive for greater equity at ADA,” explains Srinivas.

Once they had the remnant data points, the next step was to work on improving the metrics. This was done by means of several initiatives to eradicate biases and promote diversity. For International Women’s Day in 2021, they kicked off a company-wide unconscious bias training and gifted every ADA employee with a book on the subject. In order to facilitate better work-life balance for working parents, flexi working arrangements and extended maternity leave (4 months fully paid leaves; 2 months half-paid leaves) and paternity leaves (2 weeks fully paid leaves) were introduced. There were also coaching and mentoring programmes to allow employees to explore better career opportunities and hone their skills to branch out.

DEI Initiatives 

As a leader, Srinivas sees it as his obligation to build a supportive environment that empowers all staff members at ADA – man or woman – to be able to excel at work and be there for their loved ones, too. This belief was the primary factor in last year’s pledge and the resulting initiatives. The company doesn’t want them to feel like they must choose one over the other.

For the CEO, diversity is not just a matter of hitting the 50:50 ratio. In fact, he feels that the idea that gender diversity, or any kind of diversity for that matter, has been relegated to just a case of checking the boxes. “We shouldn’t just do the bare minimum. Companies should make meaningful changes in their incentives and policies to empower women to thrive in the workplace. I’m proud of what we’ve been doing at ADA, and I look forward to doing more to make a greater impact in our communities.

Women in Leadership Roles 

About 40% of the senior leadership roles at ADA are helmed by strong women leaders currently. While it is above the benchmark of most other companies, the general trend ok tech companies is higher participation of women in entry/ mid executive levels but not as high in the C-suite and senior management levels.

Srinivas thinks this disparity is a systemic issue. “We’ve all heard the unfair assumptions – that women can’t be great leaders or that they would eventually leave their jobs to raise a family. I firmly believe that women can do it all, and they can even do it better,” he says. The company believes in the power of fair access to opportunities and empowering women through women leaders and role models to create a thriving ecosystem for all, he adds.

The Solutions 

Companies can do their best to support employees through paid parental/maternal leaves and flexible working arrangements, believes Srinivas. He also acknowledges the need to see greater systemic change. “Governments should introduce better policies to increase the minimum parental leave, improve childcare facilities, and other incentives to ease the burden of working parents. Beyond that, change starts from home – women can succeed in the workplace if they have the right support system that empowers them and does not guilt them for pursuing their careers,” he suggests.

And, this is not all talk, no action. ADA does not condone or tolerate any form of discrimination. They used their skills in data analytics not only for their clients but also to draw out exact roadmaps to track and plan their progress in diversity, equity and inclusion. In a bid to eradicate gender biases, the lessons from the training session on ‘Unconscious Bias’ were used to formalise a part of the company’s standard of conduct.

On the work front as well, they ensure that prevalent social and cultural biases don’t become the basis of business decisions for their clients. They make use of data to get real-world insights on consumer behaviour, rather than rely on broad assumptions about certain groups of people.

“Our opinions are informed by our upbringing and culture. Unfortunately, we do live in a deeply male dominated culture that has been optimised for the male experience,” says Srinivas. While he believes that it’s challenging for many of us to eliminate our unconscious biases tied to gender, he is hopeful that we will get there. It will take time, a lot of education, and willingness from all parties, he adds.

Effects of Pandemic 

The pandemic has necessitated digitalisation of most aspects of our lives, which has paved new avenues for the tech industry. This resulted in a growing need for critical talent in the industry to meet those demands. Srinivas informs that the war for digital talent is through the roof, and companies must do everything they can to source and retain their people.

At the same time, the lockdowns also made it more challenging for working parents as they were faced with the additional task of managing home-based learning for their school-going kids. With these challenges in mind, it was the sensible decision for ADA to roll out flexi working arrangements. In the post-pandemic era, the company says it will still embrace this flexi or hybrid work arrangement for employees wishing to avail them.