Purvi Sheth, Shilputsi Consultants

A second generation entrepreneur, Purvi Sheth started working with Shilputsi Consultants, one of India’s oldest HR advisory & Talent management organisations, right out of college. Before joining the company that was started by her mother, she graduated in Economics and Political Science from Mumbai’s renowned St. Xavier’s College and earned a CPD in Strategy & Leadership from Wharton Business School, USA.

While working her way up in the company, she worked across different functions including talent acquisition, entrepreneurship advisory, strategic HR & process advisory, leadership mentoring, family business management and board advisory. Ten years ago, she became the CEO of Shilputsi. She also serves on the boards of other organisations and is a part of the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) committees at one of Asia’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Funds and Singapore’s Largest Private Investment Company.

As a proponent of equal hiring practices, Purvi Sheth talks to Women Icons Network about the challenges faced by working women, the roadblocks in the path to achieve gender neutral workplaces, her own experiences as a woman in leadership role and the future of gender parity.

Challenges Women Face

Acknowledging that gender related issues at the workplace depend on the culture within a specific organisation, Purvi says that many organisations have been emphasising the need to remove gender inequalities in recent years. She is all praise for employers who are focussed on bringing the principles of diversity and inclusion in every sphere of their existence.

With the varied needs and nature of every industry and company, she says, challenges faced by women cannot be generalised for all companies. However, the common issues most of the women in the workforce deal with include:

  1. gender and appearance related stereotypes,
  2. sexual harassment,
  3. non-inclusive work environments / “boys networks”,
  4. lack of role models and sponsors
  5. lack of flexible and accommodating work arrangements

“These issues, in my view, lead to lower access to top jobs for women, creating another vicious cycle of gender stereotypes, non-inclusive work culture and so on,” she explains.

The Policy Approach

Purvi thinks it is easy to put non-discriminatory processes and policies in place but executing them is what makes a visible and tangible impact. “Equality must be experienced by all employees of a company, and not remain just a statement of purpose,” she asserts.

According to her the biggest hurdles that stop corporates to achieve gender equality are mindset of judgement and fear. “The mindset of an organisation that doesn’t prioritise diversity, is judgemental about women and their capabilities is the biggest drawback. Some companies feel having women in jobs that are physically demanding is a ‘risky’ proposition while some think that women bring an emotional quotient best suited to only certain types of roles,” she expounds.

Many organisations do not persuasively work on implementing their D&I programs, whether it is in terms of hiring more women or by managing their career paths, points out Purvi. She says usually women employees in such organisations usually remain behind the curve.

Reiterating that inclusion depends on the prevalent work culture within an organisation, Purvi says that it is highly dependent on the leadership. She feels that true equity can only be achieved through a culture shift, with persistent commitment from the top.

Tangible steps begin with a strategy, charter and robust communication of these, says Purvi. She believes that organisations must create a strategy and implementation plans around diversity & inclusion and drive internal processes in an organised way. “Communicating constantly about the diversity agenda helps in culture transformation,” she asserts. Hiring more women and enforcing that onto a company’s recruitment strategy, she adds, is the easiest way to ensure entry of women into the company’s workforce.

Building Gender Neutral Workplaces

Purvi points out that many companies implement their diversity agenda top down i.e. they focus on getting a few women in senior management and board positions. The thought process behind this, she informs, is that if you have diversity at the top, then it will percolate down. “Unfortunately, this is not happening fast enough even in companies led by women. I think it is important to ensure diversity at lower levels where companies recruit in large numbers,” she reasons.

The bottom up model helps employees at all levels to get used to having women working alongside them from an early age, she shares. It also helps overcome barriers and biases being passed on to the next generation. She opines that once this approach is embraced, the company can ensure that a fair culture that promotes performance irrespective of gender, is followed so that a sustainable gender neutral work culture can be attained.

Despite being fortunate in terms of not facing barriers at her workplace, like all women Purvi also had to fight assumptions, stereotypes and obstructions in being endorsed and in networking especially during the early phase of her career. “I have observed many women go through these and other issues and it saddens and angers me to see it,” she shares.

Last year, while hosting a leadership speaker series during the lockdown, she noticed that the number of female participants in the audiences was very small. The C-suite executives invited to speak were also mostly males. This experience left Purvi wondering if women leaders were spending less time on “non-essential” work related activities than their male counterparts.

“At the end of the day we need to realise as (women) leaders that doing our jobs well is not the only requirement. We need to build ourselves as complete leaders to be successful as we move up the corporate ladder,” she says. It was this train of thought that led her to launch License to Lead, an Online Mentoring program for women leaders.

Creating Future Leaders

The most important step in helping women in the workforce become ready to take on leadership roles, according to Purvi, is for them to know and understand their own rights, their potential. “After acquiring this self-awareness, they need to know the adjustments needed – the learning and unlearning it will take for them to make it to the top. Sometimes women like to see themselves in invisible capes; that expectation of perfection in every sphere is typically what leads to self doubt, fatigue and finally defeat,” she says.

She believes structured coaching and mentoring as well as learning programs are necessary. Purvi says that leadership comes with a lot of accountability, so all aspiring leaders must know that job performance is not the only parameter they will be judged by. “There are touch points outside of the workplace that women should be a part of – whether those are conferences, work related events or just plain talks on topics of interest or by eminent personalities,” she advises. The new learning for the role they are preparing themselves for goes beyond the workplace, she adds.

Inspiration, she feels, is another important aspect of leadership. Successful women leaders can help in this direction by becoming mentors, helping others by sharing stories of courage, grit, learnings and successes. She believes this is what will help other ambitious women learn to manage failures and successes with equal grace.

Male Allies and Road Ahead

“I also believe that men will play as important a role in this journey as the women both at home and at work. Gender diversity is a need not just for the women nor can it be only by the women,” she stresses. As the corporate world grapples with talent availability issues, creating a pool of future leaders from both genders will definitely need a lot of involvement from male leaders, she feels.

The good thing is that many men already view gender equality as a part of good corporate and workplace culture, says Purvi. They look at it as a prerequisite for business, she adds. However, she believes men can be more consciously vigilant about inclusivity. More importantly, she says, they need to show more encouragement to their female colleagues and acknowledge the issues and challenges faced by women at the workplace.

“I would also strongly urge women to not subject their male colleagues to the same stereotypes that we have all been subjected to. The need is to correct a wrong, not make this a combative cause,” she advises.

In Purvi’s view, gender is a part of a larger matter of diversity, equity and inclusion. She believes that it is not only an issue of culture and value systems in the workplace in a narrow sense, but that in society at large.

“Taking gender diversity in isolation will not help equity at the workplace. Companies will need to have a broader take on diversity and ensure gender is as much a part of it,” she feels. Leaning on gender diversity to transform culture is not the way forward, according to her, although gender diversity is very much the first step in that direction.

She concludes by saying that everything – from coaching & organisational structures to policies & processes, from symbols & habits to mindsets & beliefs – needs to be addressed in totality. “The corporate world can collaborate at many levels to ensure that gender equality is a collective purpose,” she suggests. She believes that awareness and advocacy is not enough; more concrete steps through consortiums and syndicates will help to improve the imbalance.