SINGAPORE – When she entered the workforce, Sheena Ponnappan had very few female role models. The discourse on inclusion, diversity and equality in the workplace was not as loud then as today. The realisation that women were not looked at as leadership material helped shape her purpose – to someday become a leader who would help create many more female leaders.

Through her 18-year long career as a human resources executive, spanning four continents, she has endeavoured to do just that. Happy to be the Chief People Officer at Everise, a customer service solution provider for businesses, she has created a company culture that promotes gender pay equality by creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. She has helped improve gender diversity to the extent that the company has a 65% female workforce, 45% of whom are in leadership positions.

Childhood Lessons

Academically gifted, Ponnappan loved to read as a child. She was attracted to stories that had strong female characters and far-off cultures. She was also engaged in sports like hockey, basketball and sprinting, which taught her the value of teamwork and how to learn from failure.

However, one thing that upset her was not being able to compete with the boys’ teams. As she started her career, she saw this unfair treatment repeat in front of her, and she resolved to do something about it. Some other traits that she developed as a child and that continued helping her through her career are loyalty and a steadfast commitment to a goal.

Women and Corporate Culture

Through the first half of her career, Sheena Ponnappan tried to observe and understand organizational behaviors, whilst performing more administrative functions. She realized HR professionals have the opportunity to influence people’s careers and occasionally, their lives.

“There was and continues to be a common misconception that women tend to be more emotional and cannot handle the pressure of making the hard decisions required to run a successful enterprise,” she recalls.

She was determined to be in a position wherein she could influence organizational culture to be more inclusive. “I knew that I wanted to make a difference and leave a legacy that would allow me to look back with pride,” she says, remembering the early days. She adds that she hoped that someday, she could be instrumental in creating a culture that made employees excited to be at work. This is exactly what she is doing in her role at Everise.

Changing Dynamics

Ponnappan believes that over the past decade there has been improvement in workplace gender balance. If there’s an imbalance, it’s evident that gender equality isn’t a priority for those organizations, she stresses.

“In the past decade, diverse organizations have been successful in having women hold at least 25% of the critical C-Suite positions. Achieving 50% leadership parity is not a moonshot – it simply requires the long-term thinking required to develop female leaders. It’s important for leaders to understand that the organizations they lead have the power to influence societal norms and perceptions, if they choose to,” she points out. She adds that CEOs and their leadership teams have the choice to influence how women are perceived and treated in their organization.

The term inclusion has a much wider connotation today, believes Ponnappan. “It’s no longer only about the equality of women, but equality in the workplace for all those who have been marginalized,” she points out. Much of the HR media is also reporting that many organizations are prioritizing diversity, equality and inclusion goals in 2021, she informs, adding that the term today encompasses sexual orientation, religious affiliation, generational diversity, disability, mobility, personality type and even thinking style, besides race and gender.

This new focus has prompted companies to challenge their core values and basic assumptions of how they operate and enabled them to not only meet employee needs but also maximize business success, she says. “In my experience, inclusive policies have increased organizational flexibility, employee morale and retention. We now have four generations in the same workplace. Imagine the diversity of ideas, perspectives and approaches to problem solving that organizations can leverage today, in order to drive productivity and innovation.

Ponnappan is proud of the fact that gender biases and gender pay inequality do not exist at Everise. She believes this is because the team does not view diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives as just a check in the box, or a marketing gimmick. “Our male leaders respect and value the opinions of every female employee and promote gender equality at all levels. We have been successful in creating a fair and safe environment for women, which brings me hope that there is progress elsewhere,” she states. No wonder then that the company’s aim for the coming years is to have 50% of all women employees in leadership roles.

Women leaders, she says, succeed when they lead through inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning them with meaning and purpose. Young women entering the workforce look up to powerful women in the organization and aspire to achieve the same positions. “For women leaders, it’s important to walk the talk in order to continue inspiring these young women to want power, rather than consider themselves less worthy or assume it to be the impossible,” she says.

Women in leadership roles

Ask her what other companies wishing to encourage more women to come aboard can do, and she says, “Attracting and developing more women in leadership roles requires focused change, driven from the top.” She points out that while women and men enter the workforce in roughly equal numbers, women fall behind in promotions. Improving these odds lies with top leadership, she adds.

It’s imperative that organizations strive to be aware of the stereotypical problems in the workforce before defining goals that will encourage and empower more women to take up leadership positions, Ponnappan stresses. They need to first recognize that gender diversity is a priority and establish goals to diversify management. “Having more women in leadership positions will help ensure more women have the authority to decide and negotiate on issues that affect them,” she believes.

Organisations need to ensure women get the critical experiences that are required for career advancement, she says. This can be done by helping them with skill and knowledge enhancement, offering a flexible work environment, closing the pay gap and valuing their opinions and perspectives to start with. “Succession planning in organizations should also have a gendered lens to eliminate barriers to women’s advancement into senior roles,” says Ponnappan.

Family and social support

All organizational support can come to a naught, though, if women do not have the requisite family and social support. “Research has shown that there is a strong correlation between social relationships, such as families, mentors, and professional networks, and the ability of women to achieve their ambitions. These individuals are now enabling women to balance priorities that previously impeded their career advancement,” informs Ponnappan.

Talking of her personal experiences, she says that her family and friends have been her biggest support system, encouraging her to follow her dreams. It was their support that made her unapologetic about not fitting in with traditional moulds. This support and trust are what every woman needs within her circle, in order to follow her passion, she believes.

Words of wisdom

Over the several years of her career, Ponnappan has learnt a lot about what leads to success at work. Ask her to summarize the lessons and she says, “Stay true to yourself, your values and your goals. In trying to fit in, don’t forget about what makes you stand out.” At the same time, she suggests stepping out of one’s comfort zone, being open to new experiences to help expand your skills and knowledge.

She stresses that career defining opportunities don’t come your way in waiting, but upon seeking them out. Several qualities needed to succeed can be picked up at a subconscious level when one is surrounded with supportive mentors and peers.  “They can help guide you through challenging times and celebrate wins,” she adds.

Talking specifically about women at work, she says, “Tenacity and optimism have played a critical role in the success of many women.” The most important responsibility of any successful woman, according to Ponnappan, is to boost other women. “When you grow to be in a position of power, use your influence to develop and empower more women,” she says.