MUMBAI – ‘Gender education’ begins right from birth, and the gender stereotypes get reinforced in every new generation, believes Debashree Lad. As a human resource professional, she has constantly worked towards creating a more gender balanced workplace. 

Having worked as an HR professional for more than fifteen years, she is currently the Chief People Officer at Mumbai-based fintech startup CredAble. She believes social attitudes need to be adjusted to the modern women with ambitions. She talks about how the corporate world can do this, and how the global pandemic has made men more empathetic. 

Gender Parity in Traditional Societies

In traditional communities like India, traditional beliefs always supersede any workplace norms focused on fairness and equality, points Debashree. “Humans receive gender education right from birth and this gender role socialization continues throughout life. It is only obvious for these behaviours to seep into our professional lives and workspaces,” she says. Centuries of social conditioning has typecast the woman into certain gender specific roles. It is a mammoth task to change these long-established rigid gender roles that have been thrust on men and women. 

“Workforce strategies must ensure that women are better equipped to deal with the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Policy-makers will need to deploy pertinent actions to better equip the younger women generations across countries – particularly in developing nations, coupled with monumental initiatives to change the social construct,” she says when asked about the way to counter this conservative approach. A healthy gender balance reflects in the work culture of an organisation, she says, as it brings differing perspectives, experiences and, therefore, a different set of opportunities. 

The Solution

Debashree has many other suggestions for organisations that aim to improve the gender representation in their departments. “The first step is to be more mindful and acknowledge the fact that an unconscious bias exists. There has to be a top-down approach to improve the situation. Consistent efforts need to be made to realign people to gender equality. Some behaviours can be corrected by fair processes and policies within the organization, including those related to sexual harassment, maternity benefits, fair assessment of performance and potential,” she says. 

The most important thing, she believes, is for senior leaders within the organization to consciously drive the efforts to be mindful. At CredAble, she informs, 28% of the workforce is female. When asked to elaborate the company’s efforts, she goes on to say, “We are a three-year-old fintech startup, yet our senior management has been conscious of the gender balance in the team since the start. Even with a headcount of 25 during the early days, we ensured we were providing a safe working environment for women employees. The leadership team at CredAble comprises seasoned senior professionals from the financial services industry, who brought into the company an already ingrained culture of gender equality.” 

She also believes that in sensitive matters like complaints of sexual harassment or bullying at the workplace, one needs to be empathetic yet neutral. “Such cases call for a detailed investigation of the incident to ensure both parties are given equal opportunities and treated fairly during the entire process. If the right policies are in place, punitive action can be initiated against the person found to be at fault,” she opines. 

Pandemic as a Leveller

Sharing the results of a global survey conducted in 2019, Debashree talks about men’s views on gender equality in the workplace. According to the survey, while most men agree that women won’t achieve equality without their support, half of them also believe they are expected to do too much to support women’s equality. “The never changing social attitudes towards the relative amount of time that women spend on unpaid domestic work and the continued burden of household and care duties only harness the situation that will continue to undermine women’s career opportunities,” she believes. Another challenge preventing the economic gender gap from closing is women’s under-representation in emerging roles, spanning across politics to AI, cloud technology, she adds. 

This attitude, however, has changed tremendously due to the lockdown and work from home where male partners can see the women taking up a big chunk of domestic and household responsibilities. “There were numerous stories making the rounds on how men began contributing to various household responsibilities. In India, many of the household tasks are completed with help from maids, cooks and other domestic help. Since they were not available during the lockdown, it enabled men to display more empathy,” said Debashree. 

When the male members of the family started to share responsibilities at homes, it also created a sense of awareness for their respective teams. This, indirectly, created more understanding of the situation that women employees were facing carrying out dual responsibilities at home and at work, she said. 

The Challenge

When asked about the challenges faced by organisations in having a truly diverse workforce, Debashree talks about The Global Gender Gap Report 2020, according to which gender parity will not be attained for another 99.5 years. “Gender equality is fundamentally dependent on whether or not economies and societies want to make an effort to change. Even today, human beings are being nurtured with long-established rigid behaviours, so the report’s conclusion should not surprise us,” she adds. 

The biggest challenge that the corporate world faces on a daily basis is the policy v/s mindset debate, according to her. She concludes by saying, “We need to acknowledge and accept that at the institutional level, developing and deploying one-half of the world’s available talent has a huge bearing on the growth, competitiveness and future-readiness of economies and businesses worldwide.”