Your next high-potential senior executive could be a woman and, thus, gender diversity becomes critical for all organisations.

Last week, I met the global Chief Diversity Officer of a multinational organisation, on being invited by their Chief Executive Offcer (CEO). Recession, budget cuts, a non-performing government — all of these have built an explosive cocktail of uncertainty in the workplace. Understandably, corporates look towards diversity and inclusion (D&I) as a tool for achieving greater productivity by creating uniquely segmented employee value propositions.

The idea was to discuss the business case for gender diversity in the organisation. After the meeting, the CEO took me aside and said, “Do you think we can implement a diversity agenda which is uniquely Indian and not a kichdi of what a New York think-tank defines as inclusion? For that matter, can we even decode gender diversity from a purely Indian context?”

Compared with other social sciences, like organisational development or talent management, the science of diversity and inclusion in India is still a young upstart. With a little under 28 per cent of women participating in the Indian workforce, a focus on women’s careers is required. Where does one start? Would it be right to begin with an understanding of the country’s collectivist outlook (in contrast with the Western ‘individualistic’ attitude)? Or the fact that traditionally in India motherhood has never been the domain of the mother alone? Or that ‘feminism’ means very different things in India and, as such, any cut-paste of American or European gender diversity initiatives will not merit the same traction as it does in the ‘parent’ country (pun intended)?

To understand this better, we went to the source — the Indian woman. In a national study spearheaded by FLEXI Careers India (a social enterprise that works towards enhancement of women’s workforce participation) that included about 500 women professionals, we asked them the primal question — what would make you re-consider your decision to leave the workplace?

Among a wish-list of 10 career-enablers, including home-based care-giver, day-care services and supportive extended family, the following three were chosen by women as their top picks: mentoring, flexible working and skill-building initiatives. These are the three most-favoured programmes that would help retain a woman at the workplace and, therefore, add credibility to the gender diversity initiative of any organisation.

Mentoring

“Three times a month, I sit with my mentor and I brief him on what happened each week, while he makes cursory comments. I guess he would find these sittings even more frustrating than I do,” this is what a woman manager at a top multi-national bank told us .

What women want are not meaningless mentoring sit-outs, which are a bunch of notes and records. They need mentors who invest in them. Senior leaders who are genuinely interested in their progress and are ready to stand up for them where it counts. And mentoring can be two-ways too. Gen-Ys can reverse-mentor seniors, while middle-managers can start mentoring cross-functional teams. One of the most successful mentoring programs I have witnessed are at a mid-size consulting firm, where young women mentor men — helping them understand the issues which women face to build an organisation without barriers.

Flexible Working

Flexible working is becoming the most important of all engagement drivers. No longer a female bastion, a number of fathers speak about its importance in creating sustainable careers. But still, it is only the icing on the cake for men, while it is the very oxygen of women’s careers. Companies that invest in unbundling jobs are able to see the benefit of having a highly motivated workforce.

Skill-building initiatives

While all women go through occasions in life where the career-home crossroads bears down upon them, a few are able to confront these speed-breakers head on. What is the secret? Many women who build skills, such as gender intelligence, situational leadership and networking, are able to negotiate the bends better. Companies that invest in training programs, workshops and skill-building initiatives for women are able to see a healthy jump in the rates of retention.

Most gender diversity initiatives fail not because they are flawed, but because they have not been customised to suit the Indian context. There is no cause to fight for a business case — it would suffice to say that ignoring half the population of a country means you are playing with just 50 per cent of the deck.

(The author is the Founder-President, AVTAR Career Creators and FLEXI Careers India)

(This article was published on August 9, 2012)
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