Senior executives of professional services firm Ernst & Young’s (EY’s) Global Delivery Network (GDN) in Bengaluru, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram offices were in for a surprise when they attended a first-of-its-kind internal workshop in April. The 74 executives—mostly men—were seated in an experiential theatre-style format, and saw professional stage actors enacting real-life work scenarios.

The scenarios demonstrated the variety of biases people encounter at the workplace, such as a woman coming back from maternity leave being handed a “lighter" role, a general mistrust of younger employees, and an over-reliance on pedigreed education during recruitment or performance reviews.

“The executive team was asked to describe the bias and to think about how they should counteract the prejudices that were acted out," says Ruchika Bhaskar Sethi, describing the objective behind EY’s Unconscious Bias programme. She’s EY India’s GDN talent leader.

Hemanth B., executive director of human capital, describes the session as overwhelming. “We all think we are fair and competent. To realize that you are possibly guilty of making judgements you’re not even aware of, and to see the impact of that on somebody else, is difficult."

In the diversity dialogue across companies, there is a growing understanding that it’s not enough to have the right policies and systems to fix the gender gap and promote equal workplaces. For real impact, it’s crucial to identify and transform the deeply entrenched mindsets and behaviour patterns that obstruct change.

“Over the past couple of years, companies that have had a focus on diversity have had to question why the data on gender hasn’t improved much. Clearly, there was a systemic bias at work that needs to be tackled," says Nirmala Menon, founder of Interweave, a Bengaluru-based consulting service focused on diversity solutions.

Researchers call this second-generation or unconscious bias; essentially hidden or implicit assumptions, attitudes, beliefs or judgements about people based on their age, gender, race or class.

Telecom company Vodafone, for example, has put the focus on “respectful behaviour" and on building a culture of sensitivity and inclusion to attract, retain, motivate and promote women. Workshops on unconscious bias are an important tool in this. Franklin Templeton Investments says its focus is on building awareness around gender-related issues, which they have chosen to do through several intense workshops where people are encouraged to talk.

Catalyst, a global not-for-profit that works to expand opportunities for women, says that implicit bias can lurk even in people who are consciously committed to equality and work deliberately to behave without prejudice. For they might still be hostage to negative stereotypes. Shachi Irde, executive director of its country unit, Catalyst India WRC, says a range of implicit biases can limit the careers of women in the workplace. Catalyst’s report, The Double-Bind Dilemma For Women In Leadership: Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don’t, published in 2007 and updated in 2012, showed that gender stereotypes lead to three main “double binds" for women—their behaviour, regardless of whether they fit the stereotype, is either seen as “too soft" or “too tough", never “just right" for leadership roles. Women are held to higher standards of performance and receive lower rewards than male leaders; and women leaders are perceived as either competent or likeable, but rarely both. In India, these stereotypes are amplified by the patriarchal structure.

How to get men involved

Diversity advocates believe the job of fixing biases has to begin at the top management level, where people and team decisions are made. Since a majority of senior managers across organizations are men, companies such as Dell have recognized the need to put them at the centre of the attack on bias. “We believe men have the potential of being powerful ambassadors for implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives, as well as influencing other male peers to support gender initiatives," says Zeena Fruitwala, executive director, commercial sales operations, Dell India.

Dell supports Men Advocating Real Change (MARC), a Catalyst initiative aimed at creating a better gender balance in the information technology industry. “The first step towards achieving gender equality would be to recognize that there is bias at the workplace to begin with," says Fruitwala.

Menon says they use simple exercises to establish implicit assumptions. For example, at the start of a workshop, participants are asked to imagine a farmer and a nurse. Most people imagine the farmer to be a man and the nurse, a woman. “Actually, in India, women do a bulk of the agrarian tasks. When we show those images, people start thinking, of course, a woman can do that," says Menon. They also show a bunch of photographs—of men and women—and ask the participants to identify who they think are chief executive officers of different companies. “People are surprised by how wrong their estimates are. The stereotypes become pretty apparent," adds Menon.

Simple drills such as this are useful ice-breakers, setting the context for training the mind to recognize biases. EY, for example, runs a Web-based learning module on Unconscious Bias. Every staffer has to take the one-and-a-half-hour module once.

They eventually expect every GDN senior employee above the manager level—over 830 people across the country—to attend these workshops.

The process of realization isn’t an easy one. “Nobody likes to face their deficiencies," says Irde. “Somehow, there is more openness to being inclusive when you talk of things such as age or disabilities. With gender, the discrimination doesn’t seem as obvious because people see articulate and intelligent women around them," says Menon.

At the workshops she has conducted for middle and senior managers at companies such as Vodafone and Franklin Templeton Investments India, Menon says she often poses the provocative questions herself—the meritocracy versus diversity debate, anxieties about reverse discrimination against men, and why women should get additional support at all. Many people want to ask these questions, she says, but might not for fear of being politically incorrect. “The inclusion conversation is not an easy one; it brings in a person’s view of social justice, management practice and politics," she adds.

Introducing the concept of privilege becomes critical when talking about bias; so does ensuring that the conversation isn’t adversarial. Some men can feel limited by the gender stereotype of being the primary breadwinner.

To shatter stereotypes, says Menon, a few companies have now begun to ask her to get men who have chosen to be the stay-at-home parent or take on more flexible roles to support their wife’s career, to speak to their staff. “They want to show that men who made alternative choices are secure, successful and confident."

Checking for impact

EY’s Hemanth B. says there are incredibly difficult challenges at each step. Initially, in getting people to open up without the risk of others judging them; and then, finding a way to help people commit to working on modulating their biases. “It needs a lot of reinforcement; one workshop isn’t going to change things. We know we’re scratching the surface still."

Nikhil Steven, a senior manager of human capital at EY’s Bengaluru office, and one of the people who attended the Unconscious Bias workshop, adds that changing mindsets takes time because everybody, not just men, has reservations. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to measure how fast we’re progressing in opening people’s minds."

Where these workshops do help is in building a culture of self-reflection, says Steven. For example, when a woman comes back from maternity leave, we now make sure we have a discussion with her to understand what she needs before assuming she wants to cut back or go slow. “To stop and step back, ask instead of tell, helps to be more self-aware."

A STUBBORN GAP

When it comes to tackling gender disparities, India performs poorly among BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), according to the World Economic Forum. This is how it ranks on the different parameters.

u 3.9 on a 1 (worst) to 7 (best) scale on the ability of women to rise to positions of enterprise leadership

u Only a 7% share for women on the boards of listed companies

u Only 9% of firms have female participation in ownership

u At No.134 among 142 countries on the criteria of economic participation and opportunity for women.

Source: The Global Gender Gap Report, 2014 (World Economic Forum).

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