The International Women’s Day (IWD) has gone in a whiff of perfume, rustle of silk and the lustre of jewellery. While I am all for celebrations, especially at the workplace, the rah rah , “one-day-in-a-year" kind of celebration, now honestly tends to leave me cold.
Every day must be a celebration of diversity at the workplace; and more importantly, of the culture of inclusivity. After all, diversity ultimately, is only a statistic. It is the spirit of inclusivity which eventually encourages every employee to bring more of herself or himself to the place of work.
Having tracked organizations and their inclusivity initiatives over the years, I am convinced that this culture of inclusivity can be institutionalized only when it is driven from the top. Of course, as we have seen in the recent past many “our DNA is male only" kind of bodies, have reached a tipping point, facing a groundswell of revolt, forcing them to hastily don the armour of inclusivity. However, almost invariably, it is the positive cues that come from the corner office that embeds a truly inclusive culture. Employees need to see inclusivity, both in spirit and in action, high on the CEO’s agenda before it can become a reality at the workplace.
In India, the female demographic not just in the corner office but in the whole C-suite is only 5 to 10% (numbers vary depending on the survey). More worrying, a whopping 30% of respondents in the Grant Thornton’s Women in Business 2018 survey reported that they had no women in leadership roles. It then becomes self-evident that for lasting success in gender inclusivity, it must invariably fall to men to drive it in organizations. Therefore, the urgent need for male sponsors.
Which is why I am disappointed when I see conferences or seminars held to encourage gender balance in organizations (#BalanceforBetter is incidentally this year’s theme of the IWD), having great gender imbalance in their participant profile. Do a quick headcount check of the participants—it usually hovers around 10% male, and the percentage further drops after the Diversity Awards have been handed over.
Strong male sponsors are required at each management level to drive the gender inclusivity agenda. Women can be catalysts (no pun intended!). They can reverse mentor influential senior leaders to see their point of view, design gender friendly policies or give their valuable insights to shape gender sensitization programs especially for first-line managers. But to drive the agenda effectively in the organization, to get gender inclusivity on the leadership radar and keep it there, rope in the male sponsors.
Many successful women I have spoken to have highlighted the importance of male sponsors in shaping their careers, in making them confident and successful. In my view, sponsorship starts early in life, at home. Gender stereotypes and biases ubiquitously creep in and become a self-fulfilling prophecy, eroding the confidence of young girls, unless they are broken down by early intervention at home. Active sponsorship will give them a much-needed level playing field as they prepare to enter the professional training and work arena. Organizations, of course, can help —for every programme they run for working mothers — promote fathers’ programmes too.
Personally, for me, it was my father, who was my champion in all those formative years. At every fork in my student life and early career, whenever the choice was between the status quo, or a tougher less trodden path, it was he who urged me on. Leadership positions, strategic selection of academic institutions, career choices, and even the life partner. For me the baton passed quite seamlessly to my husband, who sponsored my career and partnered all the tough choices one made in the next phase of life. Fathers, of course, we cannot choose, we are blessed with them. But life partners, that’s a different story. And I never fail to tell young career women, to choose them wisely. To choose someone who is both a partner and a sponsor, and champions their career unabashedly.
Quite often I hear senior women professionals moan that even women do not seek them out as serious sponsors or mentors. Actually, this is no surprise. With the top management layers so packed with men, it is no wonder that smart ambitious women see the impact successful male leaders as sponsors bring. I tell them not to fret. Instead, enlist male leaders onto the inclusivity agenda and see how the gender balance programme becomes a reality. I do believe this is a sure-fire mantra, the brahmastram, if I may call it that, to unleash a truly gender inclusive organization.
The rest, as they say, will be her story!
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations.