Women in leadership: Accrete Founder Sreehari R Rao on correcting biases and reimagining diversity beyond token representation

Women in leadership: Accrete Founder Sreehari R Rao on correcting biases and reimagining diversity beyond token representation

At ET Prime Conversations—part of the ET Prime Women Leadership Awards (ETPWLA) 2023 edition—Sreehari R Rao, Founder and Director, Accrete Executive Search, delves into the India Inc diversity playbook, deep diving into unconscious biases that impact the number of women in leadership positions.

From drafting gender-neutral job descriptions to removing the disproportionate X plus Y-level performance tax on women when they reach the top, Rao outlines a blueprint for enabling women to navigate the hurdles in the Indian leadership landscape.

Sharing insights into the agenda: ‘Hiring Trends for Women: Building a pipeline of women leadership’, Rao was speaking with Miloni Bhatt, Editor – Digital Broadcast, EconomicTimes.com in the ET Prime Conversation series, as part of the ETPWLA 2023 programme. Currently in its fourth edition, ETPWLA is India’s most illustrious awards conferred upon present-day and next-generation women leaders, who personify the spirit of excellence in business, entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership.

ETPWLA_Sreehari Rao SpeakerET Special

Through a series of anecdotes, Rao paints a picture of the great Indian patriarchy or the paradigm of gendered labour woven into the country’s socio-cultural DNA—which has historically demanded women’s unpaid domestic labour and caregiving duties. Rao shows how a deeply ingrained idea of a domestic structure still continues to exert its toll on women’s personal and professional lives even in an era where we are talking about championing women COOs and CEOS, and investing in a pipeline of women leadership.

“Despite being a COO of a Rs 7,000-8,000-crore revenue organisation, a woman is still expected to make breakfast at home in the morning. Of course, there are exceptions; there are women COOs who will not do this. However, the majority is depicted by this particular example. Societal support is very important for women to continue in their careers,” emphasised Rao at the virtual fireside chat.

Decoding barriers to champion women in leadership positions
Here are some of the key takeaways from Rao’s broader picture of how such unconscious biases and structural barriers prevent women from joining the workforce, and especially surviving in the workforce and rising to leadership roles:

  • India and the paradigm of women in STEM: Although a large section of women graduate in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) fields, only a small number of women are represented in jobs, and even fewer in leadership positions. Rao says it’s imperative to look into the social background of our country in order to decode this paradox, especially given the backdrop that in the last 15-20 years, women students have been faring better than men academically, and busting the mathematics-and-men myth.

    Even though they do well in education, as and when they progress in their career, women are under pressure to get married. And even if women join the workforce, they are often forced to give up their careers midway. “If you talk about the upper and mid-sized companies in India, there has been a conscious effort at their end to encourage women to come back to work. Women, today, are quite successful in various startups as well … So, there is a change taking place, more so in the multinationals and very gradually within Indian companies as well. However, the change is more visible at the ground level, you don’t see them (women) at the top levels yet,” says Rao.

Progressive measures in place, still a long road to diversity
Rao highlights the progressive measures being implemented by a section of Indian organisations, especially in the spectrum of new Indian companies or mid-sized Indian companies:

  • Gender sensitisation programmes: Organisations are creating in-house programmes for both men and women to fight latent biases.
  • Gender-neutral job descriptions: Some organisations are also specifically making efforts to create gender-neutral job descriptions.
  • Educating senior leadership: When a woman reaches a top position, she needs to be more guarded than a man because she’s likely to be judged by the men around her. So, they’re educating the senior leadership also how to deal with unconscious biases.
  • Removing X plus Y-level performance expectation: When a woman needs to be promoted; she has to perform at an X plus Y level. Whereas a man can perform at an X level and get the same job. So, they’re taking steps to remove this bias or remove this disproportionate X plus Y-level performance expectation from women.

Rao sums up by stressing upon the significance of educating senior leaders, correcting a deep-rooted sexist mindset, and facilitating support systems for women to champion diversity beyond token representation. This is especially important, he says, as organisations, today, are looking at leadership through the prism of succession planning where along with diversity hiring, building a women leadership pipeline is increasingly being seen as critical to the future of work.

Catch the full interview here. The ET Prime Conversation series, as part of the ET Prime Women Leadership Awards, is among EconomicTimes.com’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. The ET Prime Women Leadership Awards, India’s most prestigious awards conferred to women leaders and changemakers, is another key diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative by the EconomicTimes.com to celebrate women leaders and changemakers driving change and impact across various fields. You can learn more about the programme here.

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Author: Shirley