On Being a Woman Leader in the Modern Workplace

Nitasha Devasar | March 20, 2018

In the last five years that I have been MD, I have begun to learn about gender dynamics in the workplace and surrounding ecosystem.  Earlier, diversity and inclusion were lovely utopian concepts and one really didn’t hear them much, except perhaps in international forums and usually from female HR heads, in rooms full of suited men with slightly glazed expressions.  This has changed somewhat in the last few years as the expressions have turned defensive and awareness levels are creeping up.

I am often asked what as a woman leader I have brought to the business and how that has shaped the organization.  In other words, does my gender bring a certain ‘je ne sais quoi!’ to the process of running a business successfully.  I am not sure if gender has everything do with it, individuality certainly does.  Nevertheless, here are a few things I have focused on.

As head of the business, recruitment was one of the first arenas of action: setting processes, moving the bar higher and involving a wider pool of interviewers to reduce unconscious biases.  A healthy gender ratio is a good starting point but by itself achieves little.  Getting a wider spectrum of experience, for example, simply by aiming to hire from companies bigger, older and with skill you need to develop, can push your existing teams to a whole different level.  Of course, this brings with it its own set of challenges.

Once you have a mix of talents and temperaments, clarity of vision and goals that set up teams and individuals for success are imperative. Targets need to be met but how these are achieved is vital too.  Streamlining the less than glamorous backend operations, I believe, determines the quality and sustainability of business growth.

Three years ago, we moved to new offices.  The ‘Move to Improve’ as I dubbed it, was much more than shifting offices.  The new workplace, which benefitted much from aesthetic sensibilities and work ethics, was to be a physical manifestation of who we were and what we wanted to be as a business and as an employer.  It is thus both aspirational and ambitious in a friendly and inclusive sort of way.  The physical spaces, colors, and branding reinforce the collaborative spirit and enabling culture that we are building.

Alongside, came the gradual recognition of the human condition in the implementation of our increasingly employee-friendly policies.  This meant developing an empathetic and reciprocal culture in administration and HR departments: for example, in the support extended to new mothers beyond that mandated by laws and paternity leave for new fathers; backing to people going through personal crisis – work from home, extended leave, leave waivers; etc.  Equally, employees are encouraged to give back to the organization and the wider community, with mixed results.  Understanding reciprocity in the workplace does not come easily to most of us.  So it needs persistence and nurturing.

The biggest contribution comes from creating and implementing a work culture that provides opportunities to learn and grow, acknowledges work done, is collaborative and team-oriented.  Said one young female employee recently, of her all-male team, ‘My voice is heard and my ideas respected!’  That is the culture we want to sustain and scale.

My staff tells me that it is inspiring to have a female leader heading the organization in India and at the global level too.  At every townhall there is much more talk about both aspirations and challenges of leadership roles.  Says our HR manager, ‘Staff of both genders have asked questions related to the subject, to you, even to our CEO.  So, there is greater awareness about the challenges too.  It is inspiring to see.’

Talking about failures and seeing them as part of the process of individual (and organizational) growth is necessary, and naturally sharing my acceptance of varying experiences encourages other to open as well.  Said one young woman to me recently, ‘We have seen you stumble and we have seen you dance, and we are learning to do both.’

The biggest task is to involve and engage both genders and as a woman leader, I am very conscious of this.  All leaders are role models for their staff.  Working with both young men and women in the workplace to call out our patriarchal mindsets and rise above our social conditioning requires constant vigilance and an open culture.

Millennials today are very aware and do not fear speaking up or out if they perceive biases or behaviours that are not professional.  This is both a sign of the times we live in and the increasing awareness about inclusion and diversity in the workplace.  The modern workplace is changing rapidly.  Learning from it and converting these lessons into processes and direction for our company is a big part of my leadership journey.

Originally published by the Workplace Equity Project.