Change begins at the grassroots

Mamta Saikia is CEO, Bharti Foundation and based out of India

What according to you are the successes of gender equality movement which gathered momentum towards the end of the last decade?
Bharti Foundation works primarily in the area of quality education in rural India. Thanks to our Satya Bharti Schools as also our work with Government schools, our reach has extended to over 4000 villages across the country. My travel to many of these villages has given me the privilege to interact with children, parents and communities around the issues of education. Over the years, there are two things that are gathering momentum and have been a very positive movement towards girl-child empowerment.

Foremost, a large section of parents and communities have started to believe that education is as important for girls as it is for boys. This ensures that girls have started to come into schools, though their retention in higher classes requires concerted efforts from all of us. The second aspect and one which inspires me the most is that girls as well as their parents are now building career aspirations. When girls start dreaming about what they would become when they grow up, we have given them wings. We have girl students in our schools who want to start their own beauty parlor and on the other hand those who aspire to join the Army. Each one of these students including the boys, talk about making the lives of their parents easy, by earning a living alongside them.

We have equally inspiring stories around women leadership. In Bharti Foundation’s Satya Bharti Schools, where quality education is given absolutely free of cost to underprivileged children, we have a very robust team of teachers who work every single day to change lives. Of these 73% are women, who also inspire our girl students to make their mark in the world. Over the years, we have seen women take up leadership positions in our schools and today 53% of the Head Teachers are female. Women leaders in village schools act as role models, not only for our students but also for the village community. Our Head Teachers are young leaders, who are setting new benchmarks for what rural women leaders can achieve.

At the start of this decade, what you think should be three priorities for gender equal workplaces?
I would again draw upon our experiences in rural India and our work with women professionals in these areas. Bharti Foundation has over 190 village-based schools, which provide quality education to underprivileged children absolutely free of cost, with a very special focus on the girl child. In our village schools, 53% of the Head Teachers are women. It has been a very structured process – of identifying talent, providing them with opportunities along with the requisite capacity building and mentoring. Our potential leaders are given exposure and training around our school-processes, to augment their competence. On assuming leadership assignments, they are further strengthened through regular hand-holding.

These women leaders are helping communities see the potential of young girls, who are given an opportunity. It is not a surprise therefore, that parents in our schools are planning for the higher education for their daughters, since they can foresee a future where she can realise her potential.

In my interactions with women Head Teachers and teachers, they point out three critical aspects that help them perform to their maximum in Bharti Foundation.  These are: (i) respect as a professional, which includes providing opportunities, training and support; (ii) a sense of safety, engendered by a robust grievance-redressal system; and (iii) fairness and transparency in our HR processes. While these are important for all professionals, they matter more to our women teachers than any other.

How important is the role of men in this movement and what according to you should organisations do to involve them? How important is the concept of “Sisterhood” in accelerating change?
It was an approach which involved the entire Foundation team. Starting with transparency in processes, to in-depth HR orientation supported by actions as per policy and a robust exhibition of the management’s commitment. Clarity on processes and outcomes plays a very critical role in ensuring that the entire team works cohesively. In Bharti Foundation where a large section of our employees are women, we have ensured that the HR team has senior women officers as well as the Corporate Ombudspersons office, which also has women leadership. They all provide the required coaching and guidance, as the occasion demands.

Do you think we need a young champion like Greta Thunberg for this cause as well?
Young champions are the voices that represent our future. In our schools, we are grooming future leaders. To sustain the changes that we are seeing on ground, it is important for us that every school has girl role models who inspire young girls in the village. Our Head teachers and teachers act as role models for the community. For the movement of women empowerment to be ingrained in daily life and to ensure its sustainability, our champions have to be many – whether she is in a small village or a big town or the country. And the Satya Bharti Schools of Bharti Foundation are grooming such leaders who proactively inspire change-actions on ground.

Need to move from awareness to action

Indira Nair is Managing Partner at in360 based in Malaysia and very passionate about helping people own the power of communicating well.

What according to you are the successes of gender equality movement which gathered momentum towards the end of the last decade?
While we are a long way from achieving gender diversity and equality in the workplace, there definitely has been progress.  The United Nations has identified achieving gender equality, and empowering all women and girls, as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030.  This is a great start and hopefully the tracking and reporting on progress made on this Goal will create definitive momentum.  I also believe that the #metoo movement helped to raise voices collectively and build stronger awareness, not just around sexual harassment, but also highlight issues related to gender discrimination.  The #metoo movement built up over the years and ended in a crescendo at the end of the decade.  How can we take key learnings from this, and move from Awareness to Action, in the next decade?

At the start of this decade, what would be your three priorities for gender equal workplaces?
It is important to get it right from the start to build a strong gender equal workplace. Having an effective and consistent recruitment process is extremely critical.  Job descriptions, performance reviews, salary scales, etc, all of which are built around the roles and desired outcomes, and not around gender.  Some companies assess CVs without names to avoid bias, and their interview questions are the same, regardless of gender.

Secondly, it is also important to review and refine gender pay gaps.  These reviews must be done with brutal honesty, with evaluations being done based on competency and deliverables, and upskilling provided on a need basis.  Rather than establish salaries based on ‘last-drawn salary’, which often result in persistent gender pay gaps, pay market rates.

Thirdly, establishing strong initiatives around Good Workplace Wellbeing is extremely important.  These could include, among others, establishing rewards based on outcomes achieved, providing equal access to benefits and initiatives, and even training all employees on gender equality.

How important is the role of men in this movement and what according to you should organisations do to involve them?
Gender equality isn’t a women’s issue, it is a business issue, and it is an issue that everyone must take ownership of.  The downside of the #metoo movement is that many men have become nervous about being too closely involved with women, socially and professionally, which is a real pity.  Leaders and managers must play an active role in coaching and mentoring teams in their workplaces, and beyond, and beyond gender.  Helping them understand the importance of having a gender diverse workforce, providing the knowledge and skills to build an inclusive workplace, and including men proactively in building initiatives to ensure gender diversity and equality is a strong anchor is the way to go.

How important is the concept of “Sisterhood” in accelerating change?
Women understand women-related issues better than men.  And it is important for women – whether they have gone through positive or negative challenges – to take other women under their wings and help them navigate the workplace, with confidence and resilience.  I am being facetious here but if women don’t help other women, why would the men want to do so!

Do you think we need a young champion like Greta Thunberg for this cause as well?
There are many young – and not so young women – who actively champion gender equality.  I believe that we need more women, and men, raising awareness, and building action around gender diversity and equality for this to become the norm in all workplaces.

Women at workplace less empathetic to female colleagues

Elmarie Potgieter, Managing Director at RITE Education in Malaysia, is a passionate educator with extensive experience in the design and implementation of private and public education transformation projects across several continents.

What according to you are the successes of gender equality movement which gathered momentum towards the end of the last decade?
The success of the gender equality movement has become very evident in some sectors, especially politics.  One only has to take the example of Finland, where the newly elected Sanna Marin leads a coalition of five parties all with women leaders. Another example of female leadership that has made a huge international mark is that of Jacinda Ardern from New Zealand (a country that led the way with female voting rights since 1893).

A woman who has demonstrated that empathy can be a positive leadership characteristic. Many companies are adopting policies to ensure that 30% of top management positions are held by women, and many other influential positions no longer have a glass ceiling to prevent you from aspiring to.  Movements like #Metoo have also exposed discrimination and sexual abuse towards women in the workplace and resulted in prominent men from all industries being exposed and, in some cases, prosecuted.  It has been only 101 years since women were given the right to vote in the USA, and it does seem as if the tide is turning for women in the workplace, but I do believe that while we are still having to debate and even discuss this question of gender equality, that it remains a real issue worldwide.

At the start of this decade, what would be your three priorities for gender equal workplaces?
My three priorities would be:

  • Equal pay for equal work performed. There should be no distinction made based on gender – a situation that is woefully still rampant in many industries.
  • Policy embedded to address gender bias.  Women are still viewed as being “too emotional” or the fact that they often are mothers is viewed as a weakness rather than a strength.  Gender bias is definitely still embedded in the psyche and the very fabric of society.
  • Flexible working hours, opportunities to work from home and support systems for childcare.

How important is the role of men in this movement and what according to you should organisations do to involve them?
Supporting gender equality involves two genders.  It is a movement that cannot be driven by women alone since, in its very nature, it would imply inequality.  Women should guard against a pseudo-superiority complex as well since their drive towards equality often also results in a rhetoric that alienates their gender counterparts.  There can be no equality without the buy-in and full support of men.  In many instances of male-dominated sports, politics, business and other careers, male voices would be instrumental in bringing about change.  A good example of this is the late Kobe Bryant, who famously supported female WNBA players and even stated publicly that some female players would do equally well in male teams. At the same time, in this equality debate one must also acknowledge our unique differences and strengths.

How important is the concept of “Sisterhood” in accelerating change?
I am president of one of the Soroptomist International Clubs in Malaysia.  This is a female-only organisation that spans 140 countries, with representation status at the UN.  The concept of “sisterhood” is embedded in soroptomism, with women supporting the cause of women through deep respect and common goals.  I do believe that women could do more to support one another.  Ironically, if I view my career over the past 30 years, most acts of sabotage against me originated from the actions of female counterparts. My personal view as well as that of many of my friends is that women in the workplace tend to be less supportive of other women.  Female aggression manifests itself not so much in physical confrontation but in other subtle and often more injurious ways.  Women need to talk more and support each other more constructively.

Do you think we need a young champion like Greta Thunberg for this cause as well?
No.  We don’t need a young person to champion the cause of gender equality, but we need more role models like Greta who can inspire young women by demonstrating that gender should never be a barrier towards achieving greatness.  History is full of examples of amazing women, and yet, when you read through the annals of history, they were often the silent heroes.  We should empower young women through our mentorship and through being examples of strength, commitment towards change and action that demonstrates our ability to not only talk about it, but to make a difference every day.  Mothers should nurture their young sons to become champions of gender equality through the way we raise them – not as young princes of the household, but as equal members of society.

Engage men as vocal, visible advocates for change

Priya Daniel is the Founder & Principal Architect at Five Scale Design based in Singapore.

What according to you are the successes of gender equality movement which gathered momentum towards the end of the last decade?
Amongst all the monumental wins, to me the sheer awareness that gender equality has a significant impact on our economies, societies and countries at large is noteworthy.

The strive for it has become easier. Voices are bolder, attitudes and mindsets are changing. It has become more accepted as an urgent imperative than something to just talk about at a polite dinner table conversation.

There has also been more in-depth research done through efforts in various sectors, even such as assessing gender gaps in Artificial Intelligence.

While the World Economic Forum states we are still 202 years away from gender parity in the work-place, we cannot forget that this number was 217 years only 2 years ago.

At the start of this decade, what would be your three priorities for gender equal workplaces?
First, to accelerate change in perception of roles and breaking of stereotypes. While women’s rights have gained momentum and media attention, men have also been made to feel fragile and insecure of what constitutes the realm of male success. Both men and women should be made free to feel sensitive and to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of at two sets of opposing ideals.

Second, building an eco-system which consciously fosters gender equality at all levels, one that an-yone irrespective of gender feels safe, confident and motivated. Today, $8 billion is spent a year on diversity initiatives and 90% of Fortune 500 companies have ERGs but we are still centuries away from gender equality. This means we need to be smarter in how we invest in female talent.

Thirdly, build a reputation for being an unbiased meritocratic organisation where the contributions of men and women are judged equally based on ability, intellect and potential. This also means equitable representation in decision making roles.

Specifically, in the architecture industry, the homogeneity in male and female ideas does wonders to a final design solution. We have a diverse clientele, design for cities that have a diverse population – whether individuals, families or communities. They are diverse in their needs and deserve to be served by an organisation that is equally rich in its views and practices.

How important is the role of men in this movement and what according to you should organisations do to involve them?
Very early on in my career, one of my male bosses gave me the opportunity to supervise an operations team at a construction site for a skyscraper in Dubai during summer. He could have easily delegated me, a fresh graduate to a ‘safe’ air-conditioned design office where women had a higher representation. But that initial exposure made me appreciate architecture a whole lot better and become a better designer.

Similarly, my male clients that trusted me with large scale projects and at an equal pay to a male counterpart helped boost the profile of my firm. Architecture particularly is a field where experience contributes immensely to credibility as well as capability. Thus, if women aren’t given opportunities early on, it increasingly becomes challenging to be taken seriously as your career develops.

My father always strived to give me and my brother the same opportunities, be it in education or sport which helped nurture my interests and ambitions. My husband has always been supportive of me pursuing my goals and not just conform to societal norms.

They may not know it but all the above are the inadvertent proponents of gender equality who are changing the world today. We need more of these. I realise that I am privileged since these are not common scenarios in many parts of the world.

I believe that companies and their leadership teams must create a strategic mindset regarding the retention and advancement of women. Engage men as vocal and visible advocates for that change. The sharing of responsibilities within a family has proven to relieve stress for both and deliver confidence and fulfilment. This is no different in an organisation with shared goals and common values. Men are just not part of the conversation but part of the solution.

How important is the concept of “Sisterhood” in accelerating change?
Sisterhood is perhaps understood simply as camaraderie, a support system or the confidence women feel when they come together. But for me, it goes well beyond that. It is about mentorship. We need more women mentors – starting at home and extending to the workplace. I was advantaged to have a working mum with a progressive mindset with similar goals for me.

In architecture particularly, the issue of mentorship starts as early as the training level. Although women represent nearly half of architecture students, women are underrepresented among design faculty. Course syllabuses and libraries also heavily favour men’s work and writings, leaving stu-dents with the impression that women have contributed little of value. Surveys show that almost a third of the women who had left architecture said the lack of role models was the deciding factor.

As we look back on the progress we have made, we are reminded of the undeniable power of women’s movements – because when women come together, they are stronger, more effective in driving sustainable change.

Do you think we need a young champion like Greta Thunberg for this cause as well?
We need Gretas who are young and focused on a cause, coherent and bold role models for the younger generation. But we can’t do with Gretas alone. The equation and impact only works as a combined result of various socioeconomic, policymakers, government leaders and cultural variables.