The corporate workplace may seem like a scary place for most employees. Inside the workplace, minorities of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation tend to lack confidence due to social pressures to ‘fit in’. This cultural stigma manifests itself in the form of unconscious biases. Research indicates that male employees are subconsciously favoured for promotions over women with the same skills and experience due to biases like affinity. Hence, many companies have begun adopting Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives to behave more inclusively so that the company identifies and recognises the best suited for the role.
Diversity and Inclusion are two different and yet integrated concepts. A diverse workplace is one where there is a healthy ratio of employees from all genders and various races, religions, and sexual orientations. Maintaining this figure alone will not suffice. It is essential that people belonging to these underrepresented groups feel that their contributions, ideas, and perspectives are valued and that they are a part of the corporate family. That is where the term ‘inclusion’ changes things. in other words, understanding differences and celebrating these differences.
Aligning with International Women’s Day 2021, Diversity Collective Lanka organised a panel discussion on the ‘Diversity and Inclusion in Corporates’.
Why is D&I an essential part of a company? What are the challenges to be expected in the journey of inclusion?
Answering this question, Kushani Kalpage, Head of Marketing at Sysco LABS, stated inclusion is about giving each employee opportunities to have their voice heard. Ultimately, this results in innovation that drives growth. She added that research has proven that inclusive teams outperform their peers by over 80%. “Diversity and inclusion aren’t about ticking boxes for political correctness. It’s about seeing value in employees. Giving everyone an equal opportunity to make their voices heard and listening to all and not just a few helps us truly understand our associates better. It’s about allowing our associates to openly voice their ideas and actively listening and connecting with them to obtain better clarity of how each division, team, and an individual feels. ”
She also stated that Sysco LABS is fully committed to making the workplace more inclusive. It is something Syco LABS has initiated from the leadership level because cultural norms have a tendency to trickle down and become a part of the organization’s culture.
Leaders should play an integral role in promoting atmospheres that ensure an open space where everyone is held accountable and authentic. Furthermore, since the country is still new to D&I programs, corporates can reach out to international D&I consultancy firms and individuals to bring global expertise to Sri Lanka.
How should corporates take the initial steps towards gender-based D&I in their offices?
Anjana Jayawardena, Project Manager at LSEG Technology, answered this by sharing her own experience. She stated that initially, it’s challenging to get staff involved, “I was hesitant to join and wanted to see if the initiative was a concept or action-driven.” Many don’t believe that diversity (especially gender) is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed.
She also stated that it is essential to be patient when setting up a Diversity Network. Once set up, the network needs to address the primary goal of improving gender diversity and the percentage of women in leadership positions, working with management.
To do this, Anjana recommends starting workshops and seminars at the school and university levels. This will lead to the development of an extensive talent pipeline of recruitment candidates. Anjana added that workshops on leadership transition should also be arranged for existing female talent. Their purpose should be to retain and empower female employees to reach the next stage of their careers.
Should D&I policies be implemented company-wide, or team-based?
D&I policies at a company should be made to reflect a balance at the department level. However, the tech side of companies comprises only 20-30% of women in most cases at present. Therefore, the panel expressed that policies need to bring out the best for the company, and not just filling numbers of male and female employees. However, they also stressed that any existing numbers are not lost as the company grows and employees move up the designation ladder.
Moreover, D&I initiatives have been put in place to ensure a consolidated effort from the entire staff of an establishment. As such, these policies aim to improve employee involvement and appeal to their emotional need for bringing about change for a positive gender balance, irrelevant of which department they belong to.
How vested is the senior leadership when it comes to D&I?
“The senior management at LSEG has been actively involved in contributing to policy changes and bringing light into areas that have been overlooked within the firm,” conveyed Anjana.
For any company, leadership at the higher levels must be held accountable for reaching specific D&I targets. Anjana added that their continued support is guaranteed. Notably, in the form of assisting HR review performance curves and eliminate and discrepancies due to gender.
In addition to this, Kavitha Gunesekera, Senior Manager – Global Talent Development at Fortude, mentioned that accountability must also be built right from the interview stage and continue throughout the employee life cycle. Leaders should be capable of providing the space to acknowledge and facilitate any diversity or inclusion-related changes that may be required.
What are some of the practices that Mitra Innovation adopted to improve female representation amongst its leadership?
Peumalee Chandrasiri, Regional Delivery Lead – ANZ at Mitra Innovation, expressed that “D&I is not simply just a policy or training to achieve a number.” She continued, “It is something the company needs to live and breathe daily.”
A critical factor in the tech industry Peumalee points out is that the lack of good role models holds women back from seizing leadership positions. Furthermore, as women get promoted, pay parity needs to be maintained. This reassures women that their contribution is as valued as their male counterparts.
Another practice that could be adopted is the discussion of team health during weekly meetings. Through this, leaders may be able to identify if people are being overworked and address it promptly, which promotes a healthy work-life balance within the organization. The most important practice a company can adopt is to be able to regularly identify blind spots in policies/processes and ensure continuous improvement.
Has there been a difference in how a business is run when the company is headed by a woman?
As per Peumalee, there has been a clear distinction between male and female leadership styles when comparing her previous experiences with her experience at Mitra Innovation. Under their female CEO, the style of leadership has been transformational. Interactivity from upper levels has converted employee self-interest to the overall interests of the company. As such, leadership has been viewed as a transaction between leader and subordinate. This has encouraged participation by sharing power and has helped develop individuals on personal levels at the company.
How should corporates tackle the issue of increasing the female percentage selected during recruitment?
“It is impractical to segment the workplace population to include equal proportions of men and women. It is always advisable for Diversity efforts to reflect business strategy, goals and possibilities and it’s not necessarily centred around gender alone. Basically, find out what works for you” expressed Inoka Dias, Head of Human Resources at Pearson Lanka.
Further, companies must understand what creates the most positive employee experience and support the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. At Fortude, Kavitha outlined that the ‘I am Diversity’ campaign is in place to help all employees, including hiring managers, overcome unconscious biases and develop an inclusive mindset. The campaign is sustained via regular training sessions to ensure that these policies are not taken lightly. “Irrespective of whether a candidate arrives in a dress, pants, or both: they need to be appreciated and welcomed to the organization appropriately.”
What techniques can be adopted at the hiring level to understand whether the interviewer is biased towards gender, the specially-abled, and members of the LGBTQ community?
Rangika Abeynayake, Head of Human Resources at Wiley Global Technology, answered that it’s more effective to conduct interviews on a group basis, as opposed to a single interviewer. Different perspectives that each person brings help balance any unconscious bias risk. Rangika added that companies should also seek feedback from candidates about their experience. The feedback will be helpful in addressing any biases that may have taken place and improve the process where needed. Peumalee added that “As a country, we are a long way from getting rid of biases towards specially-abled and the LGBTQ community.”
As a starting point, companies need to consider several variables when creating Diversity and Inclusion policies. Only then can they address this and other forms of bias. Even small things, such as jokes on the matter, require serious action, argued Peumalee.
What would the panellists like to see in the tech industry towards gender inclusion in the next 12 months?
Rangika wished for increased efforts in driving tech education to young girls to reduce the evident gap in the talent pipeline. Increased female representation by at least 10% will have a waterfall effect in making tech a more attractive and rewarding career for everyone. Along with this, Peumalee added that she would like to see more female CEOs and CIOs in the tech industry to whom young girls can look up to and be inspired.
The session concluded with Rangika reminding the audience and corporates alike that D&I targets can be met on paper through collaborative group environments and structured training programs. However, she added that “At the end of the day, all D&I initiatives come down to empathy for one another. The moment we start treating each other with how we wish to be treated and the basics of humanity, inclusion takes place on its own.”