Diversity is not a new topic for India. Our National Anthem proudly represents beauty of our diversity as a nation. Our festivals, our food, our fashion, our language, our religions all uniquely display the richness of a heritage that is deeply rooted in diversity and inclusion, in tolerance and acceptance. Yet, Corporate India struggles to identify itself as a thriving diverse ecosystem, requiring special programs and teams to drive a culture of inclusion, to inspect and amplify efforts around diversity.
This paradox fascinated me both as a student of social sciences and as a Human Resources professional. In learning about this space, the concepts that stood out for me were around under-representation, social justice and privilege. I realized that workplaces over time, inadvertently and perhaps unconsciously, have played a key role in perpetuating under representation and amplifying privilege. If we go back in time, women in India tilled the land hand in hand with men and we have powerful examples of women leaders, person with disability leaders and LGBTQIA+ leaders, who through time rose to eminence in their chosen fields. The years of invasion, followed by colonial rule played a role in the “protection gene” playing a crucial role with reference to women and persons with disabilities. The “modern” workplace pre and post -independence changed that narrative to women playing a more critical role in nurturing and caregiving while men became the providers. This urban myth perpetuated itself over several decades with social norms reinforcing these models of acceptable professions for genders. The infrastructure did not keep pace for our PWD community and it became incredibly hard for those with any disability to find equity while the nation tried to keep pace to educate and create jobs for its able-bodied individuals.
It’s not those women did not occasionally break the norm to be highly successful icons in society, workplaces and professions and we even gave the world an iconic, if not its first, woman Prime Minister. However, these were exceptions and for the large part we found it difficult to invest systemically in supporting our “unequal citizens” in their journey to equality.
Corporations and workplaces woke up a decade ago to the key role they could play in changing this narrative and we saw many investments by corporations to provide “opportunities“ to these under-served and under- represented groups in education and in workplaces. These well-intentioned efforts did have some green shoots but, in most instances, continued to remain a corporate narrative, a good to do intervention largely dependent on the passion of a few senior executives. Even organizations who claimed success in this space found that their efforts were successful either around a type of employee group or in certain type of job profiles versus an all-pervasive inclusive workplace across frontlines to leadership, across gender to ethnicity, to sexual orientation and to PWD.
Year 2020 was marked with several related global crises including but not limited to the COVID-19 global pandemic, significant racial injustice and social unrest, which had a disproportionate impact on the marginalized populations. In 2021, we saw media and community activism around corporate responsibility in this space resulting in significant headwinds for most corporations to up their game in becoming more diverse and inclusive. COVID-19 has further compelled companies to pause and consider their gender diversity goals, as well as how they envision themselves becoming a more inclusive workplace, with an emphasis on women and people from underrepresented groups. Remote working challenged many mental models around workplace design, role requirements and engagement mechanisms with workforces. Leaders and the HR function were pushed to reinvent working methods to accommodate people with need for differing accommodations and learnt that it only raised the performance bar to provide such flexibility. This new normal, made it a requirement to provide for potential candidates a progressive, safe, and employee-focused environment. One which raises the bar on access, and engagement for members of under-represented and marginalized communities around the globe, to champion an inclusive and equitable experience for all employees and candidates. The focus shifted from hiring diverse employee groups to how organizations would authentically engage with these groups and provide them with equitable opportunities to succeed and advance professionally.
This pivot has not been easy and has required significant investment from organizations. This could range from providing unique and more inclusive benefits including healthcare and insurance to supporting employees with accommodations, to investing in workplace accessibility and job role audits. This part though onerous was easy. It was structural. The next step for most organizations will be the cultural reorientation around inclusion and this one is especially hard. The rejection rate of a “new” norm is easy, often leading to surface level changes not making any significant impact to the outcome within the organization. This part of the transformation requires either a threat to survival of the existing norm or a strong vision backed by strong affirmative action and deep inspection of each existing business and people process to expand the norm. As all nutrition theories tell us that If we love eating pizza, salads will seem strange as a meal option unless we stay with it, until it becomes a habit. Habit formation and habit change takes time, perseverance and most importantly an overwhelming desire to change.
With no real threat to the existing norm of gender unequal workplaces, only those workplaces which meet this all-pervasive passion to redefine social and workplace norms are likely to lead in this space. Changing deeply held people and business practices in pursuit of a better world is a loft goal and not often one with immediate rewards. Organizations who believe in leaving the world a better place are more likely to stay course on this incredibly hard journey of building a truly diverse and inclusive workplace.
Furthermore, a diversified workplace also adds to the country’s economic success. According to a McKinsey and Company report, if companies become more gender diverse and inclusive, global GDP will increase by $28 trillion. Increased focus on ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion by prioritizing efforts through carefully designed programs is also thought to have a favorable impact on gender diversity ratios and representation across tech and non-tech roles. Over and above that, companies with dedicated programs for women – whether to return to the workforce after a hiatus or to explore other career pathways across specialties – can scale businesses in a variety of ways. Companies focusing on improving employees’ skill sets while also improving their experience and interaction with the organization cultivate loyalty and long-term relationships. Potential candidates want to work for forward-thinking firms. They value meaningful work that has a positive impact on society while also advancing the organization’s long-term goals.
Most importantly we believe that we must do what is right and building an inclusive and diverse workplace is “just the right thing to do”.
Swati Rustagi, Director, DE&I, International Markets, WW Consumer, Amazon