From Self To Organizations, Are We Ready To #BreakTheBias?

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How often, in everyday life we are a party to biases that we do not even realize exist in our minds. In the words of Senior journalist & content writer Ajit  Ramachanddran “She’s triumphed over all barriers and rightfully got her place in the world, at large. Women, that is. And yet, women are having to prove their worth, many a time, to toxic power play, mind games and underhand tactics to undermine them.“ Yes it’s true, Women from all walks of life, at all levels, all over the world are subject to conscious and unconscious biases.

 

Blame it on our upbringing, the society we live in, the people we grow up with, the truth is, biases exist and are an important part of our thinking process. As such we carry our biases into our relationships, in our day-to-day dealings with people and ultimately into our workplaces.

 

This year’s #IWD theme calls for #BreakTheBias. It calls us to Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.

 

On this International Women’s Day, we would like to delve deeper into what these biases are, how they can impact the way we work & conduct business and most importantly how we can address these biases in order to create a world of equals with a key focus on gender equality at the workplace.

 

What are some of the biases that we need to address?

 

Statistics don’t lie, so while we have made considerable headway over the years, women account for only 39% of the global workforce. This means that irrespective of the industry we refer to, sports, IT, finance, creative or whatever, as a society we are still not able to give women their due credit at the place of work. Women still have to struggle and required to give more than their men counterpart to be taken seriously. And we owe a major part of this to deep rooted biases.

 

Biases are commonplace and quite a many women are subject to their effects. However, only few are lucky to surface them and share their experience with the world. When Sudipta Ghosh, General Counsel, Apraava Energy decided to pursue law, she was asked to consider another profession because going to court and working with criminals was not meant for girls. Then after law school, she joined a corporate legal firm; and she was asked to consider another speciality because the corporate world is too “alpha male cut-throat”. Also, working late nights and long hours are not sustainable for a woman. Then when she decided to join an energy and resource company, they told her that she wouldn’t survive because it’s a man’s world and working at a project site, going to remote rural areas is not safe for women. She proved them all wrong. Expressing concern, Sudipta says, “I thrive on challenges, and these barriers of biases motivated me to succeed. But when does this end? It’s time to stop denying women jobs based on their gender instead of their skills.”

 

Ritika Arora, an entrepreneur and coach ponders “Indeed we have come a long way and witnessed a lot of progress on this front, but looking at the larger picture, at leadership roles, women are still largely underrepresented and grossly underpaid than their male counterparts for the same amount of work.”

 

She believes that, “representation of women at all levels of the organisation is crucial, more so because the glass ceiling needs to be broken and the conscious and unconscious bias and barriers that hinder an individual’s growth prospects (women employees, per se) must be let go of.”

 

Adding to this Sonica Malhotra Kandhari, Joint Managing Director, MBD Group says, “Society, in general, is evolving to be more equal, one that opens up a level playing field for everyone to partake in irrespective of gender, caste, or creed. Although it is still some way to go but with the combined effort of governments, organisations and each individual, the future will be far more inclusive.”

 

Sonica is more positive in her approach and points out that more and more women are stepping into workplaces and are shattering all stereotypes by taking up major roles be it any industry or sector. “So, I would rather say that it has nothing to do with men or women, skill, competence, and hard work are just about all that is needed for women to really succeed in any given field.”

 

Raising the concern for trans-persons, Simi Mishra (PhD) Director, Inclusion & Program Advocacy at Connecting Dreams Foundation, TRANSformation’s on-ground partner says, “It’s commonplace for trans-persons to face skimpy legal protection and numerous obstacles in workplace cultures, and high levels of harassment and abuse. The key to trans-friendly workplaces lies in better understanding their unique challenges, and using an inclusive lens to revamp policies, especially health and partner benefits that cater to their unique needs and simple practices such as a weekly check-in or creating a buddy system and an invested affirmative leadership.”

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Richa Vashista, Chief Mental Health Expert, AtEase further raises our attention to a pertinent truth,according to the LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021, 85% of working women in India claim to have missed out on a raise, promotion, or work offer because of their gender. Women also face a ‘motherhood penalty’ where employers perceive mothers as less competent and committed than non-mothers. Trans-women face an even harder time navigating through discrimination and finding acceptance at the workplace and beyond. This bias is also there in the healthcare system where women are less likely to have their pain treated, their symptoms taken seriously, or receive a diagnosis than men. The collective impact of this exposes women to a higher risk of mental health conditions such as depression, body image issues, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.”

 

Like most women, Anchal Mehta Founder, Knowbility also believes that biases against women exist and can only be addressed through gender equality in workspaces. Women and the under represented communities are looking for inclusivity so that everybody has equal rights, opportunities, responsibilities and access to the organization. It also means that everyone feels safe in the surrounding, everyone is a part of a team that works together and everyone is treated equally with utmost dignity and respect.

 

Elaborating on this, Debashree Lad, Chief People Officer, CredAble expresses “an initiative such as #BreakTheBias is much needed in a society where gender stereotypes are prevalent across all walks of life — be it sports, education and more predominantly in the workplace”.

 

Like most women who have broken the glass ceiling, she further emphasizes that, “overcoming unconscious bias is the key to cultivating equality in the workplace. As humans, we are conditioned to make certain mental associations based on gender. If we’re looking to build an ecosystem that is devoid of all gender intolerance — we need to consciously fight all the biases, lead by example and break away from all preconceived assumptions about roles that are limited by gender, in the workplace.”

 

Dr Nishat Afzal, Content Writer, Keka HR emphasizes on the fact that breaking any sort of bias begins with the realization that it exists. “The trouble with bias towards the female gender is that it often goes unnoticed, making it harder for women to be appreciated, rewarded or even hired.”

 

Adding to the above, Kabir Bansal, Founder and Director, Medvraksh states, based on the study and research by Pew Research Centre, it was estimated that women have to work 42 days extra to earn what men did in 2020. Another study by Pew Research Centre states that 5 of the 14 top barriers women face in the workplace are related to discrimination and gender bias. . We need to remove the gender biases from the workplaces to call women safe everywhere because when the woman is pulled back from growing because of her gender, she is in danger.

 

Founder and Managing Director, The Hatch Project, Sonali Priy Kapoor seconds the above point, very rightly says, development of any nation has economic, social, and political aspects and is deficient without the development of women, who make up around 50% of the populace. Today, India has 13.5–15.7 million women possessed endeavours, accounting for 20% of all enterprises. While large in outright numbers, these are predominantly contained single person enterprises, which give direct work to an expected 22 to 27 million individuals. Being an entrepreneur herself, this quote by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta Platform is very close to Sonali’s heart and rightfully so, “I want every little girl who’s been told she’s bossy to be told again she has leadership skills.”

 

How Can We #BreakTheBias?

 

From the above discussion, we are very clear that whether conscious or sub-conscious, biases are a part of the way we think. So how do we address this issue that is interwoven in our mental DNA since early childhood.

“While Corporate India is aware of bias, there is a reluctance in acknowledging its rampancy. Statements like “Bias is a thing of the west. Here, we worship women” or “I have not experienced any bias” or “This gender data is skewed” are common and problematic. They demonstrate a lack of understanding and acceptance that Bias is real and needs to be broken.” Aruna Ganesh Ram, Head – Innovations in Inclusion, Interweave Consulting

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To break biases we need to work at all levels. Parents need to work towards bringing up children on an equal plane. Communities, educational institutions need to consciously build a societal environment that gives equal opportunities to all genders to learn and grow. Organizations need to give a level playing field at the workplace to all genders in terms of job opportunities, development, compensation and benefits besides providing inclusivity through culture fabric changes via best practices and training opportunities to address and eliminate biases.

 

As Simi Mishra (PhD) Director, Inclusion & Program Advocacy at Connecting Dreams Foundation, TRANSformation’s  puts it, One way to create transformation is by fostering inclusion for ignored and underrepresented communities, like transwomen, who remain marginalised and don’t gain access to opportunities, often dismissed as ill-skilled, unskilled or not a “culture fit.”

 

Ratish Pandey, Business & Executive Coach, Ethique Advisory appropriately puts it across, “do we have it in us to let go of preconceived perceptions, the tendency to stereotype people that we meet? If breaking the Bias has to go further than lip service, then having an open mind and a keen listening ear are the two starting points. #BreaktheBias is about bringing a fundamental change in people’s mindset and hence as part of a company’s culture is more tricky than change management.”

 

Dr. Anish Desai MD, CEO & Founder IntelliMed Healthcare Solutions says “During the COVID-19 pandemic, women in corporate India are even more burned out than before and increasingly more so than men due to the stress of balancing home and office, online schools adding to the woes. Leaders need to step up to support women employee well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Organisations need to look at opportunities not only for the young talent but also for the women in the second innings of their career. Several women in the workforce take a backseat due to challenges of managing family and are constantly looking to opportunities to restart their career and supporting that effort is important.

 

For Nandini Easwar, Co-Founder and CTO, Speakfully, breaking away from bias is critical to the success of the business and leads to a celebration of its core the people. “When I think of breaking the bias, I am a strong proponent of making it very intentional in the way we conduct ourselves. I believe in functioning with empathy and compassion, to go beyond just being conscious.”

Bias leads to discrimination, which leads to a non-inclusive environment. Nandini suggests few very distinct points to break the cycle of biases:

 

  • Drop the agenda

When we walk into a conversation we end up having an unconscious “agenda” of “how can I convince this person to backlog my ticket” or “how can I get buy-in to my project”. These agendas are about inter-personal interactions and what you want to get out of it, in order to meet your team goals. Drop that. Meet someone agenda free, attempt to learn what drives them and their pain points. Agenda-free conversations can lead to very powerful collaborations and help rid of similarity, confirmation and gender bias.

 

  • Question the status quo

Biases come from years of accepting social or emotional norms subconsciously. If you happen to be the “only” in a meeting (only woman, only technologist, only person of color etc), or better yet, if you notice someone amidst you who is the “only”, question it boldly. How or why is that person the lonely one? What does that person feel in that situation, how can you support them? Be the non-traditional challenge to the status quo.

 

  • Take ownership

Take it a step beyond. How can you be the change agent? Be an enabler and take ownership for initiatives that would move the needle for inclusivity without bias. If people fear retaliation, maybe you can be the one to standup without fear and encourage your leadership to give employees a voice to fight bias.

 

Aruna Ganesh Ram, Head – Innovations in Inclusion, Interweave Consulting rightly puts it, “We need to begin by breaking the bias about Bias itself. We need to keep an open mind and accept another’s lived experience even when it is starkly different from our own. We need to acknowledge our privilege and that we may not experience bias the way others might. We need to call out patriarchy and its manifestations. We should create safe spaces for people to share their challenges candidly without fear of consequence”

 

Last but not the least, it boils down to the individual self. Natasha Gupta, Founder, Story Brews Communications shares Oprah Winfrey’s famous quote “When you undervalue what you do, the world will undervalue who you are.” She adds, “I believe that Women continue to inspire, and achieve – not because all the odds are in their favour, but despite them sometimes not being in their favour. I have been lucky to meet many inspirational women during the course of my career, and the one thing I find common amongst all of them is their grit and perseverance. As we walk together into a more progressive world, I truly wish for an equal world for girls and women. I wish for them to find the strength to stand up for themselves, for what they believe in. The change begins at home and it begins now – even if it means baby steps. Let’s vow to #BreakTheBias, not participate in it. Let’s always remember our worth – we are so much more than the stereotypes and the bias.

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So how are some organizations helping to #BreakingTheBias?

 

 Khushboo Vaish, Senior Director, Alvarez and Marsal talks about her own experience at Alvarez and Marsal. “In life, we need to be jolted out of blue, both to break the monotony and discover ourselves. If anything, my 12+ year stint at A&M is a glowing testimony of this! Through my personal experience, I can confidently say that A&M has offered equal opportunities to men and women without encouraging any kind of gender bias.”

Her Organization has supported her into breaking some common biases associated with women in society and workplaces.

Women should not be given difficult and challenging projects : 12 years and still a month doesn’t pass where I am not doing something totally new and loving it!

Women can’t consult in Manufacturing setting : Steel Plant, Glass Plant, Wire plant. You name it and at A&M, I have been part to all kinds of shop floor and even worked out of container office at a construction site and climbed the half-built ship!

Sports is for men. Passion takes backseat in Consulting : When I joined A&M, I had just about run a half marathon. Today a decade or so later, I am a regular marathoner, strong ultra-runner and a budding triathlete. Himalayas to African safari, Hyderabad to Goa beaches, Ooty to Shimla hills, from 20s to 100+, A&M has allowed me to do it all.

After having a kid, priorities for women changes, and career takes a back seat : I Have clocked my fastest race times, my longest runs, learnt swimming and did half ironman, newest sectors alongside everything that I had anyway been doing at A&M, after having a kid. If anything, I have become even more adept at balancing everything as more stuff is to be accomplished in the same 24*7 period. My workplace is supporting in not just in shaping my career but my life!

 

Talking about her Organization, Dr Nishat Afzal, Content Writer, Keka HR adds “We at Keka believe that it is not just about earning the badge of ‘diversity & inclusion’ but making way for the diverse perspectives that will bring innovation and a competitive edge to the organization. Choosing not to hire women would mean losing out on the creativity and perspective of half the world’s population.”

 

Another organization that has seen many women HR professionals and leaders rise to fame is SHRM. Speaking on the topic of #BreakTheBias, Achal Khanna, CEO, SHRM India and Business Lead – APAC & MENA writes “Fortunate are those who believe and realize that women are the full circle – having the innate ability to create, nurture, and transform. I have been fortunate to be a part of an organization that acknowledges and embodies this spirit. Surrounded by remarkable women all across, it comes across very easily for us to recognise implicit bias, identify common forms of it, learn strategies to reduce bias and do the needful to ensure that we play an active role in bringing down any forms of workplace gender bias.”

 

“At SHRM, we celebrate our diversity on a regular basis instead of waiting for a special day to acknowledge the role played by not just our wonder women but also the amazing gentlemen who support us and cheer us on, along the way. Here is huge shout out to all the super women out there: Remember, irrespective of what the world thinks of you, believe and know, YOU ARE MAGIC!”

 

Yes, we need to take the onus on our own selves to become change agents in the society. Don’t wait for someone else to take that first step, or become a flag bearer or start a moment. Move forward, challenge your own biases and support those who are either a victim of biases or are struggling to fight theirs out. Let the focus shift from them to ‘I’, to #BreakTheBias

 

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