Women in business champion

Thoughts from Vandana Saxena Poria

Vandana Saxena PoriaSelf-described disruptive thinker, memetic engineer and talent ecosystem enricher Vandana Saxena Poria OBE FCA gives her perspective on how true business inclusivity can be achieved, both in India and across the globe.

An inclusive business culture, for me, is a culture of belonging and respect. It is where people feel comfortable sharing their views, knowing that others honour different perspectives. It means regardless of background, everyone is working towards the same goals and so engagement levels amplify.

I think one of the main challenges in creating belonging is the fear of the unknown. People often find it difficult to open up to others, or be vulnerable with those they see as ‘different’. And therein lies the problem. Every single person comes to work every day with years of experiences that make them who they are today. Are we tapping into that effectively?

So the key to dissolving this is simple – open up to a much greater mix of people on a deeper level. One of the best techniques I was ever taught was by Common Purpose (CP). There were 40 leaders, ranging from MNCs and entrepreneurs, to Government and NGOs. Every day we were asked to pick someone we didn’t know well and do a 10-minute dialogue walk with them, where we didn’t talk about work, but about how we came to be here today.

A bit daunting at first, it soon became one of the most interesting exercises because every single person was fascinating. We would share high points, low points and life experiences. Through this, automatically we would see the person’s strengths shine through, and learn about how they dealt with challenges. When it then came to doing projects within the CP course, we suddenly saw a different dimension of each person’s background and talents, so had a greater pool of people to ideate and work with. A simple exercise like this, carried out in the office every day, would make a huge difference. The cost? 10 minutes a day? The benefit? Priceless.

Having the courage or environment that allows for calling out unconscious bias is crucial. This is a mindset change and therefore doesn’t happen overnight. Exercises for unconscious bias should be ongoing, innovative ways for people to reflect on their biases, in a non-judgemental way.

I did a TEDx where I built a scenario of a world that had always been 80% dominated by women. In independent workshops, I asked different groups of people (professional men/women, millennial men) how they thought that world would operate in terms of business, relationships, law, and society. The idea was not to create a ‘right’ version of what this world would look like, but what deeply held biases are within these groups of individuals. This was conducted in India and the professional men said that they felt that women would be so into their own self-development that children and old people would not be looked after.

They were quite shocked when they saw that both millennial men and women painted a picture of better business and happier families through greater inclusivity. The women’s focus was on creating stability for everyone. When the men reflected, they could see their biases coming out – that in their inner sub conscious the role of a woman was as primary care-giver and if they were doing anything else, that interfered with that primary role.

At the end of the day inclusivity is resonating with the people around you. The more you understand them, the more engagement, understanding of core values and unique talents. This is where you get to see true “gestalt”, where the whole becomes something else than the sum of the parts, leading to untold innovation and growth.

At the risk of being controversial, I want to call something out. Women only got the vote 100 years ago. Women’s views in the workplace were not counted until much more recently. Everything was set up to work for men and their convenient hours. That’s not a good or bad statement: it is just the way it was. Our office hours, expected performance levels and working practices were built to serve a different society.

Unfortunately, while society has changed, these factors have not. So at the outset, can we acknowledge that women are expected to match this way of working, regardless of any other responsibilities they have? So, I feel that this is systemic and it will always be difficult for women to have work/life effectiveness, as society is set up in such a way that the odds are against us.

What we need is a major rethink! Let’s really rethink and re-imagine workplaces that work for all, not the dominant majority. And that will take courage, but I think is going to cause a greater impact than these small-scale policy changes that are happening at the moment.

What could these changes be? Survey after survey has shown that a balanced homelife contributes to everyone in the workplace performing better. Having spent the last 20 years running leadership, coaching and mentoring for a wide variety of people, I’ve realised so many of their best skills are not even known in the workplace. Value is placed on activities that only happen in the workplace, where many may not have the opportunity to showcase all their skills, indeed even be aware of all their skills.

Becoming a mother taught me more patience and empathy than anything else in life. Managing two kids as a single mother took multi-tasking to a whole new level. Working voluntarily to mentor entrepreneurs and women has shown me how to view different perspectives. So how about demonstrating that each employee is holistic in accountability and responsibilities?

Someone who takes responsibility at home is also likely to be reliable in the workplace. Someone who is compassionate about challenges at home is likely to have the ability to be compassionate in the workplace. Someone who values home life or service to others is likely to be a leader with character. So, how about having external contribution including at home being a key part of the appraisal at work? In countries like India it would help men understand what it takes to multi-task the way that women have to, and perhaps be more empathic to the challenges. It would also help them see and value a completely different set of skills.

I hope some people got a chill reading that and some people nodded vigorously. Whichever way you fall, it is something to reflect on. What if a system like that existed? How would we all size up and would we make other choices? And what would become the future direction of work if our appraisals valued all contribution, not just contribution to dollars on the bottom line?

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