Embracing Equity: Building a Culture Where Everyone Belongs

The March episode of Hireside Chats, our Diamondpick exclusive podcast, was a special one, dedicated to celebrate International Women’s Day. The episode featured a meaningful conversation between our host, SatJ and two powerful women in their fields – Kamali Rajesh and Manju Bharadwaj. The trio spoke about this year’s IWD theme – Embracing Equity – and what it means for today’s organizations, and what we must do to create a more equitable workplace.  

 Our first guest is Kamali Rajesh, Global Head of People and Organizational Development at Syngenta, a leading sustainable, and innovative agriculture company based in Switzerland. Kamali has over 26 years of experience working in various parts of the world, including China, India, Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore, and is currently based out of Switzerland, giving her a unique cross-industry exposure in engineering FMCG, automotive and agriculture. 

 We also had with us Manju Bharadwaj Chief People Officer at Straive, a market leading content technology enterprise and an equal opportunity employer. She’s a seasoned HR leader and a specialist with over 24 years of experience across industries. She’s worked with companies like Cognizant, Standard Chartered Global Business Services, and Renault Nissan Alliance amongst others. 

Episode Highlights

 Drawing from their personal journeys as women leaders both our speakers spoke about

  •     How a bigger and bolder action is needed to achieve gender parity in workplaces given the current state of the pipeline, which looks impossible to achieve gender parity within the next 10 years.
  •     The reality of women leadership, how as seniority increases the women pipeline tapers down dramatically. Also how some qualities when found in men are seen as a strengths, while the same when seen in women are labelled as areas to improve.
  •     How the true measure of success of DEI programs is by measuring the level of belongingness. If we have not achieved belongingness then we immediately fail in the experience that we want to create in the world around us. Employees should feel that they’re truly included.

 The conversation took some interesting turns to reveal some of their personal experiences, analogies, perspectives and candid rapid fire responses. Our speakers also spoke about equity and what it means to each of them, the power of allies and mentors in elevating a sense of belonginess and gender-neutral leadership. 

 They also talk about what we need to be doing to create future ready workplaces. Read our 2023 Talent Playbook for Enterprises for trends like these to help attract a diverse workforce. Download your exclusive copy here.

Listen to the Podcast here

or read the highlights of the conversation here

Hireside Chats Episode 3: Embracing Equity: Building a Culture Where Everyone Belongs

SatJ: Welcome, Kamali and Manju. Firstly, I wish you both a happy women’s day and thank you for joining us on the special episode dedicated to all the amazing women out there.

Before we begin, Kamali, can you tell our listeners a little bit about your career journey and how and where DEI has played a role in shaping your experiences?

Kamali: A very happy International Women’s Day to the audience, Manju and to you. I started my career in a manufacturing plant and moved around several countries, several roles at country, regional and global levels. Some roles, I must say, were more challenging than the others. Not just based on the content of the role or the expertise that the role demanded, but other components, like was there enough diversity in the team? Or was I  one of the few women who had to fit into a set of rules that were made for one gender?

Was there enough awareness of cultural differences to shape leadership experiences, or did I have to change myself fundamentally to belong to a dominant culture? These components made a huge difference in my workplace and to my ability to be successful. I think sometimes we tend to oversimplify success to availability or absence of a skill or an experience but there are so many other factors that ultimately influences performance like diversity, equity, and inclusion being one of the key factors. Here is an example, I worked in a team where team building meant drinking their way to success at a bar. It suited the team, but not me. I loved working with this team we performed exceptionally well together. But I was also very clear on what is me and what is not me. I believe building teams and relationships at workplace can happen through many ways. So one day I respectfully declined the invite and reassured my line manager that I will continue my efforts to be part of the team, but just outside the bar.

And I did this without being judgemental. Once I did what I did, there were others who also excused themselves.  And you know, you are not the only one, but you can be the first one to say what does not suit to you and be the voice that challenges what appears to be a rigid expectation. Oftentimes, they only appear to be rigid, because no one has challenged it as yet. Challenging things with respect has always opened new possibilities for me and others around me. These are moments where I understood as a woman, I don’t have to play by a rulebook. And I do have the power to change parts of the rule book that no longer suited me just because I’m different. I don’t have to be wrong. Different is not bad. Also, being a mother and being a global citizen, living and working in over six countries now has played a significant role in my ability to be a passionate leader, embrace different cultures, understand people and their stories with deep appreciation and curiosity for their journeys.

I’m also absolutely, truly grateful to all the people who have welcomed me into their homes and made it easy for me to call all countries we lived in as my home too. To me that is really special because it is inclusion in a way that breaks down not just geographical boundaries, but boundaries in the mind, the hearts and in action.

SatJ: Manju you have held a leadership role for over 24 years now. We would love to hear about your career journey and what DEI means to you and for women, especially in technology, today. 

Manju: Happy International Women’s Day to all the audience and to you as well Kamali. My career journey has not been mine alone. It’s a journey of many people who’ve supported me, who got me here, great colleagues, teams, a supportive family in the last 24 years have made sure that, I took on every challenge that came my way, I took every role, learned a new skill every time I was given the opportunity, and you would have seen that I made sure that I come out of my comfort zone every few years to challenge myself. So that’s been my career journey, including working across IT services, banking sector, and automotive. And it has always been a career of getting into the depth from rewards to M&A from recruitment to talent management. My focus has always been building the expertise, which has got me here in the last so many years. And especially for women in technology, which is where I’ve spent most of my  career, I would say that today women in technology can walk around actually wearing a badge that they have made the world a better place.

What are we without technology that has happened around us? They have continued to inspire a lot of people to be creative, innovative. Apart from creating collaborative work environments across time zones today, and they’ve balanced all of that with ease and it shouldn’t stop with that. I really hope women in technology come together, work to inspire a lot of girls to take up STEM education, which will help create the next generation of technologists around the world.

And we have to make sure that the biggest challenge today despite all that we are doing for women in technology and what they’re doing for the community, that we still continue to face issues as far as getting them to the top and we have to make sure that we get them to the top despite all the odd circumstances that we are in.

I want to start by quoting a recent study by IBM and Oxford Economics that has revealed some very troubling news about gender equity in the work place.

It turns out that 70% of global businesses still don’t consider gender equity as a top priority, despite the pandemic highlighting the challenges women face. The report also saw women massively exiting the workforce from mid-level leadership tiers that feed the C-suites and boards of tomorrow.

Given the current state of the pipeline, when we do the math, we see it is impossible to achieve gender parity within the next 10 years, despite abundant optimism and the fact that organizations are instituting programs to improve gender equity, like gender blind job screenings, parental leaves, etc. Clearly bigger and bolder action is needed, and it’s needed now.

SatJ: Kamali, there is a lot of awareness and efforts in the DEI space. Are these efforts enough to foster equity in the workplace? Or do we need to do more or maybe even something different to create truly an impact?

Kamali: As a work community, I think we have made tremendous progress in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The question is, is this enough? Well, not at all! There are several milestones to be crossed on this journey. I’m also a huge believer of celebrating small wins. And let that fuel more wins. Here are three things I think we should focus on to promote more women participation at the workplace.

For me, number one is representation matters – intentionally appointing women into roles, giving them the support they need to be successful. Equity is about knowing everyone will need a different level of support to be successful, and having the courage and commitment to provide it every time, not only when it is convenient. Men and women did not start in the same place historically. Think about it. The workplace was only for men for a very long time. So men and women do not go through the same journey, do we? Why should we be supported in the same way, or even judged against the same yardstick? So representation absolutely matters. Find a way to infuse women power into roles that matter, not a token face, but a total commitment. 

The second piece, make men allies in this equity journey. This is not a fight against men. We can never achieve equity in workplace without the allyship of men. Show them the reason to be supportive. Any average man, he lives in a social ecosystem surrounded by women— wife, sisters, mothers, daughters. There is no way to escape. Show them the why?  Support them on the how? I’m sure many men are ready to march along and support the cause. 

The third one, I truly believe is also measuring the progress. Diversity, equity, and inclusion in my view,
is achieved through three steps. Create the awareness, awareness on what inclusive workplace can bring to productivity, profitability, and overall wellbeing of employees. Number two, create the ability, build the capacity and the capability of the workforce. The individual minds, when it gets lifted up, the being becomes better and the doing gets better. Number three, follow it up with relentless action and measure. What gets measured gets done. Otherwise nothing gets done.  

SatJ: Manju, from your own experience in building and implementing DEI programs, what do you think are some of the main reasons for the program’s success? And why do some of them fail to make an impact? 

Manju: For me, success of DEI programs are measured with a level of belongingness. If we have not created belongingness through our programs we immediately fail in the experience that we want to create in the world around us.

We want to create that in organizations. We want to create that in communities that we work in as well. Employees’ teams should feel that they’re truly included, feel genuine about the effort that we’ve put across in that program and feel that they’re part of the organization and the group that they’re working with as part of any DEI program.

When we fail to do that, when we don’t create belongingness, we’ve actually failed a program. And let me give you an example. We can create a support group for parents in the organization helping them, and especially after covid, this has become very relevant when they were working with children at home.

But how do we then, instead of just creating the same support group for everybody, how do we customize it for parents with special needs that they have?  So that’s where they start to feel that they belong to an organization, a group, which is thinking differently on their behalf. I know we cannot cover everything in that effort. But a small step in that direction will help people on the teams, realize that we are in the right direction, we are thinking of being inclusive, we are making the effort to make them part of this entire program. So it’s clearly not a tick in the box of creating a support group of parents, but we are trying to be authentic, sustainable, and mindful in our DEI program.

When you don’t  come across as being sustainable and authentic in your process, we will not create impact to the organization nor the society. 

IWD 2023’s Call to embrace equity is important for organizations to accept  and adopt to foster a culture that stands out from the rest. 

SatJ: Manju, what exactly is equity and from your experience, what are some tools and strategies for embedding equity in our work culture today? 

Manju: Given that this year it is embracing equity as a theme for IWD, but personally for me equity is about creating personalized experience for our teams.

It’s about being agile and dynamic in creating frameworks and creating the change that we want in the organization. And as a mother of two, I know personally with my daughters, I don’t treat them alike. I know what their needs are. I customize my own approach to parenting based on their needs. So I think we can pick up an example from that. And if we bring that sensitivity to the talent that we manage, we bring up that same thought into every team leader or manager across the organization. I think it’ll be a good start. To create resources around making them understand how this hyper personalized experience needs to be created for our employees and teams that we work with, I think we have to start with safe space for conversations. It’s important that we create resources that are accessible, which help and sensitize various teams, managers, and even leaders at the top about creating an understanding of what equity means and what these personalized experiences and programs would mean for different groups of people. And as you create that I’m sure you will start to see what happens across organizations around benefit programs that we launch, or allowances that we create or in support groups that we initiate across various affinity groups that we create, and so on and so forth.

In recruitment, of course, we have to start looking at, for example embracing various health conditions and disabilities and see how we can have a focused hiring practice that will help us understand and make this experience come together. But all this will happen clearly only if we start advocating for this change and also living by the example. So only if you practice and if you start bringing it in your team, your teams will learn from you and take it forward Satish. So if you’re not able to create that inspiration within your team we would’ve lost the game. So, that’s my personal experience about equity. 

SatJ: Workplaces have witnessed an evolution from the gender gap to gender equality and now to gender equity. So Kamali, is leadership truly gender neutral and if you believe yes, then why aren’t there an equal number of women leading all aspects of work and society? If not, why do you think that is? 

Kamali: In my view, Satish, we need great leaders, period. Not women leaders, not men leaders, just great leaders. But the reality is that as a seniority increases the women pipeline tapers down dramatically.

Also, the reason why we have fewer and fewer women leaders at the top. Leadership qualities are dependent on many things, my view, again, including gender, but not limited to only gender. However, I must say that some qualities when found in men are seen as a strength, while the same when seen in women are labelled as areas to improve.

Let me give you an example. When a man is superbly assertive, he’s a great leader. When women do that, there is a risk of being seen as bossy. I once had a colleague in the office who told me, you are too aggressive for a woman. I was too inexperienced then to see the double standard against which I was being measured.

The mental association we carry from our social setting that— women are caring, they are ready to make compromises, they are happy to listen and follow, they’re waiting to be told— these expectations are so deep still in many parts of our society. That’s seeing women who don’t fit into these profiles at work, it’s hard to accept.

This norm needs to be then labelled as something that’s not acceptable, something that needs to be changed. Then these women become label carriers. I am no exception to it. For both men and women out there aspiring to be great leaders, this is what I will tell you— Just be yourself. Bring what the situation needs out of you and give your full attempt and commitment to that. Expand your perspective to see how you can embrace the individual styles, even if it challenges the mental mold that you are carrying. I have worked with some excellent leaders who are men who are very compassionate, great listeners, vulnerable and non-aggressive.

I’ve also worked with women who are pushy, demanding and assertive. I’m not saying good or bad, right or wrong. They’re just different. This is who they are. Not right or wrong, not over or under, just different, and they shine with what they have. It is very important to be yourself so you can travel light, spread the joy, love, and light in every job you do.

So back to your question, Satish. We need to absolutely do more, to be able to promote women, give them a chance, appoint them, give them the required support so they can shine to be who they are and bring their unique quality and value add to the role as a leader. I think we should embrace the difference, not just look for the same, same mold, same stereotypes, and repeat more of the same. 

SatJ: Kamali, looking back on your career, what aspects of your career journey would you share as an inspiration to aspiring women to keep going.

Kamali: There are a few things that I’d like to highlight here. You know, let me start with this little analogy, right? If you have an older sibling at home, you w
ill understand what I’m saying.

You know, sometimes with an older sibling you get clothes, books, accessories that she used when she was your age, and now she does not need them anymore, and you receive a hand-down, occasionally a hand down dress or an accessory or a book. Hand-downs are okay for books, clothes and accessories, but not for what success means.

Never take a hand-down definition of what success should look for you. If I had taken a hand-down success definition from someone else, I certainly wouldn’t be sitting where I’m sitting. I wouldn’t be working in an international setup. Maybe I won’t even be working because there were so many people who were very busy formulating what my life success should look like.

Sometimes I had to stand up and say, Uhuh, I’m not going to comply. Marriage, motherhood, big title, big salary, international career, none of this is capable of becoming a criteria for success for everyone. Success is a very personal thing. You need to feel it within you. It needs to resonate for you. It needs to make you feel good from within.

It needs to give you the power to get up every day and do what you do with great joy, because some of our challenges, some of our struggles aren’t easy. If it’s not powered from within, then you’ve lost the game even before you begin to play. If it’s not a great joy, then it is not success, it’s a burden.

Then you really have to ask yourself, are you going after what you really want, or is this your attempt to get others admiration and acceptance? If that’s the case, I would say slow down, stay still, listen deeply to what matters to you, and then define what success is for you. I have done that several times throughout my career.

What made sense at one point in time did not make sense,  five years down the line. I was agile in defining my success based on where I was and what I needed. Of course, taking into consideration my family needs as well. 

Often I’m asked can women have it all? The question is, do you want to have it all? Yeah. It’s like going to a grocery shop just because everything is there. Will you pick all of them? I would not. Depending on what I’m going to cook, I will ask myself what I need and will pick only that.

So simple answer to this repeated question is, depending on where I am in life, I will pick what I want and that may not be all of it, and it’s perfectly okay. I think holding on to this clarity, is a gift for every woman who’s pursuing a career. If you don’t have this clarity, then what happens? You want to have something the other woman has, or this person has, and that person has before you realize, you are just crowded with all of these things that you think you want. You’re busy, but then when you sit down, slow down, you realize none of this is really making sense or making you happy. So slow down, stay still, listen deeply and ask yourself, what do you really want? And what do you really need? So that’s my second piece that I want to highlight. 

The third one is around everyone says, believe in yourself. I would also say that, but I will add to it and say, believe in others’ ability to help you. Believe me, there are so many people walking around you who are ready and willing to help you. We must learn how to ask for help. Women I have seen, including the one I see every day in the mirror, is not very good at asking for help. She likes to handle it all by herself. I tell her to let go and lean in. That’s what I will tell the women listening in today as well. If there’s one thing in my career that I would do differently— it’s not being less ambitious or less adventurous. It’s about taking things light. Let it go, lean in and ask for help. The world is not resting on your shoulders. You must enjoy the journey. That’s incredibly important.  

Manju: Kamali, I totally get it and I just want to add on not being worried about people judging you in the circumstances that you have in life, right? So you are the best judge for yourself. And when I got out of college and started working in Chennai, one common phrase would be, oh, Chennai may not bring you all the opportunities, that you want, but you should know that your journey is your journey, right? You can’t live somebody else’s journey. And how do you make the most of what you have in your personal circumstances, I think is up to you and not for anyone else to judge on your behalf. Right. So, like I said, Chennai has been kind, I’ve managed global teams multicultural organizations and, and technology teams here and it’s all happened here, right, in Chennai. But the only thing that I did was to just challenge myself, get out of your comfort zone every time. Ask yourself if you’re getting too comfortable with what you’re doing and making sure that you know  you are top of the game at every point. So it totally resonated with me. Just, don’t let anyone else judge you. 

Kamali: What you said resonates so much with me. I mean that’s exactly why sometimes this journey can be a very lonely journey as well, because  you are not accepting someone else’s hand me down definition of what good is for you, what success is for you, because there is a deeper inner calling, a deeper inner clarity that you’re counting on, relying on, isn’t it? And that’s a clarity that only you can experience at that moment. So how do you switch off the external noise and amplify that internal voice so that it guides you throughout your journey  and that’s just, that’s a beautiful place to be in. People out there, audience out there listening to me and Manju, believe us, you have that voice inside you as well.

Yeah. What’s important is to switch down the external noise because it is noise. Who knows you better than yourself. Yeah. So listen to the inner voice. Let that guide you. Will it be perfect? No, it was never meant to be. There will be mistakes, but are you willing to learn? Be courageous and, and it will be lonely, but it’s okay.

There are times when I was told that, oh God, it’s difficult with you because , you are so rebellious. You’re questioning everything. Yes, I was rebellious at that point in time. My journey from being rebellious to becoming a role model wasn’t an easy one, but it was possible because I took another’s advices.

Not that I went on my own, I took another’s advices. I waited, but finally I listened to my inner voice. I think that makes a huge difference. 

SatJ: How about a quick and fun rapid fire?

  1.     If you could have any superpower to help you promote equity in the workplace, what would it be?

Manju: A hyper-personalization tool for our teams. 

Kamali: Compassionate leadership.  

  1.     One word that comes to your mind when we say woman leader  

Manju: Impact Satish.

  1.     Kamali one word that comes to your mind when we say glass ceiling.  

Kamali: Glasses are fragile. You are not. It’s not word. It’s a sentence. You’re going to have to bear with me.

  1.     A woman leader or a celebrity who inspired you and why? 

Manju: It is personal for me because I’m a third generation working professional at home. My my grandmom retired the year I was born, and I think she left me with a purpose for life. So,  for me, I didn’t have to look outside. I knew I had a, a living example in my own family Satish. 

Kamali: Well, I have one too many to name, so I’m just going to go with all women who have shown compassion and have chosen to nurture me through my life or all my mentors. 

  1.     Manju. Best career advice you’ve ever received and from whom. 

Manju: Quite a few career advice to  choose from but I think , it may not have come as an advice, but I think it was practiced and I must say has been from my allies and male allies of all  the teams that I’ve worked for letting me be loud and clear in t
eams. And they didn’t mind me and told me that it’s okay to be loud and clear and didn’t judge me for that. I think that that day they made me belong to the team and letting me be was the best advice I received. And that includes you, Satish. So thank you. 

Kamali: Unlike Manju, Manju, I am the first generation woman to have a career in my family. So,  you can imagine the journey. Now the best advice  the one that I received, is that the importance of building believers around yourself. You know, , for example, my husband believes in me more than I do.

My children believe in me more than I do. I have people around me who believe in me, even when I’m having a bad day or a self-doubting moment, they gently remind me what I’m capable of. So build believers around you. 

  1.     One piece of advice to the next gen women professionals entering the work. 

Kamali: Be courageous. Put yourself out there. There are no failures. Only learning. 

Manju: I want to tell women out there that their economic empowerment is just not for them. It’s for the generations to come. It’s for the country that they are in and overall the society itself. So it’s important that they play the part and help nations and the globe come together. 

This empowering episode leaves us with a message to adopt an equity mindset, to support one another and create better workplaces. And what a perfect way to set the tone for 2023.

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