An entrepreneur and leadership search consultant at the core, Ashwini Prakash Naik forayed into the corporate world as a human resources professional. Halfway through her almost two-decade long career, she took a leap of faith when she decided to explore the leadership search domain despite doubts and apprehensions expressed by everyone around her. It paid off for her though, and today she is the managing partner at multinational head hunting firm Stanton Chase’s India and Singapore branches.
Beside hunting for talented individuals to occupy leadership roles in various industries, she is a mother of twin kids, a dreamer, a music and art fan and a fitness enthusiast. She also leverages her consulting experience in advising and enabling clients to reach their diversity, equity & inclusion goals. In this chat with Women Icons Network, she speaks about the need for, challenges towards and the solutions for achieving gender parity in the modern workplace.
Women and the Workplace
“It is not hidden that we, women, have been fighting for basic rights like the right to education and the right to equality for ages. At the workplace, too, women face numerous biases – conscious and subconscious,” states Ashwini. She mentions unequal opportunities, dual responsibility of household and official tasks, family first and career second mindset, lack of strong professional network and a non-conducive environment among the biggest hindrances for women in the professional arena.
When an opportunity opens up to work abroad on a project, men just accept the offer and start packing their bags while women need to calibrate the offer keeping the family’s needs ahead of her own aspirations, she points out. For women who take a sabbatical due to personal reasons, she says, there is no structured process in place to help with the transition. She rues the fact that despite being good managers and decision makers, women are often treated inadequately at the workplace.
She also talks about subconscious biases wherein decisions taken by a female in leadership position would be vetted by a male colleague but she would be considered the boss on the domestic front. A more ingrained problem, according to her, is the guilt women have when stepping away as the caregiver and nurturer even for a short time. To fulfill this perceived natural role, they end up making professional sacrifices to cater to their ménage.
Ashwini believes that like all good initiatives, equitable gender representation at the workplace begins at home. This could be in the form of a better support system to women at home and not guilting them into prioritising domestic or familial responsibilities over ambitions, she adds. Recalling her own experiences during the beginning of her career, she speaks about how it was expected that she would quit working once she got married. Extended family would often remind her that the level of ambitions she was allowed to have was dependent on how open her future family would be to the idea of a working woman as their daughter-in-law.
Luckily, she crossed the first hurdle as her husband and in-laws encouraged her aspirations. However, the same expectations were voiced when she gave birth to her twins. “This was a sure shot case for hanging the boots. I was lucky for the second time as my family was by my side with a good support system,” she recalls.
Looking back, she realises that she didn’t make good of the initial years of her career due to the fear of uncertainty. Throughout her work in talent acquisition, she came across many similar stories of women living with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over their career plans and ambitions. All this makes her believe that a conducive, reassuring environment which takes the fear factor away is very important for any career woman. Family members need to understand, she says, that women are equal partners when it comes to running a family financially and spiritually; her wellbeing is family’s well being!
Improving the Representation
She is grateful that most organisations across the world are now taking the subject of workplace equity seriously. She goes on to say that offering sponsorship and mentorship programs to support, groom, empower, and prepare women for leadership positions are important steps towards ensuring that there is a pool of qualified candidates for the present as well as the future.
As a signatory of the 30% Club, Stanton Chase is committed to promote gender diversity in the hiring process. The company has worked with their clients to normalise career gaps, which has helped attract more women professionals returning to work after career breaks. In fact, they have facilitated the hiring of three women CEOs only in the last few months. “Our clients also emphasize on finding the right female leader for their organization. Gender diversity in the organization is slowly but steadily becoming part of the organizational culture,” she informs.
Citing a recent article in Harvard Business Review on the subject, she talks about the six attributes of successful corporate transformation. Most things listed in it like employee satisfaction, diversity and inclusion, women employees and women leaders highlighted the importance of gender parity in the workplace, she points out. It comes as no surprise to her then that the more diverse organisations showed higher chances of survival during the pandemic. Talking of the year gone by, she feels the one silver lining for the corporate world amid this large-scale human tragedy was the hybrid work models that are providing an opportunity to those women who want to get back to work, but prefer work location and time flexibility.
What can we do
Even as organizations do their bit, employees themselves need to act in a way that they wish their future workplaces to be, thinks Ashwini. She feels that men can help in improving gender equality by adopting an inclusive mindset and creating a conducive work environment. They can encourage and not undermine or brush aside diverse thoughts, especially those expressed by female colleagues, she adds.
Women, too, have their tasks cut out, she says. “They should build a strong network for themselves and know how to leverage the connections. If you see how men connect and collaborate together, you will observe that men always tend to develop a close knit relationship and when time comes, they all favour each other irrespective of the situation,” she states. Women, she feels, can similarly build their own ecosystem and mentor young women professionals to help them understand how to thrive in the corporate world.
Fortunately, there already are several male leaders who are passionate about gender diversity at the workplace, she informs. Ambitious young women can identify the right mentor and seek guidance, right in the early stages of their career, she suggests. This early boost, she believes, can help keep the pace of career progression even when their priorities change by the time later in life. Mentors can also be of significant help in guiding the women leaders to take the right step to excel beyond the mid-level positions, she adds.