Panel with Corporate Heads on Leadership & Diversity

by Aneesha Gaba

Unravelling the hard truths behind diversity and is it more than a buzzword?
Our panel weighs in.

Panel discussion on Championing Diversity 

Moderated by Mallika Setalvad, Founder, Work In Progress

Building a better tomorrow was a free wheeling chat with powerful women who each had their own narrative about making their place in a room full of men. Bani Saluja, Vice President & Head - Marketing and Travel & Lifestyle Services, American Express, notices a change in the work environment today compared to when she began her career. “When I joined, I felt I had to blend in and today I feel proud that differences are celebrated. I think the culture we are trying to build is that if you are different, don’t try to blend in, because being different, speaking up and having divergent views is what is going to help us get better as a company.”  Radhika Gupta, CEO, Edelweiss Asset Management Ltd., who was often the only woman in a room full of men when she joined the world of finance, provided a different point of view. Today the work culture has changed to be more diverse, but Radhika coped initially by changing her attitude. “You can have three approaches to being the only one not in a blue-black attire and instead wearing a pink sari. One approach is you can complain. The other I learnt very early on in my career, is to forget it and just do your work and believe that your work will speak for you. The third approach that I have now learnt is to celebrate the fact that you are a woman and almost take advantage of it. Enjoy the fact that you are unique and different and that it gives you so many more platforms.” But before we celebrate the change in attitudes, both personal and at the workspace, we must also face the statistics that were raised by Ipsita Dasgupta, President -Strategy & Incubation Star India. Only 27.5% of women in India work, the Asia average is 49%. The only two countries lower than India are Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. So then is ‘Diversity’ merely a buzzword? “If we want to deal with diversity, we can’t build incredibly strong empowered woman and leave the men behind because the men they are dealing with in their personal and professional lives are still the ones who feel it’s not natural for a woman to lead the same life (as them)” was Ipsita’s suggestion.

Taking the same thread forward was Yashaswini Samat, MD, Grey Group India who said, “I’ve seen a strong focus now to retain women and steps are being taken. My fear is that it’s more for the right optics versus the real belief that diversity impacts the business. I have not seen people cite enough research that gender diverse companies are more profitable…until that happens, it’s all for optics.” One of programs that does help women stay in the workforce longer is mentorship according to Lakshmi Iyer, CIO, Kotak AMC, who believes that gender diversity is very important for a company to succeed. Her take on it is simple. “Women have a combination of EQ and IQ which is very important in money management. Women are multitaskers and bring mental agility to the table. I learnt a lot of corporate life lessons from my mother who is a homemaker. I insist on having women on my team as well as freshers—they have no baggage and are experimental.”

The panelists were all on the same page when it comes to the importance of diversity and how it can change a company’s outlook. Ipsita raised a valid point while taking about the challenges women face in different sectors and if policy can help change that.  “Studies have shown that no policy really makes a difference in a woman’s career trajectory. The biggest difference in a woman’s career trajectory is her network. And that network has to have nine people who are focused on her success or are willing to give something it to. Half have to be personal and half work.” The discussion continued with others sharing anecdotes and lessons from their career and the panel discussion ended on a high note with Bani urging mothers of boys to bring them up in a more gender inclusive way so that the generations to come won’t have to debate on gender diversity—it would be the new normal to have a gender equal workforce.