9th edition of the SEGUE Sessions raises key questions: Are corporates really ready for women?

segueMumbai, Wednesday  12th November 2014

Finding a hall that has about 300 people whose eyes are riveted to the conference proceedings without missing a word is a bit of a rarity. Having plain-speaking, passionate panelists who speak about what needs to be done without the confines of political diplomacy is even rarer. And when you find that of the 300 attendees about 260 are returning women, it is without doubt an event that creates a defining moment in women’s workforce participation. SEGUE Sessions – India’s first platform for returning women – women on a break, on a sabbatical, returning from a prolonged maternity – which took place at Mumbai yesterday, raised questions which pointed to one phenomenon – that Indian women are here to stay in workplaces and they are vocal about it.

Monika, 38, has 10 years of experience under her belt and has taken a 3 year break on account of health and transition. Her question directed at the panel was this: “When senior leaders are so convinced about gender diversity, why are their recruiters not convinced too?” Monika referred to a large FMCG company which had advertised career options for women, but when she applied, she was rejected on the grounds that she had taken too long a break.

Mr. Ashok Ramchandran, Director HR – Vodafone India, who delivered the inaugural address at the event stated that every far thinking Indian organization was looking at including women into their workplaces. From a 12% of women’s representation, Vodafone had moved to a 20% representation in the space of one year. This was achieved by a consistent process of educating and sensitizing business, line and HR managers, and ensuring that every position is filled only upon assessing the talent market for women candidates. “Irrespective of gender, ultimately, it is Talent which is the basis of all decisions. And both women and men appreciate that.  I also find that with the inclusion of greater number of women in the workplace, the tone and even language is changing and is becoming more inclusive. Ultimately, it is convictions and belief that drive organizations and people, and is at the core of this journey too,” he said.

Responding to a question from the audience on whether guilt was a career-killer, Mr. Ishmeet Singh, Business Head for Maharashtra and Goa circle, Vodafone India, replied that guilt was a universal emotion which men felt too. “The other side of guilt is that it means you care. But that does not mean you give up what is important to you. You learn to manage all the expectations that others have from you and what you have from yourself too.”

Sukanya who was part of the audience of women seeking a second career raised a very critical question when she said, “Every interview where we are told that we have taken a break and therefore not suitable, is like one more thrust of the knife that pushes down our confidence levels. Whatever senior leaders speak on the dais is not flowing down to each representative that an interviewee meets”

“Women are excellent negotiators at home – why not practice some of that in the job interview when you segue back into the workforce?” asked Ms. Rama Bijapurkar, Author, Management consultant and independent director on several boards. Responding to a question from Seema – a returning mother who wanted to quit the IT industry, Ms. Bijapurkar, who delivered the keynote address quipped – “Why would you lose out on your leverage? If you have 10 years of experience in a particular industry, use that as the mortgage to return – that experience will be valuable to a corporate that is in need of such talent”.

Organizations today have realised the need for women to be part of the workplace – the creativity, stability and maturity that women bring are key to the success of any organization. As such today the hiring intent of organizations to engage with women has increased substantially. This is not only on account of customer-centeredness. Vodafone India, for instance, is looking to create a more gender balanced workforce though Diversity efforts that includes a 4C model – Customers, Communication, Colleagues and Community – of promoting Inclusivity at Vodafone.

But why does this priority not percolate downwards to every recruiter who assesses a resume? Why do corporates end up speaking about the diversity imperative at leadership levels but not follow it through by educating their recruiters that women on breaks have valid reasons for them? Answers Dr. Saundarya Rajesh, Founder-President, AVTAR Career Creators and FLEXI Careers India, “The awareness among corporates about having women in the workplace and enabling them to pursue sustainable careers irrespective of the undulations, is a gradual awakening. In our journey of 9 years, we find companies becoming more and more conducive to the idea that a 50-50 gender balance has to be a reality if we, as a country, are to move up the Human Development Index. But sensitizing the actual implementers – the recruiters, the line managers, the hiring managers – on what it means to be a returning woman – is extremely vital”. Workshops and training programs on inclusive behaviour, on uncovering cognitive biases are bringing about a change in the mindsets of the average employee. Thus, discerning organizations look at cascading the leadership intent into everyday behaviour and practice.

Ms. Usha Pillai, Chief Consultant – WINSKILLS, an AVTAR I-WIN initiative and herself a returning mother, presented the “Essentials for a successful return” workshop and emphasized the necessity to prepare. “Success in your re-entry is all about preparation. The more you prepare, the better you are equipped to face the reality of a second career”.

Ms. Madhura DasGupta Sinha, Head- Employee Experience at IDFC spoke about the time taken to identify the right job. “It’s like the time you invest in finding your spouse – it is as important and as life changing” she said. Speaking about the work being done by IDFC in the space of Diversity & Inclusion, Ms. Sinha mentioned that the organization was still in early stages of D&I but very keen on scaling up fast.

Vodafone, IDFC, Deutsche Bank, Cognizant and Bharti Axa Life Insurance were some of the organizations that participated in the SEGUE Sessions Mumbai edition. The specialty of the conference was that apart from skill-building and networking, each of the handpicked 250 women got an opportunity to deliver an elevator pitch to the organization of their choice.

Speaking about the experience of conducting the 9th edition of SEGUE Sessions, Mr. K. Umasanker, Co-Founder of AVTAR Career Creators, mentioned, “We are chipping away at the grand number of a 50-50 gender balance in Indian workplaces, one SEGUE at a time. SEGUE Sessions – Gurgaon scheduled to take place during February 2015 will be our 10th experience of creating careers”