Organisations have come a long way today in ensuring congenial workplaces for women. However, there’s still a lot of gaps that need filling. With a goal to learn and advance by leveraging competencies, 7 organisations (Unilever, Grameenphone, BAT, Nestle, Robi, SCB and HSBC) have formed a cross-industry council and started an initiative called “Inspirit”. We sat with three representatives to explore the inspirations that paved the way for the initiative.
In the past, a major fault in the workplace was poor representation of women. When Farhana Islam, Head of Business Innovation & OTT Communication at Grameenphone, joined GP back in 2006, there was a total of 5 girls in a group of 30. At that time, she didn’t really question the status quo, but as she took on leadership roles, she saw certain problems in the system. She said, “With time, you pay more attention to how you’re being perceived at big meetings and how your opinions are being judged. Slowly, you realise that the culture needs more adjustments.” Adrita Datta, Senior HR Business Partner – Operations at British American Tobacco Bangladesh, particularly felt the absence of female role models as she started her corporate journey. She said, “It was very difficult for the organisation to identify and address issues exclusive to women who had no significant representation across leadership forums. In 2012, after BAT got its first female member in the executive committee, we exponentially saw a rise in proactive interventions to make the organisation more inclusive across all levels.” Nurul Monowar Ratul, Category head at Unilever Bangladesh Limited, was shocked at the low presence of women in the industry, when they had almost always been toppers at class. He said, “Diversity is still easier to ensure in numbers, and through our concerted effort, we have been successful in improving our gender balance significantly in just 3 years. However, ensuring ‘inclusion’ is a more difficult thing to achieve, which is why at Unilever Bangladesh, we focus on consciously promoting that.”
GP initiated the forum “Women Inspirational Network” in 2016 and in 2017 they conducted an FGD to find out situations where women feel uncomfortable. They made a play with the insights, which created a huge impact because these issues were never publicly discussed before. The challenge was to explain to employees the need for gender diversity. Farhana said, “We need diversity to ensure 5 things- better financial results, better decision-making, to better address the needs of our customers, for a more innovative culture and to attract the best talents.” With that in mind, GP wanted to build a culture of inclusion that would begin with the leaders and launched the Leaders’ Toolkit and an e-learning platform. Through this, leaders were taught to be more supportive to female team members in the office space and informal hangouts, and employees were taught to avoid benevolent sexism.
BAT, on the other hand, launched Gen W in 2009, spearheading mainstream inclusion of women across critical roles in the commercial frontlines of trade outstations and 24/7 factory operations, conventionally thought to be male-dominated spaces only. This directed under-the-rug discussions about inclusion towards organisational spotlight, giving birth to Symmetry, an exclusive platform on catalysing inclusionary initiatives. BAT also focused on unique development programs to create more female leaders across all levels by crafting tailor-made interventions and mentorship platforms. Following this trajectory, they pioneered the first 9-month maternity leave programme in Bangladesh. Adrita said, “By starting this practice in BAT, we hope that other MNCs and even local organisations will do this soon to enable more women at workplaces in seamlessly balancing their personal and professional priorities.”
Even today, women are primarily responsible for raising children and running families. Nurul said, “The concept of having both maternity and paternity leaves eases the burden that society places on women to be the prime caregiver. To enable fathers to play a more active role in early parenthood, Unilever Bangladesh has extended its paternity policy to 3 weeks of paid leave and hosts an in-house day care facility for both working fathers and mothers.” He added, “We have also broken several stereotypes of having ‘conventional roles’ for women, with the appointment of our first ever female Regional Manager in the country, and the introduction of night-shifts for female Production Shift Officers at Kalurghat Factory.”
Farhana talked about GP’s “New Normal” campaign where GP tried to engage its employees in different activities that defy traditional gender norms. At BAT, a best-in-class day care facility is accessible to children of both male and female employees. In addition, BAT’s revamped maternity and paternity leaves are accessible to biological as well as adoptive parents, a first-of-its-kind progressive policy in Bangladesh.
Women at workplace tend to feel an added pressure. Adrita said that this stems from women being more introspective in general. She labels this pressure as a ‘double-edged sword’. Farhana said, “When I was in a junior role, everyone was very supportive, but it became more challenging as my role and responsibilities grew.” She added, “I felt that my voice was less heard in meetings and I had to put in extra effort to get my points across.” Adrita resorted to interesting coping mechanisms, “During meetings, I was the only woman in a group of 15 other men. When they weren’t listening to me, I’d simply raise my hand. I realised that in order to make an impact, I had to make my presence felt as conspicuously as possible.”
With perseverance and resilience, both women grew out of the skewed system and had their moments of glory. Farhana was selected to be the Global CMO for WowBox. She was placed in Bangkok and people from different countries would report to her. It was an episode of good learning and excitement for her that made every effort worth it. Adrita’s defining point was her second international assignment where she was appointed as the Talent Head at BAT Japan. She had a 6-year-old son at that point and her husband was in trade marketing. She said, “Initially, I wasn’t so sure about the role. But looking back, I’m so glad that I took the assignment. Leading the talent team in Japan and working in a very different set up, taught me how to thrive in a different culture. It gave me confidence that I still carry with me. I am grateful that in BAT, my development was always prioritised, defying traditional norms of limiting females within bonds or borders.”
With passionate change-leaders wanting to create a larger impact in the industry, the Inspirit forum was launched. As opposed to making efforts in silos, with Inspirit, corporations can now share their best practices with each other and advance through collaboration. The council is currently working on three pillars – facilities for outstation-based female managers, leadership development and cross-industry mentoring. Through these, the companies can share infrastructure with each other and enable women in unconventional roles to network and learn from women in similar roles in other organisations. With Inspirit, the future is headed towards a level playing field.
Syeda Adiba Arif is the sub-editor of Next Step. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.