When Dr Sandarya Rajesh returned to work after taking maternity leave, she was not particularly welcome. Her personal struggles to not only support herself in non-female ecosystems allowed her to forge new paths for other women.
Today, her social enterprise, Avtar, is the only organization in the country that provides both strategy and implementation solutions for diversity and inclusion. Dr. Saundarya Rajesh’s work spans decades and speaks volumes for her gender mainstreaming efforts. Her vision of seeing young girls from underprivileged backgrounds achieve white-collar career goals is something she is realizing through Project Puthri.
In an interview with SheThePeopleDr. Sandarya Rajesh discusses her efforts to create diversity, equity and inclusion, reports on workplace inequality, and why nursing matters at all levels.
interview by Dr Soundarya Rajesh
How did Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) happen?
My first motivation to work in the DEI space was my own personal struggle. When I wanted to re-enter the workforce after the career break I took for motherhood 25 years ago, I realized that Corporate India was not ready to accommodate diverse talent. Organizations were not welcoming to mothers returning after a break. The reasons were obvious – Organizations should have provided additional support to women with second careers to help them overcome their challenges, but they were not ready to do so. And corporate leaders had little knowledge of the economic toll of excluding women from the workforce.
“When I was looking to re-enter the workforce after a career hiatus I took for motherhood 25 years ago, I realized that Corporate India was not ready to accommodate diverse talent. Organizations were not welcoming to mothers returning after a break.
I learned very early on that diversity doesn’t mean much without inclusion and equity. I have personally witnessed lightning change in my career spanning over two decades in corporate India – Dotcom burst, economic slowdown, global recession and pandemic lockdown where we got to experience VUCAness and BANIness. And here’s what I realized: If there’s one factor that keeps organizations afloat, it’s having diverse talent where equity and inclusion are embraced. This means that every employee feels heard, respected and valued. Various studies show that companies that keep people’s well-being at the center of their plans are resilient and stable and emerge stronger from crises.
From the time you started until now, what factors have had the biggest impact on your growth as a leader?
I always apply Darwin’s theory in my life. We all face challenges and must make choices. It is our adaptability and our initiative that decide how well we can prosper.
When we started our journey in 2000, we really faced huge challenges. DEIs were esoteric concepts. People are literally closing our doors. But in 2006, we got a big boost when we helped SCOPE hire hundreds of talented women with second careers. This was a turning point and other organizations gradually began to understand the various advantages of DEI. Today we partner with more than 800 organizations; affected more than 1,10,000 second career women and 4,40,000 women in total. The results of the 7th edition of Best Companies for Women in India (BCWI), India’s largest and most comprehensive diversity analysis exercise in the country, conducted by Avtar in association with Seramount (formerly Working Mothers Media), reveals that there is an increase in DEI rigor and focus in 77% of 2022-100 top companies. This is certainly very encouraging! And these role model organizations set benchmarks for other DEI candidates in various industries to aspire to and emulate. I am glad that more leaders, organizations and employees understand the value of DEI now.
After launching 7 editions of India’s Best Companies for Women survey, what made you launch India’s Top Cities for Women earlier this year? What is the origin of TCWI?
For the Indian female professional to thrive in the workplace, she seeks a range of career incentives – some within her organization, some at home. But the city’s infrastructure is just as important to increasing women’s participation in the workforce. It is important that cities become spaces where women can move freely to pursue their career goals and economic self-sufficiency. So the right investments need to be made in making cities (not just workplaces) gender inclusive. And private sector organizations with clear environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals are in a great position to influence the social and governance pillars. This report is the first such national effort to provide a data- and evidence-based understanding of the current state of the city’s ethos toward women’s inclusion and empowerment.
The Global Inequality Report 2022 estimates that men in India earn 82% of labor income, while women make up just 18% of it. Your Best Cities for Women report offers a broader, deeper insight into the bigger issues facing women. What do you think is the way forward and how can all stakeholders contribute to making our cities safer for all women?
Here is my call to action to politicians and local government in cities –
- Provide employment opportunities for women;
- Providing better living conditions for families;
- Make sure every child goes to school
- Attract big brands and organizations to work in the city
From an industry perspective, organizations should
- Provide hybrid work opportunities;
- Tap into the talent of Tier 2 and Tier 3 women
- Influence city-level policymakers to become inclusive.
Many cities such as Bhagalpur, Dehradun and Puducherry have high levels of social inclusion and have huge potential to increase women’s participation in the workforce. According to our estimates, there are about 45,71,388 women who are looking for work. These cities have good amenities. A well-oiled, structured hybrid work model to engage with these women will increase women’s employment in these cities.
Kerala, the first state in India to provide menstrual leave for students, will provoke other states to adopt the same. How useful can this also be for women in the workplace?
Kerala as a state is known for its progressive policies, programs etc. But in fact, Bihar introduced menstrual leave for working women in government services almost 30 years ago, in the Lalu Prasad government. A revolutionary move!
“Going back to paid menstrual leave, I think I see that as a step toward perceived fairness. This will normalize the conversation around the difficulties of menstruation for working women.
Research shows that more than 68% of women in India suffer from severe menstrual pain, inhibiting effective work. In a country that has one of the most generous paid maternity leaves in the world, it would be a natural move for politicians to introduce a paid leave policy. This will raise social awareness, break down myths and taboos surrounding menstruation, and build empathetic allies in the workplace, and in turn, allow each individual to reach their full potential.
As a business leader, how do you think the Indian market can empower more women in leadership positions?
The pandemic has created a sense of urgency among Indian corporates to establish best practices to ensure an inclusive employee experience. The workplace has become flexible and responsive to the needs of its greatest strength – its people. Women’s career progression and rise to leadership positions also received a twist. BCWI-MICI 2022 shows that women hold 26% of leadership positions, a significant improvement. Many of our top 100 companies for women offer career sponsorships for women and leadership training programs.
These organizations are focused on the career development and advancement of women’s leadership
- Creating ecosystems for the success of women professionals;
- Targeted leadership intervention programs to strengthen the talent pool of women;
- Upskilling initiatives that empower women professionals with unique skill sets to navigate personal and professional situations that enhance their leadership potential;
- Sponsorships that empower women’s talent to take leadership positions.
What is the one piece of advice you would like to give women regarding financial independence and investing?
Financial acumen is not acquired overnight. Consistent effort is required. But let me tell you, women are naturally wired to be great negotiators. Don’t we make most of our everyday decisions – be it at the grocery store or the greengrocer? We ensure that our monthly budget is up to par.
“I would encourage women to start with personal budgeting, saving and debt management. Once you understand them well, you can start learning about investments.
Consider diversifying your investments, such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds, to minimize risk and maximize your potential return. Most importantly, make investing a regular habit by setting up automatic contributions to your investment accounts. This will help you build wealth over time and achieve financial independence.
What advice would you give to women on their journey to entrepreneurship in a field like yours?
First, I would urge women to become allies with each other and with their men. Women need to start listening to the experiences of their peers – especially colleagues from different backgrounds. Second, I urge women who come from privileged backgrounds to stand up for the underrepresented. Third, create a supportive workplace culture by recognizing and celebrating each other’s achievements. Finally, challenge existing biases—this could mean interrupting microaggressions, questioning unfair policies or practices, or advocating for more inclusive language. These guidelines will serve anyone who wishes to start an entrepreneurship in the field of DEI.
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