About Time We Set Ecosystems For Women Professionals To Succeed: Social Entrepreneur Dr Saundarya Rajesh

Dr Saundarya Rajesh
When Dr Saundarya Rajesh’s re-entered the workforce after a break she took for motherhood, she was not particularly welcomed. Her personal struggles to not just sustain in ecosystems that weren’t designed for women enabled her to forge newer paths for other women.

Today, her social enterprise, Avtar, is the country’s only organisation that provides both strategy and implementation solutions for Diversity and Inclusion. Dr Saundarya Rajesh’s work ranges across decades and speaks volumes about her endeavours towards gender inclusion. Her vision to see young girls coming from underprivileged backgrounds achieve goals in white-collar careers is something she is making true through Project Puthri.

In an interview with SheThePeople, Dr Saundarya Rajesh discusses her endeavours towards creating diversity, equity and inclusion, workplaces inequality reports, and why sisterhood matters at all levels.

Dr Saundarya Rajesh Interview

How did Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) happen?

My first motivation to work in the DEI space was my personal struggle. When I wanted to re-enter the workforce after my career break, which I took for motherhood 25 years ago, I realised that Corporate India was not prepared to embrace diverse talent. Organisations weren’t welcoming to mothers who were returning after a break. The reasons were evident – Organisations needed to provide extra support to second-career women to help them overcome their challenges and they weren’t prepared to do so. And corporate leaders had little knowledge about the economic loss of excluding women from the workforce.

“When I wanted to re-enter the workforce after my career break, which I took for motherhood 25 years ago, I realised that Corporate India was not prepared to embrace diverse talent. Organisations weren’t welcoming to mothers who were returning after a break.”

Very early on, I understood that Diversity has little meaning without inclusion and equity. I have personally been a witness to a blitzkrieg of change in my career spanning more than two decades in corporate India – Dotcom burst, economic slowdown, global recession, and pandemic lockdown, where we have had to experience VUCAness and BANIness. And here’s what I have realised: If there is one factor that enables organisations to stay afloat, it is the existence of diverse talents, where equity and inclusion are embraced. That is, every employee feels heard, respected, and valued. Various studies are showing that companies that have kept people’s welfare as central to their plans are resilient and stable and emerge stronger from crises.

From when you started to now, what factors have had the biggest impact on your growth as a leader?

I always apply Darwin’s theory in my life. All of us face challenges and have choices to make. It is our adaptability and our initiative that decide how well we can thrive.

When we began our journey in 2000, we did face huge challenges. DEI were esoteric concepts. People literally shut doors on us. But in 2006, we got a big boost when we helped SCOPE hire hundreds of talented second-career women. That was a turning point, and other organisations gradually began to understand the various benefits of DEI. Today, we have partnered with more than 800 organisations; impacted more than 1,10,000 second-career women and 4,40,000 women overall. The results of the 7th edition of the Best Companies for Women in India (BCWI), India’s largest and the most comprehensive diversity analytics exercise in the country, conducted by Avtar in association with Seramount (Formerly Working Mother Media), reveals that there is an increase in DEI rigour and focus in 77% of the 2022-100 Best Companies. That certainly is very encouraging! And these role-model organisations are setting benchmarks for other DEI aspirants across industries to aim for and emulate. I am glad that more and more leaders, organisations, and employees understand the value of DEI now.

Having released 7 editions of the Best Companies for Women in India study, what made you release Top Cities for Women in India early this year? What is the origin of TCWI?

For the Indian Woman Professional to thrive in workplaces, she seeks a set of career enablers – some in her organisation and some at home. But a city’s infrastructure is equally important in helping increase women’s workforce participation. It is important to transform cities into spaces that can be freely navigated by women to pursue their career and economic self-sufficiency goals. So, the right investments need to be made in making cities (not just workplaces) gender inclusive. And private sector organisations with clear Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals, are in a great position to influence social and governance pillars. This report is the first such national effort in bringing a data-driven and evidence-based understanding of the current state of city ethos towards women’s inclusion and empowerment.

The World Inequality Report 2022 estimates that men in India earn 82% of labour income while women make up only 18% of it. Your report on Top Cities for Women offers a larger, deeper insight into the larger issues that women face. 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 for action to policymakers and the local government in cities –

  • Enable employment of women;
  • Provide better living conditions for families;
  • Ensure that every child goes to school
  • Attract big brands and organisations to operate in the city

From the industry standpoint, organisations must

  • Provide hybrid work opportunities;
  • Tap into the women’s talent from Tier 2 and Tier 3 locations
  • Influence city-level policymakers to become inclusive.

Many cities such as Bhagalpur, Dehradun, and Puducherry are high on their social inclusion score and have huge potential to raise women’s workforce participation. As per our estimates, there are about 45,71,388 women seeking employment. These cities have good amenities. A well-oiled, structured hybrid working model to engage with these women will boost women’s employment in these cities.

Kerala, India’s first state to provide menstrual leave for students, shall provoke other states to enact the same. How helpful can this be for women in workplaces as well?

Kerala as a state is known for its progressive policies, programs etc. But as a matter of fact, it was Bihar that introduced menstrual leave for working women in government offices nearly 30 years ago, in the Lalu Prasad government.  A revolutionary move!

“Coming back to paid menstrual leaves, in my opinion, I see this as a step towards embracing equity. This would normalise conversations around the difficulties associated with menstruation for working women.”

Research has shown that over 68% of women in India suffer from severe period pain, a deterrent to effective working. In a country which has one of the most generous paid maternity leaves in the world, it would only be a natural move for the policymakers to establish a paid-period-leave policy. This would raise social awareness, bust myths and taboos associated with menstruation and also build empathetic allies at workplaces and in turn enable every individual to rise to their fullest potential.

As a leader in business, how do you suggest the Indian market can empower more women in leadership positions?

The Pandemic ushered in a sense of urgency among Indian corporates to establish best practices to ensure an inclusive employee experience. The workplace has turned agile and responsive to the needs of its greatest strength — its people. Women’s career advancement and elevation to leadership positions have received a fillip too. The BCWI-MICI 2022 show that women occupy 26% of managerial positions, which is a significant improvement. Many of our 100 Best Companies for women offer career sponsorships to women and leadership training programs.

These organisations are focused on career development and advancement of women leadership by

  • Setting up ecosystems for women professionals to succeed;
  • Targeted intervention Leadership programs to strengthen the women’s talent pipeline;
  • Upskilling initiatives that enable women professionals with unique skillsets to navigate through personal and professional situations that boost their leadership potential;
  • Sponsorships that empower women’s talent to leadership positions.

What is the one piece of advice you would want to give women with respect to financial independence and investments?

Financial acumen is not acquired overnight. It takes consistent effort. But let me tell you that women are naturally wired to be great negotiators. Don’t we make most of the everyday decisions – be it at the grocery shop, or with the vegetable vendor? We ensure that our monthly budget is on point.

“I would urge women to start with personal budgeting, saving, and debt management. Once you have a good grasp of these, you can begin to learn about investments.”

Consider diversifying your investments, such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, to minimise risk and maximise your potential returns. 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 women on their path to entrepreneurship in the field as yours?

First – I would urge women to become allies with each other and their male counterparts. Women must start listening to the experiences of their peers – particularly, counterparts from diverse backgrounds. Second, I urge women who hail from privileged backgrounds to advocate for the under-represented.  Third, create a culture of support in workplaces by acknowledging 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 pointers will serve anyone who wishes to enter entrepreneurship in the field of DEI.

Suggested reading: How Ritikaa Khunnah Creates Empowering Spaces For Youth Beyond Textbooks