As a women-led leadership development practice, empowering women leaders and promoting gender diversity remain our special interest areas.

We were commissioned to undertake a short development interaction to mark the occasion of Women’s day at a reputed MNC.

‘Dialogue’ as a philosophy and practice is one of our core values at Thinking Partners and it fundamentally informs how we conceive our work. Therefore we believe in creating avenues for more constructive dialogue and stronger partnerships with men to further the agenda for gender diversity.

We are proud of what we accomplished at this short duration event and have converted the experience into a short story.

Women’s Day is fast approaching and Monica, part of the senior leadership in the Indian headquarters of a large MNC, is painfully aware of the fact that there’s nothing planned at the office to mark the occasion. A year ago, after a small Women’s Day celebration at the office, she had been motivated to play a more active role in furthering gender diversity. As one of the two senior women leaders, she took initiative to create a platform where women could connect with each other to discuss concerns, success stories, strategies, etc. Although it generated some buzz at the time it was introduced, it was soon seen as a “women’s only” club. The initiative lost interest and fizzled out.

It’s now the 6th of March – just two days to go till Women’s Day! She hopes that someone else will take the lead and do something to mark the occasion, but nothing seems to be in the offing.

She remembers an interesting conversation on gender diversity she recently had with her friend, Neha, a partner at a leadership development consultancy. With just two days to go, she calls Neha asking if despite the short notice, they can put together a session on helping women to be more effective at the workplace. Neha and her partner, Jinny, ask if it’s just women attending. Monica says that while she thinks its great for the men to be included but if the session is more pertinent to women then the men will just feel that it was a waste of their time.

Jinny thinks about it and suggests revisiting the agenda…what if the session is pertinent to both men and women and is more dialogue based than instructional…would that work? Monica tells them that she’ll think about it and get back to them.

She asks herself, is diversity and inclusion a key focus area for her organisation? Yes. In fact, she’s very proud of the gender equity in her firm and knows that not only is gender balance a global priority for them but even in India the leadership really pursues gender equity in letter and spirit.

Will the organisation value something that moves Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) forward?
Yes. Of course!

Can there be forward movement with just the women involved? Perhaps, but very
slowly.

Do the men in the company seem to also care about the I&D culture? Yes, certainly. Some of her male colleagues share her passion and vision for gender diversity.

Monica is excited with the possibility of including men in the Women’s Day event at the office! But just to be sure that the idea will be accepted, she runs it past some of the men in her team. She’s pleasantly surprised to find that most men are reacting positively to the idea. They’d be happy to attend so long as it doesn’t turn into a sensitization exercise for them.

This response convinces her to take the risk and get the go ahead from other senior leaders in the office. She gets Jinny to go over the session outline with the senior leaders and the plan is set into motion. Everyone is invited!

D-Day
As Jinny and her team arrive and settle in, Monica can see them rearranging the room to suit the session structure. Although the place is set for sixty people, she thinks no more than 15 or 20 will turn up – including (just) a couple of men.

As the time to begin draws near, people start to trickle in. Monica counts upwards of 40 participants. Nearly half are men! But its too soon to feel relieved. This could still go wrong. Emotions could flare up on a sensitive topic like gender equality when the room has nearly as many men as women. Would things get out of hand? Monica takes a deep breath and decides to repose her confidence in Jinny and her team.

Jinny, a coach by qualification and experience, seems to be totally at ease standing in the middle of the room. Her colleagues – Neha and Sangeeta, are warmly welcoming the employees as they stream in, making sure to seat a mix of men and women at each table. Once Monica makes the introductions, the session commences and Jinny quickly sets the context, “It’s Women’s Day! The focus is going to be celebrating women! Celebrating women doesn’t mean that the day is about being anti-men. Much the opposite. It’s about establishing a stronger relationship and conversation between the sexes.”

Monica glances around the room. She can tell that some of the men are already beginning to lean forward and take an interest. This clearly isn’t something the men were expecting to hear.

Jinny then asks everyone to think of one woman they admire and reflect on what about her inspires them. “Any woman except your mother”, she quips. The room breaks out in nervous laughter. People start writing on the notepads placed in front of them. In a few minutes Jinny asks them to discuss their thoughts with the person sitting next to them. Soft murmurs become louder as each person talks to their
partner about the woman they admire and why.

Soon Jinny asks each table to now discuss among themselves what enabled these inspiring women to become who they were. The conversations grow louder. The facilitators ensure people get to contribute to the discussion on the tables they are seated at. The energy in the room is picking up. Many of the men are exhibiting distinctly more relaxed body language – they haven’t been tricked into attending a male-bashing seminar. At least not just yet.

Tables are shuffled to mix up the groups. Jinny asks them to independently list some qualities of these inspiring women. She urges them to avoid clichéd adjectives and hands out a list of creative and varied qualities that they could consider to describe the women they’ve written about. The groups are asked to discuss whether these qualities can be characterized as masculine or more feminine. This kicks off several spirited debates at each table. Women and men together, reach the conclusion that the question is unfair and that the inspiring qualities are actually gender neutral. It dawns on the groups that that was perhaps the intent of the question. A faint smile crosses Jinny’s lips.

The next question surprises the entire room. “Now think of a man – other than your father, who you admire, who displayed some ‘feminine qualities’ like being gentle, being a good listener, being empathetic etc.” The room gasps, almost audibly. The people present had clearly not anticipated that on Women’s Day, men would be talked about in such a tone.

Like before, the participants reflect and discuss this at their tables. There is however a distinct departure from before. Some participants are struggling to identify such a man. Monica is amazed and at once somehow saddened by this.

Shifting the conversation, Jinny now asks the groups to reflect on what the workplace might look like… be like… feel like… if the workplace had more of the kind of women and men that had been talked about in the session. Each table is asked to note down the thoughts of the group on a chart capturing the diversity of views as opposed to just gaining consensus.

Jinny goes around the room asking one person from each table to read out their key conclusions. Words reiterated around the room are – greater transparency, more respectful, higher ownership, more inclusivity, stronger loyalty, fairer workplace, ethically stronger, more dynamic, better work-life balance, kinder, more reliable etc.

Someone in the room remarks that that sounds like a fairy tale! As the room snaps back to reality, there is silence.

A few seconds later, a woman says, “You know I just realised that I also exhibit all the qualities of the woman that I said I admire. I don’t think it’s a fairy tale. A lot of us are already like this.”

A male colleague chimes in, “I’m realising that I don’t always have to bear the pressure of being macho all the time.”

The takeaway from the session is that all the participants express simple but profound sentiments that reveal that they are all on the same side in the push for greater gender diversity.

As the session winds up, a celebratory cake for Women’s Day is brought out and shared. Monica is delighted at the snatches of conversations she hears as the cake is devoured. Men and women are gathered around and are engaging in positive, constructive dialogues about what a gender balanced workplace could be like. Her gamble has paid off and she feels privileged in having played some role in enabling this conversation that has been empowering for both the men and the women in her organization.

Monica smiles to herself as she realises that had it not been for her last-minute leap of faith, the cake would have been the only ‘Women’s Day’ thing that would have happened at the office today.

I have received some wonderful feedback from attendees, and people were extremely appreciative of the content and structure of the session. My congratulations to Thinking Partners. It was a truly unique way of celebrating the day – it goes without saying that we couldn’t have achieved it without your vision and thoughtful structuring of the session. I am extremely hopeful that it has kick-started a more collaborative approach towards meeting our I&D objectives, as well as fostering a more meaningful dialogue between the two parties involved in this discussion.

Monica

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