In 2021 a record number of women ran Fortune 500 companies. While this headline is something to celebrate, dig deeper and it’s clear to see that women still have a long way to climb to achieve equality in the workplace. While record-breaking, in 2021 just 8% of Fortune 500 companies were led by female CEOs.
Many organizations aspire to achieve a more inclusive workplace but achieving gender equality requires consistent effort at all levels. At Startek®, we strive to create an inclusive workplace for all, appreciating and celebrating the contribution of people of all gender identities and expressions.
This International Women’s Day, we sat down with three female leaders from across the Startek business who shared their journeys, explored the ways in which they are championing an equal playing field for all and asked where they see business opportunities to #BreaktheBias.
Dee Arora, Candice Naidoo and Priyanka Mohanty are founding members of the Startek Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) Committee and champion women’s equality across the Startek business.
Making Diversity, Equity and Inclusion the Key Focus
“The committee is a great platform for someone like me to be a voice for my geography and present a different perspective to the Startek team,” said Dee Arora, country vice president, Australia. “Through this committee, we’re able to further the company’s diversity and inclusion agenda and lay a strong foundation for employment and career success for women at all levels.”
The Startek DE&I Committee includes workstreams designed to champion different groups and has a clear philosophy for gender inclusion: At Startek, gender inclusivity is a long-term commitment to developing initiatives that lay a strong foundation for employment and career success of women at all levels.
But policies are only a start, Startek encourages employee resource groups that create opportunities for women to connect and support each other through personal and career development in a supportive environment.
And, with perhaps the greatest opportunity to effect change, senior leaders at Startek are expected to lead the way, ensuring that women have the same opportunities for development and promotion as their male colleagues.
Addressing Gender Disparity, Top Priority for Leaders
Leaders set the standards for behaviors in organizations. They decide what gets endorsed, accepted, supported, overlooked and rewarded. Therefore, at Startek leaders are expected to create a culture that values, rewards and supports individual differences and equality.
“The Startek leadership team has always supported me and encouraged me on my career path. They have believed in my capabilities and endorsed my competencies, encouraging me to pursue professional courses and hone my skills further,” said Candice Naidoo, director, Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment and Marketing.
“As a result of my personal circumstances at the time, I was unable to complete my tertiary education. After completing my secondary education, I immediately started in my first role at Startek. This opportunity allowed me to advance my career and I was exposed to many different leaders who recognized my potential and encouraged me to continue with my education,” continued Naidoo. “Startek continues to support my tertiary education and I am now in the final year of my degree program.”
“The leaders I have worked with at Startek, whether male or female, have been advocates of gender equality. They showed up for me when required, elevated my confidence by pushing my boundaries and challenging my fears and fortified me to drive better results to create an impact. As a leader myself, I am always looking for ways to advocate for my female colleagues, amplify their voices and promote equality in ways that can make a difference,” said Priyanka Mohanty, vice president, HR.
While there are many gender inclusion initiatives in place, the best way to understand whether our effort is having impact is to listen to the feedback of our female workforce. “As part of my role, I have led numerous benchmarking exercises through external committees such as Great Place to Work and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) to understand the perspective of the women at Startek,” continued Mohanty. “I am proud of the work we have done, as a result of which, we have been recognized as one of India’s Best Workplaces for Women 2021 - Top 10 by Great Place to Work.”
Addressing Unconscious Bias
All organizations must push against the challenges faced by women because of unconscious bias. It isn’t enough to just be aware that bias is an issue. To stamp out inequality, leaders must educate themselves and understand why these challenges exist and how they can devise policies that can guard against discrimination and include appropriate diversity and inclusion initiatives to open the door for women.
At Startek we encourage ongoing learning by giving associates access to thousands of courses via an online educational platform. The Startek team curates a core program of 152 courses and guides team members towards the recommended materials. Leaders complete programs addressing diversity and inclusion in the workplace and inclusive leadership to ensure a shared understanding of unconscious bias and how to avoid perpetuating it. Analysis of employee engagement data across geographies is leveraged to understand where female team members are thriving and the areas where Startek may need to focus to drive equity and inclusion for women across our organization.
“I had a role earlier in my career where I felt I was excluded from the social aspects of customer interaction because I was the only female leader in a very male-dominated environment,” said Arora. “When I raised the question, my concerns were always dismissed. It’s an experience that shapes how I approach workplace bias. I try to be mindful of unconscious bias and be a champion for all Startek employees, including women.”
“I’ve been in the Startek business for 18 years and seen a lot of change,” said Naidoo. “During that time, I have observed first-hand the important role leaders within the organization play. When senior leaders champion diversity it has impact. I can think of several people who have made a real difference for me here at Startek and gave me the opportunity to be a director in the Startek South Africa business at a time when there were few women in senior roles.”
Forward-thinking organizations act before candidates have joined the team by considering how a job description may use gendered language, requiring diverse recruiting panels and ensuring that recruitment processes are based on experience and competence and not on gut feel.
Organizations can also employ artificial intelligence (AI) in the hiring process to minimize the opportunity for gender bias to occur, for example by using blind resume screening and blind interviews. At Startek we use AI to automate the matching of candidates with job roles being mindful to ensure that the AI is not taught to associate gender with capability, seniority or aptitude. Our automated pre-employment assessment tool creates a level playing field for all by assessing candidates for a specified role on the same set of criteria regardless of age, race or gender.
Collectively We Can All #BreakTheBias
While there is still considerable work to be done to create equality and inclusion in the workplace for women, increasing the visibility of women while calling out inequality is essential as organizations strive to #BreakTheBias.
“Now that I am in a leadership role, I work to pay forward the support that I was given by advocating for the progression of other women within the organization. I pay attention to the work of the women around me and I call out good work where I see it. I also make a point of taking time to connect with women in the business around their personal goals, giving constructive feedback to help them along the path, because I know how valuable that was in my own career development,” said Naidoo. “And, when I am in leadership meetings, I make sure that the women doing great work are recognized, that other leaders in the business know who they are and the contribution they are making. That line of sight is especially important so that the women in our organization are front of mind when development or promotional opportunities become available.”
“As a woman, it is important to be confident in yourself and believe that you deserve a seat at the table. Believing that you can is key to being prepared for the road ahead. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues who strongly believe in meritocracy and creating a level playing field at Startek,” said Arora. “My advice to women starting out or looking to develop their careers is to seek out managers and mentors who will invest in helping you to become the leader you are capable of being. And, to all leaders I would say, be mindful that we all have biases. We need to work hard to expose them but together we can #BreakTheBias.”