The need to redefine corporate workplace culture to make room for women


“You’ll be branded as a firm that only takes on social work.” “Clients won’t take you seriously.” “It’s just not possible—no other firm does it this way.

Even though all her well wishers told her that it was unworkable, in 2013, Payal Chawla decided to start JusContractus, a full service law firm with corporate, arbitration, civil and criminal litigation practices with policies that were completely counter to what was considered the norm at law firms across the world.

She decided to hire only women and establish 10 a.m. to 6.30 pm Monday through Friday as working hours, which enabled women to not only engage in serious commercial work and be productive but also to take care of their homes and family. Doing so, she’s being able to attract talented lawyers to join her. Her team is motivated to work more efficiently during office hours, knowing that they can go home, spend time with their families and log in to work at night, once the kids are asleep, if needed.

Chawla herself faced gender discrimination as in-house legal counsel at one of the top MNC’s in the country both when she was pregnant and as a young mother, and had filed and fought a case against her employer, which she lost; it’s difficult to fight against a behemoth. It was this experience that compelled her to create a workable solution for other women lawyers. “If this could happen to me, what must be happening to other women who aren’t aware of their legal rights,” she says.

This is important in a country where when it comes to women in the workforce, the pipeline starts small and continues to shrink. According to research by Catalyst, a non-profit organisation that aims at expanding opportunities for women, while 45.9 per cent of all enrolled undergraduate students in India are women, women contribute only 24 per cent of entry-level positions in corporate India. This figure shrinks to 21 per cent at the manager/director level, to 19 per cent at the senior manager level and 14 per cent at the executive officer level. Why is this?

The Asia Foundation, in their article ‘Where Are India’s Women Working?’, provides an answer. “In urban areas, where education and income levels are higher, many married women drop out of the workforce when they have children. This is in large part because women in India continue to shoulder the burden of childcare at the same time that many employers fail to provide adequate maternity and childcare support to working mothers,” says the article.

By challenging the norm, creating flexibility in how her team works and investing in technology that drives efficiency and enables team members to collaborate whether on or offsite, Chawla has enabled JusContractus to develop a solid reputation in the field. Three years into its conception, JusContractus revenues are going up 50 per cent a year and in 2015 Chawla was named by Forbes India as one of the ‘Special minds that should matter’.

“I’m not saying segregation is the answer,” says Chawla. “What we need is not to just pay lip service to the term ‘gender sensitivity’ but rather figure out how we can create systems that enable women to reach the top.”

In fact, what we may need to do to drive a sea change is to break the segregation that already exists in most firms, which is what Priyamvada Dalmia found herself doing. Having graduated from UPenn with a degree in psychology and a passion for positive psychology, Dalmia joined one of her family’s businesses, Semac, an engineering-design firm. Finding that the team—at all levels—was male dominated, she worked with the head of human resources, also a woman, to try to change this. Not only has this brought in some much-needed diversity of thinking into the team, but it has made the team become more professional and disciplined with noticeable changes in language and demeanour.

Such changes are more important than you think. Gender diversity actually impacts profitability as researchers at The Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington DC-based think tank, found. According to their study, of about 22,000 publicly-traded companies in 91 countries, companies with 30 per cent female executives, rake in as much as six percentage points more in profits.

But the changes Dalmia sought to introduce went even deeper, targeting the very culture of the company. Finding the company in a leadership transition phase, she realised that the leadership style till now had been very masculine in nature, a very ‘command and control’ style; not surprising given that the leadership team was dominated by men.

She felt that to succeed, the company needed to re-craft its approach, and employ one that was both more feminine and more contemporary. Investigating ways of establishing a successful employee engagement and well-being culture, she led the company’s first ‘Round-Table Forum’ initiative to elicit employee feedback. Employees say they “finally feel heard”. Building on the feedback, such as a lack of intimacy among members of certain teams, Dalmia has developed a team-building program to strengthen relationships among co-workers outside the work environment through a series of exercises that cultivates empathy, leadership, and collaboration.

India has a long way to go to create workplaces that enable women to flourish. If we want diversity in the Indian workforce, perhaps what we should be doing is tapping on women leaders like Chawla and Dalmia to help us craft them.

Kavita Singh has worked at several Fortune 500 companies in the US before returning to India to start Futureworks Consulting a college admissions and career counselling firm. You can follow her on Twitter @_KavitaSingh

This interview appeared in Vogue on March 2, 2017.

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