JPS Choudhary, regional HR head, Vodafone Asia, Africa, Middle East & Asia Pacific talks about the biggest challenges encountered in building a diverse and inclusive work environment, and how the firm crafted a new global policy to overcome them
If you only hire or support one particular type of individual, you severely limit the performance and innovation potential of your business. Embracing diversity is the only way to bring in the breadth of perspectives, experience and skills that any global business needs to compete in today’s market.
Organisations also need to respect and align with the diversity of their customers if they are to meet their needs most appropriately: in other words, diversity is a business imperative, not just a “feel-good” initiative.
Ignoring the different needs of these diverse individuals can also be extremely costly: in the case of women in the workforce.
The biggest reasons why gender gaps exist in companies today
I believe the main reason is that companies don’t make it as easy for women to balance their family and career goals as much as they could.
In Asia, we tend to see more women leaving the workforce when they have a child because traditional working patterns – fixed hours, a tendency towards overtime – are perhaps more ingrained in corporate culture than in other places.
In Italy, for example, reduced working weeks are relatively common and socially acceptable for new mothers. I suspect the persistence of gender inequality, particularly at the higher levels of business, has to do with the fact that most working policies were designed many years ago with men, not men and women, in mind.
At Vodafone, our approach to this is to make these policies more flexible and personal.
Apart from our mandatory maternity leave allowance and reduced post-maternity working weeks, we also empower our managers to define individualised flexible working arrangements for their employees based on their circumstances.
When you create workplace policies that explicitly support uniquely personal circumstances, you have a far greater chance of retaining more women than simply enforcing quotas or other “top-down” systems.
Such a diverse working environment will come naturally if you can respect and support the different needs of a diverse range of individuals, without condescending to what you assume those needs might be, then a diverse working environment will come naturally.
As business leaders, we also need to be role models for this and show greater openness about how we work according to our own personal situations – and extend that same flexibility to those whom we lead.
Many women do not return after maternity leave; or, if they do, they find it difficult to return to the workplace after the changes that come with being a new mother. Businesses should not simply stop at maternity leave allowances: they need to provide greater flexibility in that critical post-leave period to support women’s transition back into the workforce.
When they return to work, most women want to contribute to the business as much as they can before having a child. So work-family policies should seek to make this possible, rather than questioning new mothers’ motives for flexible or reduced office hours. These policies should also support men who wish to take up a larger role in caregiving.
Vodafone’s global maternity policy
Vodafone recently became one of the first organisations worldwide to implement a mandatory minimum global maternity policy. By the end of 2015, women working across all levels at Vodafone will be offered at least 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, in addition to full pay for a 30-hour week for the first six months after their return to work.
The impetus for the policy came from research we commissioned with KPMG, which found that applying these policies globally could:
- Save US$19bn in recruiting and training costs;
- Eliminate US$14bn in childcare expenses; and
- Give back 608 million days to mothers to spend with their newborns.
Our new policy will be introduced across 30 countries in the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, the US and Europe, benefiting more than 1,000 women a year. In many of these countries, there is little or no legislative requirement to provide maternity support.
We designed this policy by assessing retention rates of women returning from maternity leave in offices from each of the 30 countries where we operate.
The design process was informed by several “outliers” with high retention rates, like Italy where these women were working shorter days but for full pay immediately after returning from maternity leave. Our employees around the world have been extremely excited and supportive of this policy.
Women will take up equal footing as men when it comes to career growth and progression: it’s just a question of time.
However, we cannot afford to take this for granted – there is still a lot that global business leaders need to do, particularly in areas such as wage equality where female salaries still tend to lag behind those of men.
We also need to be mindful of cultural differences in different countries as we roll out policies designed to provide women with an optimal working experience. These shouldn’t stop our efforts, but instead inform them towards greater effectiveness. A “one-size-fits-all” approach will meet far more friction than basic principles within which countries and managers have significant autonomy.
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