After the Covid-19 pandemic forced men and women around the world to work from their homes, new and exciting conversations are taking place around recognising the contribution of women, says Ritu Anand, who is also the chief leadership and diversity officer at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India’s biggest and one of the world’s largest technology service companies.
Technology has also allowed women joining the workforce today to see and reach their role models, and be inspired by them, Anand says in an interview with Forbes India. Edited excerpts:
Q. How did the pandemic affect women at TCS? Did they face the brunt of responsibilities at home while having to meet commitments at work?
TCS is a microcosm of society. What happens in society happens in TCS internally. The company has 475,000 people, but in my mind, we are half a million, so whatever happens in the universe is most likely happening in TCS — that is my experience of the last 30 years with the company.
The pandemic gave me a boost or triggered something which we had dreamt of as something that will happen sometime in our lifetime. It gave us a chance to talk about behaviours and culture. Women took the brunt of the responsibilities [at home]. I don't like to talk about it, but I have to, because they did. This is because of the culture and the society that we live in. And it’s true universally, not just in India. I picked up the phone in April 2020 and spoke to my colleagues in three time zones, and all our experiences were the same.
The trigger, however, was that — and I see 175,000 women in TCS — suddenly the cultural cohesion, the family cohesion has taken a different shape. Women and men have rediscovered themselves. Suddenly, the realisation is that, ‘she's also working.’ It’s a soft shift, but in the corporate set up, it has given me wings to create programmes and connections and dialogues.
Today, we are so proud that the gap between our retention rates of men and women has nearly gone away. Data tells me that there is no gap. But men and women going in the same direction, with no difference, is a powerful realisation for all of us. This pandemic gave what I call ‘shadow stress’ to women — with their responsibilities on the home front on top of commitments at work. Their resilience has brought them up and after a bit of ramp down, they are coming back with fervour.
Let me amplify what I'm saying. At the workplace you and I are same, then we go home, and you and I are not the same. I still have to work, which, traditionally, we called housework where men didn’t play a role. What the pandemic has brought in is a very positive change in most family units.
Q. Have you found that men are helping with tasks, which, in the pre-Covid world, were taken for granted as something women would do— such as caring for children, cooking and cleaning?
These personal experiences can’t be measured easily. On the other hand, today, more women are staying with us. Over 90 percent of women who took child care leave have come back to us. We are doing deeper connects with our employees, with more women in the last one year. We had one-on-one conversations, which revealed personal insights, so that is where this feedback is coming from. Early on in the pandemic, as the feedback started coming in, obviously of the social stress, family stress plus workplace deliverables, we started a campaign and a programme around relationship coaching. It was a big hit and a lot of conversations took place. We brought in best-in-class coaches in each country and did a series of workshops. That prepared women at work to use the flexibility that they had to their advantage — as work-from-home became the norm.
We also created ‘allies’ of diversity, many among men, and ‘champions of equity’, which also gave rise to a lot of conversations. We did all this before July . It created a headway for women, helped them realise they are a powerhouse of knowledge and they only had to get up and use that to their advantage.
Q. What does data at TCS tell you about how and why having more women in teams or equal number of women in teams is actually good for companies, in terms of measurable metrics?
As you know there is published data from large consultancies about the benefits of women decision-makers at the top levels. I look at it, I smile because I always knew it, but I keep it aside. At TCS, the data is giving me indications that the units which are led by diverse people are doing better than the others. But are teams led by men not doing well, of course they are doing well — at TCS and at other IT companies too.Across the industry, we aren’t at 50:50, neither at the bottom nor at the top. Therefore, very cautiously, I say indications are there. So I'm lapping it up. I'm working on it. And technology is helping us to deep dive into the spots where successes are more prominent. In some months, perhaps I will have more to share.
Q. Even qualitatively, any examples of these indications?
There are masculine competencies and there are feminine ones. But historically, the leadership models, leadership styles have predominantly been driven and defined by masculine behaviour because men were larger in number.
Encouraging women leaders has the following advantage: The persona where more feminine competencies are prominent, that leader invites accessibility, approachability, and a little more empathy. The vibrations exuded, which men, when they do, they are inspirational leaders. When women naturally do this, they are obviously world-class role models for ever.
So this is the philosophy with which I have been working with our women. The existing models and styles are not going to change immediately. So we encourage women to give rise to their leadership competencies.
Q. All other things being equal — women with same competency, same skills and experience — when they come up with an idea, when they suggest something, what kind of biases do they face?
There are conscious biases and unconscious biases. That said, there are differentiating behaviours and styles of leadership that women have, which have traditionally prevented us from raising our hand. For example, in an auditorium of 500 people or even 10 people, I know I have a very good question in my mind, but I won't be the first one to raise it.
More recently, this is changing, but the need for social acceptance is higher among women. Such differences between men and women come to the fore in the workplace, and my job is to provide a level playing field by removing the unconscious biases. We are doing it through the allies, through grooming, training, and running immersive programmes for women — recognising the leadership styles of women, but also encouraging them to not hold back.
Q. Across the best IT companies, large numbers of women enter the workforce, but their proportion dwindles at leadership levels. What’s happening here?
Women are more passionate about their roles and responsibilities. They are more aware of and concerned about their own responsibilities and commitments than getting influenced by the workplace or corporate culture or society at large. There are milestones they go through and have to take care of and then they catch up.
This is an ongoing process and this is work in progress. The graph is on the upswing. Women are moving faster than they were before, but they are not yet moving faster than men. That is why equity today is more important than equality. For example, gender pay parity is something I'm very proud of. Two units, two engineers, plus five years, two managers, two sales directors, man or woman — are they being paid differently? At TCS, it’s a big no.
There is no space in diversity and inclusion that we have left untouched. The 12.5 percent was not 12.5 percent even two years ago, I would say, so the direction is positive [Refers to proportion of women in leadership roles at TCS in India, compared with 45 percent at junior levels. At TCS’s global operations, women leaders make up about 21 percent]. I want leaders to digest, embrace, include, and believe that diversity is good for their business. And that language in the last two years has changed dramatically within the company.
Rajashree R, chief marketing officer at TCS, adds:
I think it's largely a reflection of how the demographics were historically. If you look 20 years back, the percentage of women at entry level also was very, very different and that has reflected in the leadership team today. On the other hand, today, our retention level of women in the company is no different from retention of people generally. So I think we have managed to get a very good pool of women leaders in our senior leadership team.
I looked at the data as of last month and I realised that women retention has gone up dramatically and it is running neck to neck with men.
Q. What are the kind of interventions that you've done over the years at TCS that have helped women stay on and grow?
We have a programme called IExcel, which has been running since 2011 [A twice-a-year immersive executive leadership programme for women at TCS]. And the numbers prove my point that the investments we made and continue to make are giving us the results, especially in middle-level cadre, which is very large in most IT companies [There are nine percent more women leaders in the mid-level since the programme started]. Other factors have helped too, such as the Tata culture, but this trend of women raising their hands and moving up the leadership cadre slowly is a validation of the programme.
There are women discussion circles to talk about common issues. Then we have coined, using the human library concept, a diversity library, where people have shared their experiences with an audience. And that has caught on like a wild fire.
Then, typically in technology companies, in the zero-to-five-year level, the numbers [of women employees] are large. And that is where women actually carve out a niche for themselves and figure out what they want to do in the longer term, if they want to grow and reach top-level executive positions. So we have a programme for that layer specifically. All these programmes are around conversations — meaningful, or courageous, or strength-based assessment conversations. The idea is to give women hyper-personalised support, with every individual at every level. We also have an academy and there are ongoing training programmes that help women tap their leadership potential.
Q. Have you experimented with things like — all other things being equal — giving women a chance at a promotion or hiring women over men? Do things like that work?
They definitely work. In every important process in TCS, gender diversity is a key element, be it hiring or promotions, assignments or deputations. Several years ago, when we started capturing data on this, ‘what gets measured gets done’ was a favourite line of mine. Wherever we found that the numbers were skewed, we have taken steps to improve the representation of women.
Technology companies can use data to their advantage like nobody else can. To leverage technology to change the culture and behaviour within the organisation is my high.
Q. TCS is building an increasing number of AI-based solutions for its customers. Is gender bias also a concern here?
AI will throw up what it will throw up, but I want to give a different anecdote. When we were on web-based systems and appraisals were moving from in-person, paper-based processes to virtual, about 20 years ago, many voices said ‘you are taking the human element out.’ So I said, no, actually I'm bringing more human element into it.
A technology company will always have a manager here and a team member sitting miles away. So technology is bringing you together and that is what our systems are now geared for. We have something called continuous feedback, which, walking, talking, I used to give to my team, and I’m now writing it in the system and it is there for posterity.
Continuing from there, today, I would say that even if there is a threat of a bias coming in, algorithms throwing up something which is creating bias and excluding people of colour or people of a different gender, we come back, we intervene, and make the right changes.
Rajashree R, CMO of TCS:
Before my current position, I built and developed an AI product for TCS for the last 15 years. I've been the chief technology officer for the company’s retail businesses unit, and I hold patents in that area. So it's a subject which is very close to my heart.
At TCS, most of our AI applications are in the business area, so we create applications for industries for customers to automate and bring more intelligence into their businesses. We don't necessarily create a lot of what I would call end-consumer applications like Google or Facebook.
That said, the way AI works is that biases in the historical data are carried forward. Therefore, if you see a certain behaviour in the past, if you've taken steps one, two, three, when you project the data forward, the AI program will recommend those same steps one, two, three. But today, thanks to all the research that has been happening in this area, there is a lot of work being done to remove historical biases, not just gender biases, but behavioural biases also.
We don't do primary research in this area, but we do take advantage of all the primary research that is being done in this area, which is extremely vast. And we make sure that those findings are applied when we develop our algorithms in AI. And removing biases — gender is only one aspect — is core to developing applications in AI.
Q. Today when young women join TCS, how are their expectations different compared with, say, the first or second generation of women in IT 20 years or 25 years back?Rajashree R:
I think the aspirations are very similar, but I would say that probably there is greater hope, or greater confidence that there are now organisations that have the processes in place, the support system in place for women to go right to the top.
Today, when they see Ritu, young women can say ‘I too can get to that point’ or if they see me, they have an aspirational role model. Q\We didn't have those role models when we started. There are more role models today in general, but even within TCS, I don't think we go to any leadership meeting today where there aren't enough of us around. I think that is very motivational.
All the programmes and initiatives that Ritu spoke about are all helping women to not just remain in the workforce, but to realise their potential. In TCS, people go through a complete life cycle. They come as youngsters, they get married, and they have children. My son was two years old when I joined TCS. He's 18 now. So we've gone through an entire cycle of life itself. I can tell as a consumer of everything Ritu does, the organisation has been unbelievably supportive in not just keeping us in the workflow, but making sure the best of us is realised in the organisation. So I think that's the change in the mindset.
We have now women leaders who are heading business units and have grown through these milestones because of our policies — and I'm not saying that they are unique policies, but we've had them for years now, and now many companies have better policies than us and that also is okay. It doesn’t take away from the fact that ‘TCS with heart’ was there 25 years ago and it’s there today.
Today that heart has a shape, in the form of global programmes and tech-driven global reach. A young graduate has joined TCS, she’s getting married, but doesn’t want to give up her job, and she knows where to go. Like other companies we too have smaller, self-contained units, but they have a top person at the CEO-minus-one level where they can reach out and things will fall in place. Humility should go hand-in-hand with scale, because every individual is valuable to me.
I always tell my team, I don't want even a single woman to leave TCS. Start from there. Zero. And then, you know, if you have reached 7 percent, I'm not huffing and hawing, I'm okay [overall annualised staff churn of 7.6 percent at the end of December 2020 — a historic low]. But how do you go from seven to five and five to zero? Of course, some may leave inevitably, but the big plus of technology that I'm seeing today is that you can see your role model, you can get inspired.