Lead Story

A Company Cannot Grow Without Supporting Women: Neerja Birla

Having women on board and promoting gender equality at workplaces is not only the right thing to do, but also leads to better business outcomes and a stronger economy. In an interview with Shailaja Tripathi, entrepreneur and mental health champion Neerja Birla, founder-cum-chairperson of the Aditya Birla Education Trust, which runs the MPower mental health awareness initiative, outlines the need to implement policies that encourage diversity and women’s employment in the workplace and talks about how the corporate sector can promote the culture of inclusivity. Edited excerpts:

What role do culture and leadership play in making a company inclusive and supportive for women workers? What impact does it have on the women?

The company culture and leadership have a major role to play in implementing policies that promote inclusivity and support women workers. When a company endeavours to hire men and women based on merit but in an equal ratio, it becomes an inclusive place automatically. When leaders, especially men, treat women as equals and show appreciation for their talents and abilities, it helps in fighting the age-old gender disparity. When women are promoted to leadership positions, it makes the company more balanced and brings a unique perspective to its workings.

When women feel secure and encouraged at the workplace, it is bound to enhance their mental well-being. They work harder and are more creative and productive. The reverse tends to cause mental health issues that have a long-term impact on them.

Why have Indian businesses been unable to embrace gender inclusivity at workplaces despite government policies like the maternity benefits act and other initiatives? How can this be addressed?

Over the years, Indian business houses have shown inclination towards progressive gender inclusive policies, but they have not been able to embrace them fully due to age-old mindsets on one hand and the lack of facilities on the other. For example, many offices do not have facilities to help women deal with challenges that come with menstruation, pregnancy, motherhood or post-partum depression.

It is important for organisations to offer maternity benefits. Research says that women are not given the same responsibilities and not treated the same way when they return from maternity leaves. Flexibility with a hybrid work option, day care in the office for babies and counselling facilities for issues like post-partum depression to support new mothers can make the crucial difference.

A lot of companies offer health benefits like sick leaves and health insurance. Then, why can we not offer mental health leaves and mental health insurance? Similarly, menstrual health leaves can enable women to deal with the emotional stress and hormonal fluctuations around their periods in a secure way at home.

What steps can companies take to ensure that their policies for hiring women workers are effective and affordable?

There are several steps that companies can take. These include creating a gender inclusive workplace culture that values diversity and promotes equal opportunities for all employees, offering flexible work arrangements, providing family friendly benefits like paid parental leave, affordable childcare and healthcare benefits and conducting pay equity audits to identify and address pay disparities based on gender. Such initiatives can lead to better retention rates, increased productivity and improved profitability.

Lastly, companies should track and measure the effectiveness of their policies and support programmes regularly. This can help identify areas that need improvement and also help the business make data-driven decisions to optimise their support for employees.

How can companies support women employees without putting a strain on their business on account of maternity leave, menstrual health or mental health leaves?

It is important for businesses to find a balance between supporting their employees’ well-being and maintaining the productivity and profitability of the company. A few ways in which they can do this are: by creating a policy outlining the terms and conditions of leaves, allowing flexible work arrangements and supporting employees in returning from long leaves by providing training, refresher courses, or reintegration programmes that help them catch up with changes made in their absence. Cross-training and shared coverage, where team members are trained to cover each other’s roles in someone’s absence, can be a good option to ensure that the operations are not impacted.

Additionally, employee assistance programmes can be an effective way to support employees who are experiencing stress, anxiety or other mental health issues.

How does the perception of a company’s supportive culture, or the lack of it, for its female employees affect its reputation?

In an age when women are breaking the glass ceiling and taking giant strides in every sphere of life, a company that does not support its female employees cannot progress or grow. A strong female employee strength has its own set of plus points. Team management becomes more fluid. Women show greater emotional quotients and trouble-shooting abilities are ingrained in them. All of this has a positive impact on productivity. More and more companies are striving to bridge the gap between the number of male and female employees. In fact, this is what actually helps create a positive reputation for a company.