Aashish Kasad is a Tax Partner for Ernst & Young LLP, India and the India Region Diversity & Inclusiveness (D&I) Leader. We talked to her about the importance of communication in leadership and how D&I initiatives are changing the gender landscape in India.
You work across a number of areas in EY India, what is key to success in this for you?
Knowledge - not only technical know how, but from understanding how to communicate, of knowing the importance of good relationships with clients, peers and staff and the expectations of diverse stakeholders and in identifying talent and honing it.
For me, communicating effectively is one of the critical keys to success – if you say something confidently and have a firm belief in it, that’s when you can convince the other side. Having active listening skills and looking out for non-verbal clues is as essential though, because the words we use make up just a fraction of the communication we’re engaged in.
Asking good questions is vital too. At EY, we believe that building a better working environment starts by asking better questions, because in a rapidly changing world there are no easy answers.
Communication plays a big role in creating an inclusive environment too – it helps to build trust. An inclusive environment is about being authentic, sincere and empathising and encouraging people to share their views. It's about asking open-ended questions and giving them time to respond (especially with introverts and people for whom English is not their native language). It is also important to acknowledge ideas and effort, so that people feel motivated to share viewpoints.
I love the Maya Angelou quote, “People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel”. For me, communication is what you leave people behind with at the end of the day.
As the India Region Diversity & Inclusiveness Leader have you noticed particular challenges for D&I in India?
There are several challenges in building diverse and inclusive workplaces universally; and the Asian region, including India, faces several deep-rooted cultural barriers which make it trickier. There is still a reasonably high percentage of multi-generational families in which older generations question the younger female generation on why they need to work, especially after marriage or while raising a family. And this can restrict talented women professionals from achieving their full potential and progressing in their careers.
Certain organisations also hesitate to recruit more women in their workforce for several reasons, including a belief that they may not continue working post-marriage or that they might be away from work for six months due to the mandatory maternity break.
However, despite the prevalence of cultural barriers, I believe the younger generation here, witnessing their mothers achieving success in the workplace, as well as positive female role models - will come to view a career as part and parcel of life. And I think they will find more and more organisations welcoming diverse talent, given the growing awareness.
The Indian Government has also taken progressive steps to create an enabling environment for women to work in through introduction of laws such as The Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act 2013, requiring a women director to be on the Board of specified companies and reduction in the Employee Provident Fund contribution by women.
How are you helping to challenge these cultural barriers at EY?
While we have a fairly balanced organisation at the entry level, the gender ratio shifts to approximately 35 percent women in EY India at an organisational level, due to the cultural barriers that are present. It is something we are consciously working to address through various interventions.
We have a focused recruitment strategy under the programme “RecruitHER” to ensure targeted hiring of women and that no unconscious bias creeps into the selection process. We also offer incremental incentives for CVs of women candidates to assist in achieving gender parity in the workforce.
We have programmes and interventions for women at all stages of their career; from leadership programmes to MomEY (for women going on maternity breaks) and the “Back in Game” programme, where women can re-join EY India at the same position at which they left within a period of five years. Crèche facilities within the office premises also help mothers to relax and be close to their children while at work.
Partner sponsors for high-performing women at senior levels enable them to get the support required to showcase their achievements and aspire for further growth in their careers - and we have ongoing conversations with EY executives as we keep monitoring our future leadership pipeline.
I am proud of what we have achieved in D&I here, given the significant uplift in the percentage of women in the workforce at EY India and at leadership levels since we started these interventions.
Externally, we have been recognised through awards – we were in the Top 10 of the inaugural 2016 Working Mother and AVTAR Best Companies for Women in India list as well as winners of the Diversity & Inclusiveness Impact Award 2017 from the World HRD Congress. However, this is an evolving area and we are on a continuous journey.
How have things evolved in D&I in India over the past 20 years?
I certainly believe that India has made progress on this front and that more organisations are beginning to understand the importance of D&I to attract and retain talent.
Gender audits are becoming more common and change is also being driven by the Government too; our maternity leave here for example is now six months – and India is one of the few countries in the world to mandatorily offer that.
Defining a clear business case for D&I is crucial as are budgets to effectively design and deploy policies that will allow organisations to weave it into their strategic initiatives.
D&I policy implementation needs to be monitored by senior management to assess the efficacy and constantly work towards reducing unconscious bias in decision making. The tone at the top is critical to drive the shift in mindset and commitment to D&I policies.
Diversity results in more innovation in an organisation and more successful outcomes - translating to higher growth and profitability. It makes a lot of business sense strategically - and it’s also the right thing to do. If you have a more inclusive environment you’re going to have a higher degree of retention and a more satisfied workforce of people who believe they can speak up - and that their contributions are valued.
For me, D&I is all about creating an open environment which breeds trust and where people feel safe and confident to be themselves and exchange views, which results in innovation.
In India, presently few organisations have gender parity, especially in the manufacturing sector. However, the HR departments in tandem with the business leaders of companies who believe in the power of D&I, are designing policy changes and setting enabling processes.
I am hopeful that over the next decade, India will be among the front runners in the world in building gender equal organisations - and a strong pipeline of women leaders who serve as role models to generations ahead.