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My Top Three Takeaways on Inclusive Leadership From Women-Led Workspaces

I’m a young woman of color from the global South, entering a world that is more uncertain than ever — especially for women. The COVID-19 pandemic means that more women — especially women aged 25–34 — will be pushed into poverty than men globally; while 25% of self-employed women have lost their jobs in Europe and Central Asia, only 21% of self-employed men have become unemployed. Globally, women have to do more work for less pay, considering that they do 3 times the amount of unpaid domestic work as men — something I can personally attest to, as even in my own liberal household, more household tasks fell on the women’s shoulders during lockdown, impeding my ability to focus and perform academically and professionally.

It’s thus easy to feel resigned to a professional future that does not support my ambitions, recognize my challenges or foster my values. But I have had the rare privilege of working in organizations led by women of diverse backgrounds. Seeing how these leaders have tackled challenges in their workspaces and industries has taught me three crucial lessons, reaffirming that I can carve out a space for my own aspirations, and that it is possible to create an inclusive workplace and ultimately, world.

  1. You can be a dreamer and a doer at the same time

By the time I’d gotten to university, I’d heard the saying: “behind every successful man, there’s a woman” more times than I could count. The percentage of women holding managerial positions globally today — 28% — is still almost the same as the proportion in 1995. Combined with seeing very few women in leadership roles growing up, this reinforced my impression that as a woman in the workplace, my work would always be to support a more powerful man’s mission. Working at NYU’s satellite campus in Berlin to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the university changed my mind. The all-female led Student Life Team, in their dedication to hearing diverse voices, created an environment where even new or junior members of the team were manifesting their personal vision for a better university structure. While I was doing the larger, collaborative work of making sure international students got access to mental health resources, I was also given the means to pursue my personal dream of designing inclusive curricula and lesson plans. By making opportunity structures more democratic, the women leading my workspace created a setting where employees came to work with more passion and motivation. They refuted the cultural conception that women can only be cogs in a larger corporate machine, and showed us that it is enabling individual “dreamwork” that actually makes the team work.

2. How to not get lost in translation

Today’s workspaces are more diverse than ever, which means that communication and translation are almost synonyms sometimes. Nothing embodied that to me better than my time at the Goethe-Institut in Bangalore, India. The Culture Department was helmed by two magnificent women who acted as crucial interpreters for German and Indian artists — not just in terms of language, but also social norms. I learned that I needed more than just my B1-level language ability to succeed in a multicultural workplace: it also involves standing your ground while being polite and contending with different hierarchies of race, gender or class. This became obvious when my supervisors had to navigate situations where female artists were romantically propositioned and made to feel uncomfortable by male vendors in India and Germany. The strict, yet calm way such situations were handled showed me that it’s crucial to learn how to defend your values while also keeping cultural distinctions in mind. I learned how to stand up for myself and women everywhere — without getting lost in translation.

3. The things that go unsaid do not have to go unheard

How do you talk about addressing sexual violence without saying the word “sex”? This was a conflict that came up at a non-profit I interned at, Durga India. Trained in conducting workshops on combating harassment and gender stereotypes, I felt indignant when I found out that schools wanted us to teach high-school girls about consent and how to protect themselves from harassment while forbidding us from using “indecent” words. While the founders and leaders of the organization also disagreed with such a mindset, they made me realize that we had the choice between finding a different way to express our ideas, or risk losing the opportunity to inform a critical young audience. The creative solution they came up with — using theater of the oppressed techniques for workshops — helped promote gender justice across a larger demographic, making the mission more accessible across the age, language and class spectrum in India. My female coworkers leading the fight against gender-based violence in conservative Indian circles taught me to balance practicality and conviction, to think outside of the box to get the message across, and that actions truly can speak when words cannot.

As I observe the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, I realize that creating a safer, more equitable world for women starts with solutions within the workplace, whether encouraging women to create internal, institutional change, standing up for your values in a culturally-sensitive way, or contending with oppressive realities using innovative solutions. In a world where the global health crisis is causing a shadow pandemic of violence against women, it is more important than ever to fight women’s exclusion and marginalization. Working under diverse women’s leadership taught me that there are many facets to inclusion beyond hiring quotas and mission statements; in finding myself represented in my own workspace, I received mentorship even as an intern and employee. This has had an amazing effect on my resolve and motivation: even though 2020 has made the global job market feel like shaky ground to stand on, I chase my dreams with a clear head and steady feet. I hope to create future professional ecosystems that are just as representative and inclusive as those I have experienced.

Written by: Diya Radhakrishna

Diya is a student at New York University majoring in Global Liberal Studies, with a concentration in Politics, Rights and Development, and minoring in Psychology and German. Having grown up in Bangalore, India, and studied in New York, Berlin and Abu Dhabi, Diya has worked with nonprofit organizations across the globe on issues ranging from promoting gender equality, to aiding artists of a refugee background and supporting children with learning disabilities. She’s currently working with ila on projects surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion and uplifting vulnerable communities during the pandemic.

About ila:

As a multi-awarded social enterprise, our aim, at ila, is to champion a purpose-driven and socially aware workforce. Our innovative tailored programs and world-class advisory team have extensive experience working with HR professionals, leadership teams and employees to champion a diverse and gender equal culture in the workplace.

Visit ila at https://www.ilageneration.com/home to find out more about us, the work we do and how we can help you in taking the first step towards a new way of working.

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An award-winning Social Enterprise unleashing the potential of a purpose-driven generation. Visit us at https://www.ilageneration.com/ to learn more.