Quest Alliance is an organization which practices what it preaches to the world. One of the core areas of focus for the organization over the last year was to improve our work on gender. To make it a more meaningful focus, we started with the creation of a gender strategy for the organization. This focused on gender not just in the programs we deliver, but also how we practice gender equity as a whole organization.
When this process began in June 2016 we had a ratio of fewer than 30% of female staff to male across the entire organization. Most of these women were based out of our head office in Bangalore, while the field locations showed a much more skewed gender ratio – some of our field locations had 12 staff members, only one of whom was a women.
What were the strategies we used to help address this gender gap?
Retention of female staff
It is important to acknowledge that getting women into the workplace is not enough. Helping them to stay is equally or more important. Women face lot of challenges in the workplace, and therefore the support system needs to be robust.
One key moment in the career journey of many female employees is the transition to motherhood. We therefore made our maternity leave policy more flexible and accommodative. Female staff who are pregnant are given an option to work from home during their critical pregnancy period. This is made optional, and staff are able to take it if they need or want to, but are not required to. This allows colleagues to comfortably manage their pregnancy without having any anxiety about losing out on promotions due to absence from work for a prolonged period.
We give six months of paid maternity leave, and to help colleagues return to work easily, we also give returning mothers the choice to work from home for a certain period. This allows staff who do not have a support system in place to take care of their child well. Staff who have children younger than five years of age are enabled to bring their child with them for workshops or conferences hosted internally, if they wish. We also provide free accommodation and food for a caretaker to accompany the child. This has allowed many of our female staff to participate in those events without fear or hesitation. Our philosophy is that we strongly believe in altering the situation to help our employees, rather than expecting them to alter things for us.
Infrastructure within the organization
We have an anti sexual harassment committee in place, and it takes preventive measures as well as stringent measures to address any issues on sexual harassment raised. This is within the government POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Work Place) framework, which was put in place to help employees understand what constitutes sexual harassment and voice any concerns without fear of retribution.
Much of our work requires staff to travel alone to new places, where we do not have a field office. To make this easier we have identified safe places to stay, and these are shared with all employees. Feedback is sought from employees on a periodic basis to ensure that this list serves its purpose. Compromising safety over cost is not an option – we have a flat policy in place which allows staff to make choices on where they stay and what mode of transport they choose to travel to ensure safety and wellbeing.
We also conduct gender sensitisation sessions with all staff and with program teams, which has helped staff to have open and honest conversations around gender. Flexible working hours for all staff help colleagues to balance home and work effectively. As we continue to develop our gender strategy more of these activities are planned.
Getting more female staff onboard in conservative cities and villages
Quest took a conscious effort to increase the number of female employees in the more conservative cities and villages that we work in. The recruitment process focused on advertising in cities in which women had more access, our staff were encouraged to share contacts from their networks, and we also advertised positions where we encouraged only women candidates to apply. This does not mean that we underestimated what men could do, but to create equity we recognized that we needed to take some measures which would bring equally qualified women into the team.
One of the other things we considered during our recruitment drive was the need to meet the needs of our candidates. To give a specific example, we had a candidate who had an eight-month-old child and no support system, who was a very good fit for the role. She had two requirements in order to join us: she wanted to work predominantly from home, and did not want to travel for long durations of time. We accommodated her requests. She is very happy, and we are also very happy because she is doing amazing work, and in both the program and the organization as a whole. Perhaps if we had taken a more traditional approach we would have lost our opportunity to hire a splendid candidate.
50% of Quests leadership team consists of women, making women active decision makers within the organization and positive role models for many of the staff. A new recruit recently said that she is very impressed with the leadership team and in particular the women leading from the front. She wants to become like them in the future.
We have many female staff who have grown in their career at Quest, and this has created the aspiration for many other female staff members to stay in the organization and to grow their own careers. In a recent team meeting, we invited General Manager Nikita Bengani, Quest’s first female employee, who has been with the company for nine years, to share her career journey with the entire team, to raise awareness of these success stories.
Challenging gender stereotypes
This journey has also been about challenging our stereotypes as an organization. For example, in Samastipur, Bihar, which is the focus of our Anandshala program, the position of Program Officer requires a lot of travel to the field, and many team members operated under the assumption that women would not be comfortable with that, or that we would have to make special concessions for women so that they were able to travel safely. This was all proven wrong when we appointed women for these positions who were supremely confident about traveling alone in the field, and are now doing a great job of it as well.
Something that a State Head said during the annual staff meet stays with me: “not even once we have thought that this is something which men should do or women should do, we are just doing our duty and we do not care about our sexual identity.”
The road ahead
Though we have reached a level where there is gender balance in the organization, we need to sustain it. We also have a duty to contribute externally through our programs on education and employment, and will be writing more on that as our work continues.
In order to further to educate our staff on gender, we should understand what more needs to be done. That involves becoming more inward looking, and recognizing that this is a long term process which requires us to start with challenging our own biases within teams and organizations. It’s not going to be an easy ride – this process is about asking the hard questions and demonstrating commitment at all times and at all levels.
One way we can introspect and grow is to to learn from the stories and best practices of other organizations. We hope that writing this can start meaningful conversations to further that process.
Priyanthi Sylvia R, Operations Lead, Quest Alliance