PULSE: Is Gender Promotion and Executive Performance Fair Play?

Is Gender Promotion and Executive Performance Fair Play?


Originated in the 1980s, the term “glass ceiling” still holds when it comes to promoting women to top management positions – especially in IT and outsourcing.

While progress has been made over the past four decades in cracking and even breaking the ceiling, there’s still more work to be done to level the playing field and ensure women in the workplace are given equal voice, compensation and recognition for their work.

No one knows this better than women leaders who have risen through the ranks and have been recognized by IAOP and HCL Technologies as “Unstoppable Women.” IAOP gathered these women to address hard-hitting questions about gender equality in a special Red Ladders Conversations webinar moderated by CEO Debi Hamill.

IAOP has been a pioneer in advancing women empowerment in this industry since it presented the findings of its first women empowerment survey conducted in partnership with Avasant and the Avasant Foundation at OWS 2017.

Since then, it launched the Women Empowerment and Leadership Diversity Chapter and most recently, broadened its focus and reach by establishing the new Center for Social Impact, which addresses all areas of social impact, including diversity.

For the past few years, IAOP and HCL have recognized high-performing and high-potential women leaders with the Red Ladder Women in Outsourcing Awards and Unstoppable Women list. For this year’s winners, see related story. 

Hamill talked with the esteemed expert panel about their perspectives on these important issues that increasingly are coming to the limelight in organizations. Sharing their thoughts were: Shimona Chadha, Vice President, Marketing, HCL Technologies, head of the Red Ladder Women judging panel; Maura Hudson, COP, Senior Vice President, Colliers International, Unstoppable Women 2022; Chitra Rajeshwari, Executive Director Avasant Foundation, Principal and Practice Lead, Global Development, Avasant, Unstoppable Women 2022; and Ves Kjenstad, Vice President, IT Operations, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Unstoppable Women 2022.

Debi: In your experience, why do you think the glass ceiling has existed for this long and why has it taken this much time and effort to break it?

Chitra: The term glass ceiling was coined back in the 1980s. It’s often the result of unconscious bias. It’s instinctive – you have underlying beliefs about age, ethnicity and sexuality. More than half of women in technology lead at a midpoint level. They are not getting promotions, salaries and recognition at the same rate as men, hence the glass ceiling. We’re starting to see a lot of women who have cracked it and gone further. In 2021, there were two women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Women are making strides but there’s still a lot to be done.

Ves: Change happens at all levels so I ask what role can I play. I look to hire phenomenal women and I ask myself if I could work for them as my future manager. If the answer is yes, I will hire her and give her training opportunities to grow. When I negotiate with providers and they come into the room with only males, I’ll remind them and say, “there’s no gender diversity around this room, tell me about your diversity program.” When I have other phenomenal women on the leadership team, I support them and some will go further than me. I want them to be more successful because that’s how we get to the glass ceiling. We have a role to play in how we hire and how we support each other. And when we are in the position of the customer, call out the vendor and tell them if they are not diverse and hold them accountable.     

Shimona – We look at diversity more holistically. We look at women of color, women who belong to the LGBTQ community and the list keeps going. It’s an issue of accountability. In a lot of other different areas that are business and profitability related, people stand up and take accountability. The time has come in DEI that companies need to commit to a goal and deliver on that goal.

Maura – A common theme is speaking up and taking the position we hold in organizations. Where we have been able to move higher, bring a hand down and help others and listen and learn and show where that value is and say something about it. Find the solution together in supplier relationships so it’s what are we going to do together. Find specific measurable ways that your organization can improve in all diversity categories. Find growth areas for others and speak up for them.  

Debi – Studies have shown there have been many gains but they haven’t been sustainable gains. Women are promoted at far lower rates. A study found for every 100 men promoted, only 85 women were promoted. Do you think companies can demonstrate sustained progress at senior levels?

Maura – I think so and companies that put a stake in the ground to be accountable to that goal are going to make sure they create that opportunity. At Colliers, we established a global goal to have 40 percent of our employees be female overall and in manager and above roles in the next three years and we’re not that far off. When companies track progress against the standard, looking at their environmental, social and governance programming, they’ll going to be able to achieve it. Progress should be transparent and funded to ensure its success.

Ves – We also have established accountability. It’s easy for gains to be lost. At Bristol Myers, we have established goals to achieve gender parity and we are on track. The senior leadership team has now achieved gender parity. The board has achieved its diversity goals and it is reported on. As managers, we have been given measurable goals for diversity and other underrepresented groups. If other companies are doing the same thing, we can create momentum across companies and industries and make a culture change.    

Shimona – Women would wear black suits because they wanted to fit in and behave like other men in the corporate world. Then companies started to be more accommodating to women and have separate career tracks. A lot of flexibility was given to women. There were a lot of fast-track promotions for women. Companies started celebrating women and recognizing they have unique skill sets that should be leveraged. What’s happening is companies are not leveling the playing field. They are trying to be equitable but they are not taking care of the inherent biases and thought processes that have been built into the organization that were built by men for men. A lot of biases still exist. While we are giving women a seat at the table, we still aren’t giving them a voice and their voices aren’t being heard. I feel we should make small incremental steps – diagnose to understand the problem and whether it has existed for years. Have a conversation, hear from the employees and the managers, clients and partners to understand what other companies are doing and then make incremental changes. It’s about making a whole change in the structural organization and the partners in the organization. 

Chitra: Accountability has to be in our own organizations. At Avasant, I see the change. We’re shooting right up. By June, we’ll be 50 percent women in the organization. We look at salary bands to make sure men and women are paid the same. In hiring, we assure one is a woman. We are consciously making sure that change happens. I think organizations should look internally and externally. It has to be both ways. With COVID, there have been a lot of eye-openers. There’s a lot of burnout and overall stress with women working, mothers, teaching children at home, you’re the doctor, lunch maker, you’re everything and the whole package. So, a lot of women are leaving the workforce and these are the new issues we are facing.

Debi – The pandemic has left women increasingly more burned out than men. What suggestions would you have for companies to retain and improve morale of female employees?

Maura – With COVID, we all have experienced a level playing field of going back to an office environment. People are feeling shell-shocked going back to the office after two years of working remotely. A lot of the services working women rely on – schools, daycare facilities and other programs to support the growth and development of their children – have been impacted by the pandemic. There’s going to be transition and burnout. Companies should survey and develop programs that allow employees to be heard and create environments where managers are taught how to handle these issues and provide flexibility as we transition to the ‘new normal.’ Companies are honestly and authentically recognizing that and giving managers the flexibility to adjust.     

Debi – A lot of family responsibility fell on women during the pandemic. When it comes to accommodating family responsibility, studies show women risk losing wages, benefits and opportunities for advancement. What best practices and policies should employers set in place to provide equal opportunities?

Maura – Flexibility set with individual managers tend to provide a good starting point for support. More caregivers (also fathers, grandparents and extended family) can share experiences. We have a working parent’s group that provides a support mechanism. It balances the scales for moms who are expected to do a lot more than their jobs. It creates empowerment opportunities for them. Building an inclusive culture as a foundation strengthens the voices and opportunities.

Ves – We have the same policy for everyone. We have decided to do a hybrid work environment are made collaboration a priority.  We have policies for work-life balance, short-term leave, looking after elderly parents/sick children, employee assistance programs, daycare, emergency care for women and also men with children.  

Shimona – Flexibility has become our DNA. We are very comfortable having calls with someone who has a child on their lap. You can hire people from any geography and even timing is no longer a challenge. Support systems are coming back. It’s a good time for women to come back to the corporate world.

Debi – Some studies suggest blind screening practices will increase women’s chances of getting a job. What is your opinion on this and what other measures do companies need to include and elevate women for professional success? 

Chitra – With blind hiring, opportunities are there for people who might get disqualified. You want the right people in the organization so a blind process can be good. Some companies are having employees apply without their name and sex and using a generic email. Companies like ours go out of our way because we want women to join our organization and this industry, especially in IT and outsourcing, which is still male-dominated. You have to be careful you’re not just doing it to check boxes. Hiring managers need to be trained to make sure they are hiring on merit.  

Shimona – Blind screening might be difficult when hiring for a culture fit. We make sure we have diverse candidates. We want to hire people based on merit. We want to ensure we have a level playing field and have a diverse panel of candidates. I don’t want a great future in the organization because I’m a woman. Absolutely not. I want a great future in the organization because I’m a capable leader.  Companies shouldn’t make assumptions such as women don’t want to travel. That’s a question we should ask the candidate and let them make the decision. The panel doesn’t have the right to decide on behalf of the candidate.

Debi – A recent study found a staggering 68 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in some form. Out of these, 70 percent reported experiencing them in the workplace. The survey found rather than reporting the incidents, women chose to quit their jobs. How can industry leaders assure women that their organizations will address the issue and establish their trust with senior leadership?

Maura – We have mothers, sisters and friends who have told stories of this happening. There are examples where microaggressions can turn into an outright sexual harassment situation. I think it starts with recognizing and calling out microaggressions. Women who encounter these aggressions are more likely to leave the workplace and have their capabilities challenged. This is particularly the case when there’s not enough diversity and women feel there are the only ones in the room and aren’t able to express their situation effectively. The “me too” movement that went viral in 2017 has helped strengthen the voices of those harassed. The broader movement has created more empowerment to speak out about microaggressions such as appearance that are not pertinent to work on a day-to-day basis. A recently passed law said companies cannot use arbitration as part of an employment agreement when sexual harassment or assault is involved. Companies need to look at unconscious bias and recognize microaggressions.   

Shimona – We have a zero-tolerance policy. It’s important to train people about appropriate/inappropriate workplace behavior and ramifications, and provide support so know who to reach out to if there is an issue. And then they need to have confidence the organization will stand behind them.

Debi – At our first OWS in 1998, a remember an women executive from Xerox who said “if we don’t support each other, no one else will.” It’s important to talk about that more. You all do this as Unstoppable Women. From your perspective of senior industry leaders, how important is the role of leadership in building opportunities and what can leaders do to send a powerful message to the rest of the organization?

Shimona – When I mentor and coach women, I want them to stand on their own two feet and fight for what’s right for them. I want them to be their strongest proponent and sponsor within the organization. As a senior leader, I always try to hear the voices and understand the nuances of being a woman. We call if out if people aren’t getting the right recognition and not being heard. We try to level the playing field and raise red flags. As women, we don’t speak up and negotiate for salaries. These are areas where women need to get groomed in that direction.

Ves – Speak up and be prepared for disappointment because you don’t always get what you want. You have to be skilled at it and hone in on that skill and continue to do that. Hire and scout for the best talent. Sometimes women don’t know they have talent after coming back from maternity leave. Tell them that they can be successful after having children. Bring them in and give them opportunities, sponsors and career dialogues. Help orchestrate their career path so they land where they want to be and you help move them along. 

Maura – It’s important to speak up but also to listen and to give back. I’ve been fortunate to be part of several mentor organizations for up-and-coming students, including the Global Mentoring Initiative (GMI). By taking on those roles, I also grow. There’s a term called being a “servant leader” – it’s to serve and give back. I think the opportunity to mentor up-and-coming talent has really opened my eyes to new ways to lead, and help create confidence. Be the CEO of yourself. Figure out what it takes to be that boss of yourself - What are your talents and what do you want to contribute in the world? This elevates voices and learned experiences and different perspectives of women, LGBTQ, black professionals, Asian Americans and all lived environments because that’s what will make our companies more successful. The studies clearly show that. 

Exceptional Women Recognized with Red Ladder Awards

In partnership with IAOP, the spirit and achievements of female leaders were recognized with the prestigious HCL Red Ladder - Women in Outsourcing Awards.

Shimona Chadha, HCL, vice president of marketing, said these women have stood up to every challenge to lead their teams, redefine work and deliver excellence. 

“They are the visionaries who inspired countless others to outperform themselves in their respective fields and outside it,” she said.

This year’s HCL Red Ladder winners are:

• Women Empowering Women – recognizes the indomitable spirit of an individual who went above and beyond to make their organization more inclusive:  Hui Wu-Curtis, COO, SupportU

“In the past few years we have seen COVID disproportionally impact women in the workforce so more than ever we need to step forward to continue our commitment and support to gender diversity and equality,” she said.

• Leadership in Innovation during the Pandemic: Sona Patel, Outsourcing Advisor, Deloitte

“We are all aware of how the pandemic disrupted the functioning of our society,” Chadha said. However, the extraordinary stood out during these extraordinary circumstances. They came up with otherwise unthinkable ideas to unlock opportunities beyond the horizon.”

Patel said the pandemic has pushed the boundaries of how traditional sourcing transactions take place to a paramount focus on delivering value through innovation.

“These past two years have taught me with a great team, good clients and trusted vendors, you can make an impact, regardless of where you do it from,” Patel said.

Unstoppable Women 2022

Based on the judging committee’s scoring, the following 20 women were recognized on the Unstoppable Women List for making a remarkable impact with their leadership, dedication and passion.

  • Aeysha Coetzee, Head of Recruitment, Sigma Connected
  • Anita Karlsson-Dion, Managing Partner, IBM
  • Candice Roberts, CEO, CallForce Outsourcing Specialists
  • Chitra Rajeshwari, Executive Director and Principal, Avasant Foundation
  • Constance Simmons, Team Leader, Sigma Connected
  • Elena Kozhemyakina, Managing Partner, BLS
  • Janice Salchert, Senior Partner, IBM
  • Lina Jaramillo, General Manager, Perficient Latin America
  • Marie Stangl, Associate Vice President - Technology Business Operations, Ascension
  • Maura Hudson, Head of Brand Insights & Innovation Group, Colliers
  • Melanie Prestridge, Partner, Advisory & Transformation, West Monroe
  • Olexsandra Dudka, Software Architect, Sigma Software
  • Olga Skydan, Senior Vice President, Corporate Services, Miratech
  • Sandra Fahmy, HR Director, RAYA CX
  • Saskia Hill, CEO, MCS Debt Recovery/Connect BPS
  • Shirin Alipanah, Senior Director, Avasant LLC
  • Smita Bhatnagar, Director, Affirm Inc
  • Swapna Kaswa, Technical Architect Manager, Verizon
  • Uma Ganesh, Chairperson, Global Talent Track
  • Ves Kjenstad, Vice President, IT Operations, Bristol - Myers Squibb

About the Winners:

Hui Wu-Curtis specializes in contact centers operations. She has over 20-years of experience in leadership roles across multiple industries including hospitality, utility, financial services, telecommunications, and healthcare. She has served for both small to large global organizations covering sales and support in 65 countries and is an active speaker at numerous customer service/experience conferences. Wu-Curtis received the 2021 Silver Globee Award for Executive Excellence/Influencer of the year; is listed in CIOLook’s Top 10 Businesswomen to admire in 2021; in Nearshore America’s Top 20 Social Media influencers; and was CCW’s 2017 Customer Experience Leader of the Year.

Sona Patel is an experienced consultant at Deloitte Consulting’s Strategy and Operations (S&O) practice. Her focus is primarily in IT Outsourcing and Shared Services. She has experience in outsourcing contract assessment, vendor selection, IT due diligence and benchmarking across various industries. Patel has 3-plus years of industry experience in Insurance and Application Management Services. She has a solid technology background and is skilled in process improvement, business process mapping and has worked through every phase of the Software Development Lifecycle model.



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