Celebrating International Women’s Day at Sitel Group®
To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, we sat down with four female Sitel Group® leaders.
To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, we sat down with four female Sitel Group® leaders. These women, each from a different corner of the globe, lead by example and actively advocate for equality. In the third installment of our Listen to Lead & Learn series, we asked them to discuss how the events of the past 12 months have impacted women around the world and what they believe we need to do to challenge the status quo.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #ChooseToChallenge. This theme is based upon the thought that from challenge comes change, and 2020 was certainly a challenging year for all. So, let’s ‘choose to challenge’ to help forge a gender-equal world.
Watch the full conversation below:
When asked what impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on these women, their responses were aligned.
“I think it has been a hard time for everyone,” begins Eyra Ruiz, Senior Manager, HR, Sitel® Nicaragua, who is based in Managua. “But it’s made me more in touch, not just with myself, but with others. It’s made us more vulnerable and I think this vulnerability has been important in getting through the challenge of COVID-19.”
Vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. A resistant mindset or culture is never open to change or to understanding a different perspective. When we’re vulnerable as individuals and as an organization, we’re more empathetic – a vital step on the road to equality. As internationalwomensday.com states, “a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.”
“Absolutely,” agrees Maria Harju, Head of Account Management – EMEA, Sitel Group, who is based Brussels, Belgium. “It’s made us more conscious of the changes to the realities of people’s lives.”
A Sense of Solidarity
In a world where we live in our own protected digital bubbles, the COVID-19 pandemic removed all barriers that prevent us from seeing the world through other people’s eyes or realizing that whatever we do, and wherever we live, we are all in this together.
“It has definitely brought us all closer together,” adds Deb Renken, VP, IT Customer Success, Sitel Group, who is based in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. “It has changed the whole world and I’m proud we put safety first.”
This rapidly growing sense of unity is one reason why, despite the impact of COVID-19, the global economy is already showing early signs of recovery with growth, particularly across the U.S. and China, expected to accelerate towards the end of 2021. IHS Markit forecasts that following a 4.2% decline in 2020, the global GDP is expected to increase by 4.6% over the course of this year.
COVID-19 is Gender Biased
However, this positive outlook is somewhat tempered by a McKinsey report highlighting how the pandemic had a disproportionately negative impact on women. Even though women only represent around 40% of the world’s paid workforce, they lost more than half of all jobs that disappeared in the pandemic.
In countries such as India, the majority of women who work are employed in the informal economy.
“Here, around 40% of women and girls haven’t even had access to education,” states Falguni Thakkar, Sr. Manager, Sales & Solutions, Sitel India, who is based in Hyderabad. “I see every day how the pandemic has hit these women. I challenge this by uplifting other women with random acts of kindness. I see empowering and helping women as a privilege.”
For example, in the U.S., the majority of college graduates are women. In terms of academic attainment, women left men behind back in 2007 and currently, women graduate with 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 59% of master’s degrees and 53% of doctorates. Yet, it took until August 2019 for women to attain professional parity – that was the moment when women represented 50% of America’s 58.8 million-strong college-educated workforce.
The pandemic already pushed more college-educated U.S. women than men out of the workforce. One of the reasons is employment clustering. In the U.S. (and beyond), women are overrepresented in industries such as travel and tourism, retail, the arts and recreation (roles where face-to-face interaction is crucial and the roles that have been the hardest hit in the wake of the pandemic). At the same time, women are underrepresented in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – the fastest-growing and most COVID-insulated professions.
This means, even though 53% of our own workforce at Sitel Group – including 44% of managers – are female, plus the fact we apply a tech-driven unbiased recruitment process, women like Deb Renken, who holds one of Sitel Group’s highest technology positions, is a statistical outlier.
Renken sees herself as anything but an anomaly. “I picked a career I was passionate about,” she says. “One where my curiosity was peaked enough for me to keep wanting to learn and grow.”
Women Are Suited to STEM
There is nothing biological holding women back from pursing a STEM career. In the U.S., by the time children reach eighth grade, girls have a five-point lead over boys in technology and engineering.
However, what boys lack in ability they often make up for in confidence and self-belief. Unfortunately, when it comes to STEM subjects, the education system still suffers from unconscious bias. Teachers have lower expectations of girls’ capabilities in these areas and, in turn, erodes girls’ confidence and desire to pursue these subjects. This lack of positive reinforcement means it’s still challenging to identify, attract and retain female talent. In 2018, just 19% of computer and information science graduates were women.
Generally, girls that go on to be women working in the STEM industries do so because of growing up in an environment where equality is actively reinforced, preconceptions countered and, crucially, where they have had a direct exposure to the practical application of the related skills or capabilities. For example, girls that get into video games at an early age are four times more likely to take up programming or coding as a career than girls that don’t play video games.
Renken may have begun her career as an IT quality assurance analyst, but she didn’t realize it was possible to follow a career path that combined the best elements of technology with human understanding until she took a short-term position as an outbound contact center agent (after relocating to a new city).
“Because of this contact center experience, Sitel Group hired me as a Product Development Analyst back in 1994,” she remembers. “This position triggered my excitement for IT. The passion for what you do should cancel out any gender-based concerns. The passion will give you the energy to propel yourself forward.”
Finding Ways to Flex
In addition to highlighting occupational under- and over-representation, COVID-19 revealed society’s overreliance on women both in the home and the workplace at a time where structural inequalities in many aspects of modern living are still alive and well. Women are still, by and large, primary caregivers, responsible for domestic management and the majority of childcare.
“It’s become a fine balance of availability and predictability,” explains Harju. “I was already a working [mother] and used to leading virtual teams. I didn’t need to make the transition to work from home in my own work, but I knew many others did. I was more conscious of the impact this had for people around me and how to I needed to adjust to be able to carefully read how other people were adjusting. Also, different demands have been made of me as a mother and in the household, because of COVID. This requires even more balancing with availability and my professional role. You have to ask yourself: how are you going to flex? The key is being able to predict as much as possible, to be able to be flexible for both home and work.”
This work-life balance conundrum, even pre-pandemic, is often an issue exclusive to working mothers in the workforce, a problem that persists beyond equality. However, UN data shows that the division of unpaid labor that was already unevenly split between mothers and fathers has widened further over the course of 2020, leading the organization to claim COVID-19 has potentially set back women’s equality by 25 years.
Everyone Wants Work-Life Balance
And yet, flexibility and space to breathe are just as important for all U.S. adults in the labor force. Over half of all U.S. parents working from home during 2020 said that due to increased domestic responsibilities being able to do their jobs had become more difficult – compared to 20% of adults without children at home.
When polled by the Pew Research Center in 2018, over 70% of both professional men and women put having the flexibility to balance work and their private lives as the biggest factor in choosing a job. It came above salary, opportunities for career progression and doing something meaningful.
The latest studies relating to remote and flexible working find that pre-COVID-19, just 20% of U.S. adults worked from home all or most of the time. This figure has climbed steeply to 71% and now, as restrictions begin to lift and a vaccine is rolling out, 54% say they want to continue working from home because of the increased flexibility it offers.
“I think this sense of equality is a process we work towards together, something we acquire,” Thakkar says. “We shouldn’t expect that someone is going to hand it to us. For me equality is realizing we are in this together.”
Will This Unity Become Undone?
A concern remains that once we return to a new normal, this solidarity will be forgotten and, in many cases, women will have to start again in the sense of breaking back through glass ceilings with fewer tools at their disposal. More women will be competing against each other for fewer jobs.
“I think there will be more competition [for roles],” agrees Ruiz. “The most important thing is individuality – focusing on the things that make you you. So be sure of what you can bring to the table, especially now, that will make a difference.”
There is also a shared concern that women may revert to being overly ‘present’ – never saying ‘no’ – when asked to take on even more work because of this competition, or feeling they have to return to doing more than others to be perceived as equal.
“It’s not about saying ‘no’,” explains Harju. “It’s about understanding why you are saying ‘yes’. If you have a good leader, someone who has gone from competence to competence to be in their position, it will give you the confidence.”
“It’s about knowing yourself and your boundaries,” adds Renken. “Don’t feel guilty for saying ‘no.’ Sometimes you have personal or family things going on and you can’t always say yes; but when you have the time and knowledge, you should absolutely say yes and jump in and help.”
Renken is hopeful that the time away from the traditional workplace and the routines that can put us on autopilot have given us more time to reflect personally and professionally – something that could be key to restarting a career or making an occupational decision.
“Goals shouldn’t stop because of a pandemic. They should be reevaluated,” she says. “COVID-19 has taken us out of our comfort zones, but that’s how we grow personally and professionally. We should be looking to be challenged.”
New People Need New Processes
When reflecting on this last year, 2020 was a source of realization and discovery. People have surprised themselves and others by their actions and behavior during COVID-19.
“I’ve seen so many people come to life this year which is amazing,” says Harju. “People who were often quiet or introverted in the office have begun to shine in different ways and become nearly completely different people because they’ve made the change to working from home.”
The pandemic has also raised serious questions about traditional approaches and processes related to work. Many of the pre-pandemic ways of doing things are no longer fit for purpose. Whether that’s on-site meetings, using analog channels for recruitment, or evaluating a person’s performance based on time spent at their desk.
According to Harju, this should force organizations to start thinking differently about how they engage with these new processes, but, more importantly, how they engage with their people.
“We have to shape leadership around these new processes,” she says. “We need to start selecting people based on how they can absorb these changes and help a company grow – not just on existing experience. There is a tendency to promote people or build teams in order to achieve quick wins. What happens when those wins run out?”
Agents of Change
Each of these women agree that to move forward, we need change advocates in positions of responsibility. People who don’t think about being top-down or that focus on quotas.
“These types of people have been in their element over the last year,” remarks Ruiz. “These people can improve the way we work and make us all stronger.”
There is also the question of how to restart this upward momentum women were finally enjoying before it stalled. For instance, although most people who work for Sitel Group are female, we still haven’t achieved a 50/50 split in senior positions. Over the last year, we managed to fill over 1,500 positions through internal promotion rather than recruitment, but is anything missing from this approach?
“I was lucky I had a mentor when I joined Sitel Group,” remembers Harju. This experience gave her the confidence to, as she describes it, live her life ‘with intent.’ But more importantly, it opened her senses to the people she manages so she knows how to communicate with them and knows what’s too much to ask of them.
Leaders need to be both inclusive and inspiring. Often, the reason why someone passes up the opportunity of a more senior role is a question of confidence or of believing they don’t have the required experience.
“This is why we have to be transparent. We have to share our own life lessons,” says Renken. “We need to watch out for our teams and give them the confidence to ask questions.”
Ruiz would take it further. “We have an obligation to challenge others,” she says. “We should be taking on mentorships. We need people to feel comfortable being their authentic selves.”
Visit voices.sitel.com to read more stories from real people from Sitel Group.