A panel of experts, during Fortune India's Most Powerful Women in the Business event today, agreed that diversity in core sectors is essential if companies want to show better financial results.

Karana Totlani, Director, Corporate Services, Sodexo India, said diversity is very important when it comes to core sectors. “It's the right thing to do. We did a study across businesses and realised teams that are diverse have 18% better performance on engagement and profit. If that's not the strongest reason to drive this agenda, then what else.”

He said diversity is not limited to just gender. “It starts right from the chairwoman. We talk about core sectors. When I see clients with a 100% male population. There are only men in meetings. Reasons like talent dearth and flexibility issues are given. But companies like Sodexo are good examples. We want to live by examples. We have hired transgenders at client locations where the client didn't think it was possible. Even the behaviour of people around changes with diversity. When we put a lady in the room or a transgender, people are much more empathetic or the quality of conversation automatically goes up."

Rohin Nadir, Associate Partner, KPMG in India, said he heads an all-women team. “Women leaders don't like to be called women leaders but leaders, which is an important thing to know. Hardest working people I know, one was my boss and the other are my colleagues, are much smarter and hard-working than me."

He said from a skilling perspective, his company does not distinguish between men and women. “I believe when women in their roles are not the primary caregivers, they go after every aspect of success very successfully.”

Mahika Shishodia, Head of Social Impact, Lodha group, said real estate is among the largest contributors to the GDP. “So as a sector, we have a greater responsibility to be inclusive. That's very important. We are conscious of that. To get a better understanding of consumers, it is important for us to have a diverse workforce. I think barriers are the same as in other sectors – social and cultural barriers. For example, the gross enrollment in higher education for men and women is equal in our country so we are typically equal. There's much more to this than just the skills gap and I think the answer lies in unlocking social and cultural barriers.”

What can be done to attract more women and other genders to the workforce? Karana Totlani says firstly, it’s important for leaders to change their mindset. “Usually, we hear reasons that women don’t work late, safety is an issue, leaves and stuff. We work with a large client, they opened a huge manufacturing plant, which is 12,000 people, 2 hours outside Bengaluru and they have a 70% diversity rate. So it's possible. If you want to do it, you can.”

For primary caregivers, that's where the challenge is, he says. “So we offered part-time employment for some of these females. You pick the timing and we'll offer you the role. The point is how seriously want to make it happen. Flexi hour is the solution.”

For blue colour workers, Mahika says, through the 'Unnati' programme, her company is trying to develop a plan where work goes to women rather than another way around. “Our economy and the way we work needs to be redesigned. We are developing workspaces near residential hubs. Where employers are hiring more women, and we are giving such places at high discounts to employers. Along with the space, we are helping women fill the skill gaps. So skills and also support them in childcare, which is seen as women’s responsibility in our country.”

She says in construction, diversity is low because of cultural factors, but in management, most departments have equal men and women.

Rohit Nadir, talking about STEM as a solution to end diversity issues, said a lot of people say women have a natural tendency towards multi-tasking or some other skills. “It pigeonholes the gender. Just put that aside. There is an acute skill shortage across India. We are looking at ways to fill it.”

He said the good thing is people have become incredibly hybrid. “Ability to offer remote roles has dramatically allowed us to tap a larger pool of smart talent. The other part of this is the investment in STEM. It is considered a classical male domain. However, in a 2019 study done in nordic countries, which are the most egalitarian in terms of social construct, it was found that there is not a lot of cross-pollination happening between classic male role or female sectors. Why is it still the factor? This throws questions what are the choices people make. People are still thinking of certain sectors as male and female-oriented.”

He said research is very clear that diversity does lead to better financial results. “But hiring diverse talent is not enough. You have to give them space on the table. Research on high-performing teams indicates its psychological safety, which is the ability to offer of view without fear of repercussions."

Totlani adds that more than STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), his company are focussing on apprenticeship. Through this, people get the right training, they have career options to work in different roles. “This is the start of a career, we are taking people, giving them jobs they never thought about. Our focus is to have more naps. We have 1,000 naps, and 10% of the workforce should be apprenticeship.”

Mahika says her company wants to focus on what happens after skilling. “One of the leading banks did a study they developed an all-woman data office and the attrition rate dipped significantly. Focus is much more on post-skilling.”

Karan, on the gig economy, says his company looks more part-time than ‘gig’. “If you offer part-time opportunities, especially to women, diversity goes up quite high. Covid taught us a lot of things.”

Rohin says as a concept, ‘gig’ works well but be careful when it comes to having a cultural impact across organisations. “(But) better gig than nothing. Flexibility is the game-changer.”

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