Women’s Conference Homes in on Workplace Gender Equity




Indo American Community Services (IACS) hosted its fifth South Asian Women’s conference here at the Marriott, April 26. Focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment, the hall was packed with leaders, all women, of corporations, community development organizations, woman-owned enterprises and those seeking to build connections. Three exhibitors showcased their respective businesses and products outside.

Emcee Saily Joshi and Chandini Duvvuri respectively kicked off the event and introduced the three panelists from distinct backgrounds: Amy Best, SVP human resources, Exelon;  K. Sujata, CEO and President, Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW); and Sarita Rao, President AT&T Wi-Fi services. Each presented their educational, family, career background, and challenges faced in maintaining work-life balance. Everyone acknowledged the gender-based wage disparities in the male dominated corporate and business world.

Invoking predictions of wage disparity leveling out by 2079, 2065 for Illinois, Sujata said “the irony is that the majority of us will not live to see that day!” Solutions include on the job opportunities to boost confidence in matching men, she said, listing CFW initiatives to help women, who already contribute to both household prosperity and the corporate bottom line. She dwelt on the equitable distribution of home responsibilities, for example her husband doing the cooking because of her long work hours. She insisted on treating daughters and sons equally, also by way of expectations and conditioning.

Best spoke of taking calculated even unpopular risks, how she began her career by moving and adjusting to a new environment without impacting her family. A key factor is communication of success, need for growth, support, mentoring and other such issues. Unless women speak up they cannot progress, she said, emphasizing teamwork, shared credit, transparency, innovative solutions, agility, resilience, willingness to learn with a good sense of humor. “The right to speak is earned rather than coming with the job title.” She warned against working in silos and too many unproductive meetings. Women need mentors and also (behind-the-scenes) sponsors in the workplace.

Recounting her cross-functional role at AT&T in a deadline-driven and highly stressful merger and acquisition project, Rao shared three takeaways: be yourself, develop your own personality, earn the respect of colleagues by expressing well-researched opinions fearlessly; think diversely, working across groups to expand horizons; and thank collaborators and supporters in a personalized (e.g., handwritten) manner. Rao sees a great need for support groups, community organizations and networking groups such as IACS.

The Q&A revealed that South Asian women, several of whom intervened with a strong immigrant accent, a doubly disadvantaged. Moreover, their priorities are not the same, as often family and children come first. They were assured that in addition to compensation grades available in the public domain, Illinois law allows requesting salary information to ensure equity. Hispanic and Black workers seem to have more community support because Indians, as late comers, are more politically divided, even by their temples.

Niketa Jhaveri, CEO and co-founder of Brave Champs presented her entertaining monopoly-like game that helps children identify and appreciate the range of available professions and prepare for their future. Not integrated with any smartphone app, the deliberately gadget-free Brave Champs is targeting schools and especially children with special needs.

Deepa Salem is founder and CEO of WotNow, a free smartphone app that synchronizes select events from preferred organizations within a unified calendar interface. About 500 Chicagoland organizations have already partnered to push such notifications to WotNow users.

Artist Manvee Vaid is founder and curator of Deccan Footprints, an online catalogue that exhibits and sells the work of contemporary and folk artists in living in India at U.S. art galleries. Profit, Vaid said, is currently not her motive given the investment required and costs of coordination and logistics.

IACS president Sreenivas Katragadda gave the vote of thanks. Panelists were presented mementos by sponsor Loment CEO Vekat Majeti. Other sponsors included Grainger, ITW and L&T Infotech.