By Deepa Narwani

Bikram Walia, Director Human Resources, Amazon MENA, sheds light on what HR teams can do today to encourage high-performing women to stay on the path to leadership.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2022, The HR Observer spoke to Bikram Walia, Director Human Resources, Amazon MENA, who discussed how HR could lead the way in fostering an environment of empathy and inclusiveness, which can set the foundation for specific actions.

He said: “There is an urgent need to commit today to both incremental and long-term actions to deliver exponential success. To ensure a more diverse workforce of the future, HR plays a crucial role in ensuring a better gender-balanced talent pipeline; inclusive policies that promote equitable progress; and frameworks that ensure sustainable results.” Excerpts from the interview:

What are some areas where diversity and inclusion are lacking in HR today?

The workplace today is a melting pot of people from different cultures, generations, and genders. HR and business leaders recognise the importance of diversity and strive to create an inclusive environment where every employee feels respected for the value they bring to the organisation. However, diversity and inclusion are not solely an HR domain. They must be built into an organisation’s culture to be truly effective. One area of particular importance in the MENA region is gender diversity. While countries such as the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have taken ground-breaking steps to balance the gender scale, there is much to be done by both the public and private sectors. We are on a journey, and we are making progress every day.

Bikram Walia

What can HR do to create innovative policies and programmes that provide opportunities for growth for women? How can companies #BreaktheBias?

Unconscious bias exists in every one of us. The impact of unconscious bias is also exacerbated because it happens below the surface of conscious thought, making it more challenging for people to acknowledge or address it. Acknowledging this is a start; what’s also important is to follow it up with tactics and mechanisms to challenge our biases individually and as a team. We strive to make our teams self-aware and ensure that the decision-making process is objective and unbiased. In order to #BreaktheBias, this change needs to cascade across every stage of the recruitment, retention and growth cycle; and this change needs to be supported by technology so that it is scalable.

Recruitment: Nurturing women leaders begins at the recruitment phase. Organisations need to implement talent acquisition systems that widen the candidate slate to include more women. At Amazon, we go the extra mile to proactively identify women candidates to ensure a balanced pool of candidates; and set up gender-balanced hiring panels to mitigate unconscious bias in the recruitment process.

Retention: While diversity is a game-changer, inclusivity is the key. A framework of policies and processes can help remove conscious or unconscious bias to ensure an equitable, safe, and just work environment. Identifying, interrupting, and overcoming biases enables an inclusive culture where all employees feel empowered to grow and thrive.

Growth: Creating the right opportunities for women to access long-term career paths is paramount to helping them grow into leaders. HR practices like mentorship, structured development plans and learning opportunities are vital. Awareness programmes can also help to build sensitivity around bias and level the playing field for equitable growth.

Technology: Investing in technology ensures that the recruiting systems, retention, and growth process can scale. Technology is a key enabler in ensuring that the language in the organisation is inclusive, as language is an important factor in setting the culture.

What can HR do to encourage high-performing women to stay on the path to leadership?

Creating equal growth opportunities is the first step, but it is not enough to ensure that women stay on the path to leadership. At Amazon, we prioritise listening to our employees, ensuring that all voices are heard and understand their unique challenges. Increased flexibility, mentoring programmes, and leadership training help ensure that women at Amazon feel valued, engaged, and motivated to stay in the workforce and reach their full potential.

We have launched leadership development programmes (such as Pinnacle) to build an internal pipeline of women leaders in non-tech teams. This effort has scaled across seven countries. We launched Amazon Campus Mentorship Series (ACMS), an engagement programme for tech universities in Jordan, focused on enhancing the skills of women students through Amazon internships. In addition, women in leadership roles at Amazon provide much-needed inspiration to other women and are role models and mentors to nurture future women leaders within the organisation.

How is Amazon creating an environment that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive?

Amazon’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is underlined by our recent pledge to be the ‘Earth’s Best Employer’. As part of our resolve to be a great employer and a great place to work, we make every effort to ensure a diverse and inclusive workplace where every employee feels safe and empowered to be themselves, advance their careers, and aspire to leadership roles. Our inclusive leadership training and unconscious bias training programmes guide our managers to mitigate bias. Our operating mechanisms ensure that inclusion happens by design and not by chance. From recruitment to retention and nurturing leaders, we coach our teams to lead with empathy, identify, interrupt, and overcome bias, thus committing to an equitable and just environment for everyone.