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​IWD: #BreakTheBias with Naveli Ahuja-Mehra, Head of Finance at Puma Investments

This International Women's Day, I interviewed Naveli Ahuja-Mehra, Head of Finance at Puma Investments and she shared her thoughts on how we can #BreakTheBias.

We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. 

1. Which bias would you like to break about women at work in 2022?
I feel like we have started making some positive changes in terms of women in positions of leadership, but I still think there is some way to go. We are now beginning to see more women in boardrooms, almost 40% FTSE 100 boardroom roles held by women in 2021. But they are still woefully underrepresented in the c-suite with a recent EY diversity report citing that only 14% of c-suite positions are held by women. This response of female appointments in the Boards almost feels token, and I think these appointments are made to satisfy external pressures, rather than businesses truly recognising the value women can bring in leadership positions. Women have been set a higher bar to reach senior management levels, which no doubt makes them tougher and more resilient. These attributes together with a fresh perspective, diversity and empathy, make for a strong leader.  

2. Within your market / industry, what progress have you seen businesses take to progress gender equality?
There have been a number of initiatives in recent years; from female board appointments to the use of blind CV’s and inclusivity and diversity workshops. But more needs to be done to encourage female Chairs/CEO’s/CFO’s/CIO’s/CTO’s etc, especially in financial services – it's an industry that is still largely dominated by men. 

3. What is one action companies can take to further balance their talent attraction strategies?
The blind CV’s are a real improvement and can lead to greater inclusivity for females, as well as people from ethnic minorities.  

4. What is your top advice for making job descriptions more inclusive?  
Most women who aspire to hold leadership positions will possibly be juggling the needs of a growing family as well as their job. They need greater support in the workplace around flexible working arrangements, support with childcare etc, and yet so many roles are still positioned as long hours, 5 days a week in the office. I was faced with this by a firm in a recent round of interviews, where they were effectively excluding the needs of working mothers and made their lack of flexibility very clear. Employers need to think much smarter about how to make roles appealing for a wider range of people if they are genuinely trying to address this issue.

6. Do you think that more companies adopting a hybrid working pattern has helped to shift pre-conceived conceptions about flexible working for women and why? 
100%. Covid has hugely accelerated our workplace thinking on this. I was fortunate to have an accommodating line manager during Covid, who gave me the free reign to balance my work and home priorities as she appreciated the challenges I was faced with having a toddler at home, whilst pregnant with my second. We didn’t miss or extend any of our external deadlines, and the flexibility she offered allowed me to be more productive.  

We need to continue to modernise our thinking on how employees get their work done, and we need to treat them with empathy and maturity to take more responsibility themselves on this.   

7. How can organisations support their employees in raising awareness against bias?  
By talking about it as much and as often as possible. This is a mindset shift, so things aren’t going to change overnight. It’s going to take time, and we need to be persistent. 

8. What advice would you give aspiring women in the industry you work in?  
Decide what you want and go for it. Be brave enough to be the lone voice in the room. Keep trying and support other younger aspiring women along the way. You don’t have to make any lifestyle choices, you can have a family and a career if you want them both, it is possible.  

9. International Women’s Day is also about celebrating women and their achievements. Who inspires you?  
I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by some incredible women in my life – my mother, my sister and some of my closest friends are strong women. But my mother is my biggest cheerleader and takes a lot of pride in mine, and my sisters’ achievements. She herself is a home maker and gave up work after I was born yet both my parents have always championed me in progressing with my career even with a young family.  

I would also add, my journey to date would not have been the same without having the balance and open-mindedness from my husband. He has always treated my career aspirations just as important as his own and has happily stepped in to take equal responsibility at home and with our children when I’ve had my work commitments. 

10. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? 
Male dominance in a nutshell: in corporate life, in politics, everywhere. The traditional stereotypes are still too widespread and too deeply held and we need to continue to chip away at them bit by bit.