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New Emerging Roles for more Women to Join the C-suite: Megha Khanduja

Megha Khanduja, senior manager for leadership hiring at Optum Global Solutions, can best be described as passionate, self-aware and brave. She is someone who not only survives in uncertainty but in fact thrives in the unknown. She isn’t one to overthink a move if it feels right to her. This is exactly the kind of attitude that allowed her to make a significant lateral move later on in her career, after reaching a comfortable position in her former role. Most people would have held tight to their seat that they spent years building, but Megha didn’t bat an eye lid to give up on her seat and take up the challenge to build herself a new one from scratch. To make this possible, she even took up a yearlong stint in Dubai when her son was only five years old, with the support of her husband and in-laws holding fort for her at home, while she conquered new territories.

Purpose Over Reward:

A brave lateral move like the one she made can only be possible for someone when their motivation for their job comes largely from the work itself and not from the titles or money associated with it. Since Megha’s drive primarily comes from the work she does, the idea of change excites her instead of terrifying her like it does with most. She is able to keep an open mind to new ideas and perspectives and this flexibility of her mind and her burning desire for continued learning and development is what we think makes her an impeccable leader. In her personal life, she has taken up Vedic chanting and confesses to have experienced tremendous spiritual growth over the last years. And she admits that this personal growth has directly contributed to her professional journey.

Now, the cynical side in all of us may think that the ability to put one’s satisfaction from work above the monetary rewards we reap, is a privilege. And while that is true in a lot of cases, we tend to set the bar to be able to prioritise differently too high, almost intentionally making it unreachable. Megha, did not have a financially cushioned childhood. In fact, the financial instability in her household had her enter the workforce via part times jobs in college very early on in her life. It thus isn’t the question of money not being important to her. It simply is about defining how much does one need and how you intend to prioritise. For Megha, she only asks that she always have enough to fulfil her responsibilities to herself and to her family. And thus, as long as that is something she is able to do, her focus lies on the work itself instead of the perks.

As she rightly says, you will not take all the money you make anywhere, but it is the experiences you gain that you will think of on your death bed.

Women crave more work-life balance than men?

When speaking about work-life balance, Megha had an interesting point of view on how women in fact may actually in a way have a stronger work life balance. However, she adds that this may actually be where a lot of the inequality in the workplace stems for. She rightly explains how women are more likely to sacrifice on the professional front for their family. And truth is that a lot of times this is also a happy or at least an intentional choice. She explains how it dials right down to the fact that she has observed that more men seem to find satisfaction from professional success while most women yearn for that success or satisfaction from both work and family. The balance thus starts right from our thoughts. Even if we go to rural India, we see how men and women both work on the fields, but it is the women who wake up at daybreak to also service their household first. Of course, as Megha rightly puts it, we are all a product of society and maybe we simply do what we do because it is what we saw as we grew up and what we were taught. We do what our mother did who did what her mother did and it’s a similar cycle for the men. It is thus up to us to start changing what society looks like from within each of our households.

More First Level Female Managers to ensure more women in C-Suite roles:

Of course, with Megha’s role being centred around leadership hiring, it was not a subject we would miss. She had some very interesting insights starting with how the real gender inequality in numbers at the top stems from a lot lower in the rung. She talks about how it is that jump to first level manager roles that sees this disparity most which is the biggest problem because then this gap simply grows with each next step in the ladder. This early inequality is what often has a long-term impact, she says. For many companies, she shares that diversity efforts in hiring and promotions are focused on senior levels. She believes that companies need to apply the same rigor to other roles/levels to set off a positive chain reaction across the entire pipeline. As more women become managers, there will be more women to promote and hire at each subsequent level.

She also expresses how organisations need to change norms, but the change also needs to come from women who need to voice their ambitions louder and more often. In fact, she tells us that many executives who are content with their career and not active in the job market are not positioning themselves to be easily identified. This is especially true for women. Fortunately uncovering this “hidden” talent is the primary domain of a talented executive search professional such as Megha and her role as a search partner is to get access to this talent that may never otherwise appear on a recruiter’s radar.

The impact of pregnancy and motherhood on career growth:

We were also curious about the impact of pregnancy and motherhood on women’s career trajectories as we so often read about. Megha didn’t shy away from admitting that a negative impact in this case is unfortunately a reality. This is not only because of break years women may take but in fact also because of the discrimination women face after or before these personal milestones. There is a common bias to not hire women if they just got married with the notion that they may go on maternity break any time. The now six month maternity leave, though implemented in good faith, has also in a lot of cases further increased this fear for companies. Furthermore, Megha adds that this amendment to grant increased leave, only applies to a miniscule of working women since it only applies to companies with more than 10 employees. Megha even shared her own example where she didn’t benefit from bonuses or raises in the years following her pregnancy because maternity leave was viewed as a bonus of sorts, a paid vacation even, which we all know is far from the truth. Megha shared her own experience with postpartum depression as well which goes to show that women’s careers are affected in more ways than one with motherhood.

Negotiation – a man’s game?

Speaking of voicing one’s desires, we also tackled the subject of negotiation. Megha admitted that despite being in the position she is, she does not remember ever demanding a raise and she isn’t alone here. She shares how being on the other end of this discussion so often, she has had multiple scenarios where women, even when applying for leadership roles will make statements such as ‘my husband said I should get..’ or ‘I need to discuss this offer with my husband, I’m so bad at numbers’. It is fascinating to understand where this self-doubt, dependence and gender bias comes from. As we can see a lot of it comes from the woman herself, albeit a result of her environment. This revelation did not take us completely by surprise and that’s probably where the problem lies.

New emerging leadership roles for women that did not exist before:

We asked Megha, what she brings to the table to support more equality without indulging in a reverse bias, and she told us that what she mainly tries to do is create job profiles that are more neutral. She strives to develop a profile that will resonate, both in content and tone, with qualified female candidates. For example, most positions demand a long, uninterrupted career with no lateral moves, in which one management position builds on the next in a clear upward trajectory. However, the CVs of some of the most extraordinary women do not look like this. For women, career breaks are much more common.  Megha also adds that there are now new roles emerging in the workplace such as Chief DNI officer, Chief Sustainability Officer, among more. It is thus not only about women increasing in numbers in the traditional leadership roles (which is of course as important), but also pulling more weight in these new roles.

Megha also adds to the subject with a silver lining to the grim situation today. She says that as the coronavirus pandemic continues to force millions of employees to work from home, experts predict these flexible work options could be here to stay and she believes this could be a game changer for women at work and at home.

More than 75% of all caregivers are female, meaning that in addition to juggling the demands of work, a large portion of women are also juggling the demands of caring for a loved one.

This unpaid labour that women do outside of the workforce often results in a career break that has both short-term and long-term effects. In fact, she shares that most of the women who take a career break after having kids say they didn't want to but had to because of a lack of workplace flexibility. These new workplace norms may thus be a positive sign for women.

Megha herself has a strong voice on feminism, largely focusing on a positive birth experience for women. An advocate of natural delivery, mental health for mothers and more such subjects. Megha does an incredible job in trying to erase some much-needed stigmas and ignorance around childbirth.

Given her desire to learn, her passion to make a difference and her flexibility with change, we know that Megha has an exciting journey ahead and we are thrilled to be a part of it.

More power!

Megha Khanduja is the Senior Manager for Leadership Hiring at Optum, the healthcare solutions unit of UnitedHealth Group. Optum is a leading health services and innovation company. UnitedHealth Group is the largest healthcare company in the world by revenue, with 2019 revenue of $242.2 billion.

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