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What Does it Take to Build a Just and Equitable Organization? A conversation with Smita Mohanty

Smita Mohanty Co-Leads the Human Resource Development Unit at Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN). PRADAN is a Civil Society Organisation that focuses on grassroots development with disadvantaged communities, specifically women. PRADAN has initiated exemplary diversity and inclusion policies, and they also recently conducted TalentNomics India’s Perception Survey of Employees to Understand How Women Friendly is their Workplace.

Following is an excerpt of our conversation with Smita.

Please share with us some highlights of your professional and personal journey

I completed my management education in 1989 and joined as Assistant Manager (HRD) in ‘Oil Orissa’, which is the Odisha chapter of Oilseeds Growers’ Federation for Operation Golden flow (‘DHARA’ Oil, an initiative of NDDB) based at Bhubaneswar. I continued at Oil Orissa until I got married in 1992. As my spouse was working in Delhi, I took a career break as I had to relocate. The break got extended since I became pregnant and decided to give time to my child until he went to school.

Once my elder son started going to play school, I decided to begin working but from home. So I started with telemarketing- marketing products like inverters, mangoes, etc. After sometime I got an opportunity to do fundraising through tele-calling for a non-profit. After a couple of years, in 1997, I felt I could seriously look for a full-time job and that is when I came across PRADAN. I joined PRADAN in September 1997 and have been continuing there in various capacities, mostly in the Human Resource Development Unit. In between, for about 3 years, I was part of the Resource Mobilisation, Communication and Partnerships Unit when it was getting established.

Currently, I co-lead the Human Resource Development Unit at PRADAN which looks after Recruitment and Selection into PRADAN, it’s one-year Development Apprenticeship programme (a programme to bring newcomers to the organisation), Systems and Processes of Individual and Team Review, Person Power Planning, Staff Development, Organisation Renewal and Efforts in ‘making PRADAN a better place for Women to work’. I am a member of the steering group in this effort also. I am a member of PRADAN’s Management Unit since 2015 and have completed my three-year term as a staff member of the Governing Board of PRADAN in March 2019.

What is the most gratifying part about working in the development sector? Why is the social sector an exciting career option?

It is about ‘Self Expression’ and satisfying one’s own need for extending to others. Social sector is an exciting career option as along with a career it gives an opportunity to express our self and be able to work on one’s inner calling. Even today development work, especially rural development, is the most challenging work that requires well-educated people to give a part of their life to solve India’s most complex issue of poverty. It’s almost like nation building.

Just like in the Army you need young women and men to give a part of their life, here also the educated Indians must give back to society by giving a part of their life to making social transformations. It is about swimming against the social current, but those who find meaning in it are self driven and dedicated to the cause.

Tell us a little about PRADAN and what your experience has been working at PRADAN?

Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), a not-for-profit organisation started with the founding philosophy that people with heart and head must come and work directly with poor and marginalised communities to change the situation of abject poverty and inequality. PRADAN works in 7 states of Central and Eastern India Plateau for building self-sustaining, rural communities through social, economic and political empowerment of the most marginalized communities, especially women. PRADAN visualizes a just and equitable society to sustain the transformation of the human condition. Currently PRADAN works with about a million families through SHGs and village organisations, in the most marginalised 36 districts of the 7 states it works in.

Working in PRADAN is like family. I may not have discussed many things with my immediate family members but I feel no hesitation in sharing my inner most feeling with my colleagues. It is now almost 23 years and many of us have almost grown together. Our organisation gives an equal space for everyone to express and believes in equality, collegiality and expert influence. You are hardly ever restricted if you have a convincing idea. I have always felt supported. It is a reflective organisation and tries to change things that it finds it is lacking or lagging in. It is also a value-based organisation and has many organizational processes to keep those values intact. The one area of concern for me now is that, as the organisation grows and expands geographically, the personal connect has come under strain and that was something which was our big strength earlier.

Please share some insights into the employee engagement/retention policies and initiatives PRADAN has introduced – especially those related to facilitating women employees and building a diverse team

PRADAN has been very strict in its selection policy and we believe that ‘if there are right people in the right place then half of the job is done’. Our early training puts in place all the values that the organisation emulates. And as I had already mentioned, PRADAN is like family, many who join PRADAN have already gone against the will of their parents and near and dear ones, so the collegiality and concern for others is what helps in retention of staff. But most of all the initial engagement to help candidates make an informed choice and decide whether this is what one wants to do in life, is which acts as a pull to continue in PRADAN. This helps one become clear why one is here – whether for ‘the cause’, for the working culture or for the people in the community or in the organisation.

Since the time we decided that PRADAN’s vision is to ‘Create a Just and Equitable Society’, we have been conscious that we should practice what we preach. Since then, our resolve has been to make PRADAN a more Gender Just organisation, it has been at the level of value and philosophy. We are in the process of making a Gender Policy which will facilitate in bringing more women into PRADAN and to its leadership positions. Also, through our various efforts in the formal as well as informal spaces, we expect to bring about a change in social norms and deep structure of PRADAN’s workspaces to make it more friendly for women to work. In the formal space we have a gender audit and curriculum for the newcomers. We have completed two cycles of gender audit across all units of PRADAN. There are two modules on Gender – one at the initial stage and another towards the end of 1-year program for newcomers. In the non-formal space, a women’s caucus has been active for some time now.

The Women’s Caucus is an exclusive space for women to come together and connect with each other, both personally and professionally, to build more clarity, solidarity and confidence. It also is a space to acknowledge issues of women in different age groups and to support and strengthen their negotiation power within the environment. And also to proactively engage to influence organisational culture, climate, systems and processes; e.g. highlighting the issues and ensuring that organization takes corrective actions as required. It plays a dual role of internally preparing women employees for leadership taking on positions and also influencing PRADAN in its journey to become a gender just organisation.

Why did PRADAN choose to undertake TalentNomics India’s employee perception survey to evaluate how enabling your workplace is for women? Did it help you gain you new insights and understand the additional actions the organisation needs to take?

It was an opportune moment when in February 2020 PRADAN had just finished its second Gender Audit Cycle and in March we came to know of the perception survey. We felt that since our auditors had been Internal, an additional anonymous survey by an external organisation may help identify any leftover barriers as employees may open up more and will provide us even clearer picture. Also, when I went through the questionnaire, I found that many of the survey questions are in greater detail for which we might not have checked during our Gender Audit. So apart from giving an opportunity to triangulate with the results of our audit, it will also give additional information on areas to work.

I am really thankful to TalentNomics India for putting in their best effort to give us a detailed report with different dimensions and bringing out the real voice of people through capturing the comments in each section, which is rich documentation.

Written by Shravani Prakash

Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank.


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