When it comes to belonging, numbers matter. In my first job out of college, I was one of just two women engineers out of 600 in the business practice. Eleven years later, I became CEO of itaas (a Cognizant company) and made diversity hiring a top priority.

But belonging is also about much more than numbers. True belonging happens on a day-to-day basis. It’s about sharing common experiences while working alongside a diverse set of co-workers.

With women making up about 15% of my electrical engineering classes at the University of Pittsburgh, I’d expected the workplace would look about the same. Instead, I found a very different environment. With only one other woman among the engineering staff, my sense of belonging was minimal – and about to get worse. After I began earning my MBA while working full-time, I spoke with my manager about my goal of moving into product marketing. He bluntly told me I wouldn’t succeed: “You’re not going to fit into the club.”

That was a pivotal moment for me. If anything, it made me more motivated to pursue my goal and to ensure that everyone who came behind me would feel free to create their own opportunities.

I had learned from my family: Don’t run away; run towards. Don’t wait for others to make the change. I became committed to mentoring women and encouraging greater inclusion.

Opened Doors, Raised Roofs

At itaas, I built belonging into our company’s culture. First and foremost, my cofounders and I maintained an open-door policy so that our employees could openly talk to us about new ideas and continuous improvements. I emphasized networking and helping each other to find situations where you can add more value.

Since our company joined Cognizant in 2014, I’ve continued to strive for change. Like everyone, I’m hugely motivated – and moved – by the feeling that I belong. Recently I attended the 2020 Makers Conference, a global leadership event that explores ways to accelerate women’s equality. Among my favorite speakers’ stories was Cynthia Marshall, who retired as chief diversity officer at AT&T and then was hired by Mark Cuban to become CEO and revamp the Dallas Mavericks’ corrosive work environment.

Marshall implemented a zero-tolerance policy and executed a plan that focused on inclusion, pay equity and diversity. Companies claim they’re moving forward, and they check off the boxes every year and proudly showcase their slow pace of change, but this isn’t enough. Marshall’s accomplishments speak to what’s possible: When she arrived, none of the Mavericks’ business-side executives were women or people of color; within 19 months, the numbers rose to 50% women and 43% people of color. It can be done – and at a fast pace. Action and accountability are imperative for change. We need to hold ourselves accountable.

Change We Need

This is the type of example we all need to follow. It represents the diversity we need, at the pace we need, in order to bring parity to the workforce and pay. When these things are done, it tells us we belong.

I was reminded of the importance of belonging last year when I was mentoring a young woman who worked at a large multinational client. After a few months of working together, I received a call from her at midnight my time, early morning for her. She was over-the-top excited and said, “I couldn’t wait to tell you. I got the promotion.” I was equally excited for her. After congratulating her, I reminded her that now that her circle of influence is even larger, she needs to extend a hand to others: create a culture of belonging and accelerate the change.

Each person, one at a time, can make a huge difference.

For more insights into belonging, see our recent report “What It Means to Belong @ Work.”

Vibha Rustagi

Vibha Rustagi

Vibha Rustagi is the global head for Cognizant Hi-Tech Product Engineering Services for the Communications, Media and Technology Business. She is an... Read more

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