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Adaptability & speed key factors to get through tough times: SBI General’s Shefali Khalsa

BFSI industry has equal, merit-based opportunities for women, says Khalsa.

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MUMBAI: That India’s banking and finance sector has witnessed explosive growth and expansion ever since the era of economic reforms was launched nearly three decades ago is not news. That this growth also fuelled new windows of employment opportunity for women in the BFSI sector is however not so well known. Stats show that roughly half of the annual intake of trainee bankers in institutions like SBI comprise women, with more and more women rising to top positions in the banking industry shattering the infamous glass ceiling. The Banking and financial services industry is clearly stealing the march from its contemporary sectors, not only when it comes to aggressive hiring of women employees but also for nurturing and mentoring talented women – another factor crucial for an individual’s progress.

In the run up to International Women’s Day on 8 March 2021, we caught up with SBI General Insurance’s head – brand and marketing Shefali Khalsa for a freewheeling discussion on the challenges and opportunities in the BFSI industry for women, and how the women workforce is changing the face of the industry. Having spent close to 14 years in the industry, of which nine years were with HDFC Ergo before taking on the mantle for brand, corporate communication and online sales at SBI General, she would know. While India ranks a dismal 112th on the gender parity index, Shefali Khalsa shares her views on whether the banking and finance sector has evolved on gender and pay parity for its women workforce. She also shines a light on how SBI General tackled the trials and tribulations that the pandemic wrought on the industry. 

Edited excerpts:

On challenges and opportunities in the BFSI industry for women today.

I believe the BFSI industry is a wonderful service oriented industry, with equal, merit-based and immense opportunities for women. Of my total 17 years of work, I have spent 12 in the BFSI industry- of this, nine years were in my last organisation at HDFC Ergo. In these nine years I have come across several women in leadership roles, both in the boardrooms as well as in management positions. I myself got the opportunity to head the department, after joining as a team member.

On gender discrimination and pay parity for women in leadership roles.

Personally, I have not seen or experienced any sort of discriminatory attitude or bias against women leaders. In fact in banking especially, in recent times we have had so many women as CEOs in leading banks, driving the business and spearheading its brand. I would go so far as to say that the women workforce is changing the face of the BFSI industry. Talking about SBI General, we have about 18 per cent of women representation in the leadership role. If we compare that with the worldwide women workforce stats, the average comes out to be 27 per cent while in Asia it's 13 percent.  

When it comes to pay parity issues, I am aware that India ranks 112th on the global gender parity index - that would be based on data across different industries. However, as far as BFSI is concerned, in my ten-years-plus experience I have yet to come across any disparity in pay, solely because of gender. Yes, it differs from role to role, but definitely not based on gender.

On how SBI General dealt with the pandemic.

The first quarter of the last financial year was such that everyone was caught unawares – nobody was prepared for such a situation. Insurance being a service industry and more so, we being in health insurance largely, it was all the more imperative for us to keep our customers informed and give them the confidence that we are there for them.

The predominant platform for customer outreach was social media. Our core messaging was ‘we are with you in these difficult times’. A parallel campaign was about SBI General remaining uninterrupted titled ‘Being you, Uninterrupted’ – which literally translated into the company is uninterrupted in our day-to-day functioning. Offices may be shut but that did not mean the work has ceased. All of it shifted overnight onto digital platforms. In fact, the lockdown phase turned out to be quite productive for us work wise, with employees across all regions being well-connected, synergised – you didn’t feel the distance.

On customer outreach and marketing perspective in 2020.

We were getting lots of queries from customers, especially to check whether Covid2019 will be covered under the health insurance or not. So to align the expectations with the service offered, we doubled our communications on all spheres– the customer communication, employee communication, channel partner communication et al.  

We were also working at double speed from the marketing perspective, exploiting all possible digital platforms. All the campaigns were re-aligned to digital domains. We did quite a lot of ideation into campaigns, a lot of home-made videos were also floated, especially using our employees. Which becomes a win-win for both the employee- who gets recognition and feels motivated- and for the brand, as well. For, it increases the virality of the campaign, as the video would be further shared on at least five to six of the staff’s private networks/ groups. So those kinds of ideations, usage of influencers had increased a lot, and that should continue into the coming financial year too.

On SBI General’s marketing strategy for 2021.

Largely our campaign would be on social media and other digital platforms driving digital business like Google Ad Words and so on- that will remain the core focus. But looking ahead with businesses slowly opening up, in 2021’s third and fourth quarters we might turn to traditional media as well. Q1 is usually a lull period with businesses closing the financial year and strategising for the coming year. So while on the digital front campaign planning and execution continues, the ad spend we are looking at, for the upcoming year across all media will definitely be higher than the year gone by. 

On #ChooseToChallenge lessons learned. 

I would say adaptability and speed are crucial lessons I have picked up along the way. Every woman has to #ChooseToChallenge the status quo, whether working out of home or not. Every day is a challenge. On the work front, of course we face many unprecedented situations where one has to think on our feet and deliver. This is especially true on the marketing front to manage the timelines of channel expectations. So I choose to challenge myself by being adaptive and quick to respond to challenges. Which was the clear cut motto even during this pandemic lockdown from the marketing perspective, when so many brands had to curb their regular spend on traditional media and had to adapt to the digital medium. This could only be accomplished if one acted with speed and was adaptive to changes around us.

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