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Faces of slavefreetrade: Meet Seda Onek, Human Resources Director at slavefreetrade and advocate for women in the workplace

Faces of slavefreetrade: Meet Seda Onek, Human Resources Director at slavefreetrade and advocate for women in the workplace

Seda is an HR leader who has over 12 years of experience leading HR initiatives in the medical device and hospitality industries, in start-up and corporate organizations. She especially enjoys the opportunity to help others, which is why she believes that HR should be a true advocate for employees, keeping an open line of communication with all members of the team. In addition to her work in HR, Seda enjoys philanthropy and spends her free time volunteering for slavefreetrade and organizations such as Voices for Children which focus on human rights and advocating for foster youth. On International Women’s Day, read our Q&A with this passionate leader to discover her thoughts on diversity and inclusion at the workplace, the essential role of HR in fostering respect for human rights and how women can claim their seat at the table in male-dominated industries.

You have a well-established career as a Human Resources manager. What motivated you to enter this field, and which part of your job do you find most rewarding?

HR was never my dream job, but when the opportunity came up, I immediately fell in love with it. I have always been a people person. I enjoy making a positive impact on another person’s life and helping them elevate to their highest potential. In HR, we do so much more than just helping with employee’s benefits or pay. We learn about their lives, their families, and get to see really vulnerable sides of our employees. You become invested in their success and want to help them protect those things and give them the tools to achieve all of their dreams. It is a lot of fun and a huge responsibility.

What do you believe are some of the biggest challenges that women face in the workplace today? As a female leader, have you had to confront these gender biases or inequalities personally?

Absolutely, I’ve spent most of my career in male-dominated organizations. Sitting at the table takes a lot more effort, and composure. As women, we are expected to be much more rational and composed when trying to argue a point or influence a decision. We have to work much harder to be heard, and a lot of times that means we have to be very strategic in the way we work and communicate. It can be exhausting at times. 

I’ve often experienced these challenges, and I’ve continued to challenge the status quo. To me ‘no’ is not acceptable, so I am always going to push through every obstacle. I also feel that as a customer, I pay closer attention to organizations and how seriously they take diversity. Those are the organizations I try to partner with.

If we are to address this problem, what needs to change?

I think that we need a cultural shift around the world. Along with that, we have to create more opportunities for women to be in leadership positions. We need more women on corporate boards, women CEOs, and women owned companies.

We also have to demand diversity in the organizations we partner with or make purchases from. 

As customers, we get to choose what we expect out of companies we make purchases from. If we hold [companies] to a higher standard, and also hold them accountable by not purchasing from businesses that lack diversity, have bad business practices around equality, or modern slavery then we can make a significant impact. We have to continue chipping away at the problem no matter how significant each action is.

Why is it important for companies to address societal issues like gender diversity and inclusion?

Diversity, in general, is a key component of a successful business. Having different backgrounds, skills and ideas is what allows us to think bigger, to dream bigger. If organizations want to reach their potential they must innovate and the only way to innovate is to expand your horizons. Not to mention diversity widens the talent pool, encourages collaboration, and improves retention because putting an emphasis on culture boosts morale. It has been proven time and time again that organizations that value diversity, and that lack gender bias have happier employees.

In your view, what is the role that HR divisions can play in fostering respect for human rights at the workplace? Does the human rights agenda need to be more closely integrated into HR?

Human Rights and HR go hand in hand. They both focus on people and advocating for them. It is the HR department’s job to help the organization create an enjoyable work environment for its employees, and that means building a positive company culture. Acknowledging your employees, making them feel cared for, understood, and treated fairly is a must. Effective policies that address equal pay, harassment, diversity, and inclusivity is where Human Resources and Human Rights intertwine.

The human rights agenda is more and more integrated into HR every day. It is important for HR to bring uncomfortable conversations to the table and facilitate positive change. Then we can continue building standards and a culture that requires hiring a workforce that fits into that environment.     

Could you please share with us some initiatives that you are currently spearheading at slavefreetrade? How can data-driven insights help to close the gender gap?

One of the most exciting things I’ve had the opportunity to help work on at slavefreetrade is the diversity dashboard. We have spent the last couple of months focusing on building data around our volunteers and their diverse backgrounds. We’ve included this dashboard on our website to hold ourselves accountable and to lead by example. The data gives us a more precise understanding of how big the gap is and helps us make projections based on solutions. It is essential for efficiently tackling the problem at hand. I’m really proud of our team, and slavefreetrade policies around inclusivity. Our CEO, Brian Iselin has very much prioritized building a team that leads the way on making significant change, and I’m really grateful to be a part of that. 

What advice would you give to female executives to help them achieve success, particularly in male-dominated working environments or industries?

For me, it has always started with believing in myself and never giving up. Continue to push the needle forward, challenge the status quo, and don’t take no for an answer. Above all else, what you bring to the table is valuable, your opinions matter, and you are exactly where you are supposed to be so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.