Womaning in India - Stories of Women in The Workplace

Written by
Mahima Vashisht

Someone suggested I write my first piece for Humanise about how women can prepare before joining a new workplace to ensure that their gender does not affect their experience. Here is why this is not that piece.  And why I will probably never write that piece.

As someone who writes about gender, I often get invited to speak at corporate events around gender at the workplace. Some corporates ask for a physical session, others prefer a virtual one. Some want me to include a mention of a corporate policy they recently launched for gender equity, others would like me to suggest policies myself. I am usually amenable to all requests and inputs from my clients – except one. 

I do not like speaking to a women-only audience.

In fact, I insist that my clients include an equal number of men in my audience, if not more. Ideally, I would like my audience to be proportionate to the men:women population across the company. I would not say no to an all-men audience either – not even on Women’s Day.

Why would I want to speak to only men on Women’s Day?

Let me answer that question with another question: If you were to talk about prison reforms, would you advocate it with prison authorities or the prisoners?

Patriarchy is a prison and all of us – men and women – are prisoners of it. 

But the way this prison is designed places men at a higher pedestal of privilege than women. This is why you cannot have a meaningful conversation about gender equity without men being a big part of the conversation. 

And why talking to just women will never lead to meaningful change. 

In that spirit, this piece is directed, not to women, but to managers (91% of whom are men as per the World Economic Forum).

Representation matters.

Revathy* works on the shop floor of a manufacturing company as a mechanical engineer. “On the shop floor, women are ogled at as if they are alien creatures. As one of the very few women engineers there, I find all eyes on me every time I enter a room.” Revathy is the boss of most of the men working in the facility. But the lack of women representation around her means that she has to jump through a lot of hoops to earn the same respect that a man would get by sheer virtue of his designation, no questions asked. “It impacts little things as well as big things. For example, I have to dress to command basic respect. As a woman, you have to look the perfect combination of not-too-feminine and not-too-masculine. If you look overly feminine, they say, ‘she is too girly for the tough life on the shop floor’. And if you wear what everyone else is wearing, they say, ‘she is trying to be a man’. If you are a woman working in a male-dominated workplace, deciding what to wear to work is hard work in itself, and that is just the first step of the battle.”

There is no substitute for representation. When you don’t see people like you succeed, you subconsciously accept defeat even before you try. Nothing puts a new woman employee immediately on guard more than entering a conference room full of men. The more women you hire, the more women-friendly your workplace will naturally become.

We need more women leaders at work.

Rituja is an engineer – one of the few women in senior management at her firm. Her company has a Mentorship Program, and she signed up to mentor fresh joinees. "I was asked to mentor a junior male engineer working in my field. During my first meeting with him, he asked me a lot of probing questions about my past work. At first, I thought he was simply interested in the work. But pretty soon, his questions started taking an interrogative tone, as if he was expecting me to prove to him that I was worthy of being his mentor. At one point, I stepped back and asked him, 'Are you interviewing me right now?' He said, 'I am still trying to figure out what value you can add to me.' 

In my 15 years of experience, I have never heard of a male mentor being spoken to like this by a prospective mentee. This is what happens when a workplace has one woman leader in a sea of men – people forget that a woman leader is a leader too, and deserves the same respect they would unquestioningly give to a man.

If you need proof that the glass ceiling is real, here is what the numbers say: according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 published by the World Economic Forum, only 9% of Indian firms have women in top managerial positions against a global figure of 18%, with Thailand leading the charge at 65% firms having women in top managerial positions. Only 3% of Indian firms have women as majority owners. Globally, 33.3% firms have a female participation in ownership, with the Federated States of Micronesia (an island country in Oceania) having a score as high as 86.8%. 

To reinforce the gap, it is interesting to note that women’s workforce participation in India stands at 20%. And yet, somehow only 9% of the firms in India have women at a CXO position. So clearly, hiring women is not the same as having women rise to the top. Consciously nurturing women talent to rise to the top will lead to a more proportionate representation of women at the top. This diversity in the boardroom will reflect in better gender equity across the organization.

Organisations, make that paternity leave compulsory.

When his wife was expecting their first child, Hiren was very clear that he wanted to take the whole first month off to spend with his child and wife. The company policy allowed it too.  Since Hiren was leading a critical project, he started preparing his team 3-4 months in advance of the due date. He assigned who would do what in his absence. He told all stakeholders that he would not be checking work emails during this leave. Five days after the birth of his baby, Hiren got a call from his office.

"They said you have to come in to make an important presentation to the client. I went and did it, but made clear that I was on leave and not to be disturbed again. When I joined back after a month, my boss lashed out at me, saying, 'How could you do this?! You knew how critical this project is for the company!'  Other stakeholders had more or less similar comments too, saying, 'Humein laga nahi tha ki tum pura month off loge' (We never thought you would actually take the whole month off). Within a few months, I quit the job."Incidentally, Hiren’s wife, Gayatri, worked for the same organisation and went on to spend two pregnancies in the same firm. The same company gave her promotions - both times while she was on maternity leave - taking into account her good performance in the remaining months of the year. The stark difference between how the same firm treated a man and a woman on parental leave was appalling

This might seem tangential (or even unrelated) to empowering women, but here is the harsh reality: most women fall out of the workforce after becoming mothers. Women are forced to take a step back, take a break, or quit work altogether because the caregiving responsibilities as parents fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders at home. This is understandable because fathers are simply not around for the first six months of the child’s life, when the mother is forced to take on the role of the primary caregiver. This sets a precedent and pattern which the couple carries forward their entire life, and often pass on to the next generation too – as children grow up seeing the mother in the kitchen and the father going to work. 

The fastest way to break this chain in the long-term – as well as to establish your organisation as a path-breaking disruptor of gender norms – is to offer equal paternity leave to men in your organization. This also has to be compulsory in nature to bias-proof it against pushy immediate superiors who put pressure on men to cut their paternity leave short and rejoin work. The benefits will start accruing nearly immediately because this will help you attract the best talent. Plus, it has the added benefit of ridding your hiring managers of their biases against hiring expecting mothers, newly married women, or even women in general.  It can be a difficult decision to make, and your finance department may be up in arms immediately, but the chain of positive impact of this singular policy change just never ends.

Your office AC is saying something. Listen.

Akanksha’s workplace had one woman for every four or five men. “Yet, if you looked at our office toilets, the numbers would tell a very different story. There was just one ladies toilet across three floors, and there were perennially long queues outside it because it only had two booths inside. Women had to go to a whole different floor to use the loo. We had to literally schedule loo breaks around our office meetings because most men could be done and back within 2 minutes and for us, it would take at least 15 minutes to go to the other floor, stand in the queue, and be back in our office. Plus, the toilets themselves were dingy, smelly and leaky. I subconsciously started drinking less water to minimise my visits to the toilet altogether.”

A year after she joined the organisation, a woman was hired in the senior management at the firm. She worked from the same office as Akanksha. “Senior management gets their own private toilets in their offices so there was no reason for her to suffer with the rest of us. Yet, encouraged by her repeated insistence on an open door policy towards all women in the office, I found myself telling her every sordid detail of our loo problems in the office. She said that the toilet ratio was ridiculous, given the number of women in the office. Within a week, she had pushed our admin to hire a contractor and ladies toilets were being built on every floor. What’s more, she got them to repair and renovate our existing toilet so that it felt like a five-star hotel loo now! We no longer fear going to the toilet as a nightmare and women can finally hydrate in peace!”

I say I like talking to the men because that is where change is needed most. But if you called me to your company for just a listening session, I would want to listen to the women. I would ask them pointed questions about gender biases they face at the workplace – maybe without even realising it themselves until that point. (Did you know that the ambient AC temperature is set for a man’s body in most workplaces, which means most women are freezing in their own offices. That shawl your woman teammate is wearing in peak summer? Yeah, that is the result of a gender bias.) So it is important to listen to the women – because most of the gender-based challenges they face at the workplace are invisible to you.

Everyone carries biases (yes, women too). Keep checking your biases.

Aliyaah was always told - in every performance review at every job - that she needed to be more assertive at work. "Take more challenging stances", her Boss had told her during her last review.After her maternity break, Aliyaah decided to redefine herself professionally and work on the feedback she had been getting.“In the spirit of taking challenging stances, I started contacting all the Team Leads working under my Boss to proactively discuss with them my aspirations, expectations, and try to understand what working in their teams entailed. I wanted to find the best possible fit for myself and the role I would be most effective in. I was always told I needed to find my voice, so I started consciously using it."She was feeling good doing it too. For the first time in her career, Aliyaah felt like she was taking charge of her own professional trajectory - being an active driver of her career instead of quietly adjusting in the passenger seat.

"At the next performance review, I was told that there was a perception developing in the organisation that I am not a team player. Apparently, I needed to temper my communication! Men negotiate their roles all the time. Such men are called 'driven' and 'focused' and ‘go-getters’. But I personally experienced what happens when a woman tries the same. You are always either too meek or too aggressive. I don't know any woman who has managed to hit that mythical sweet spot between the two."

We all carry gender biases inside us (including me, the person dispensing all this wisdom from behind a keyboard). The healthiest way I have found to tackle this is to keep questioning my own biases. And that applies to an organisation too. Try to see every decision, every touchpoint with an employee or a customer or client in the light of their gender. 

Would you make the same decision if this person was a different gender? 
Would they feel like they deserved it if they were another gender? 
Would our conference room thermostat be set at the same temperature if the room was full of women? 
Would the bathrooms have free sanitary pads if the people who menstruated were men? 
Would you have interrupted this colleague in this conversation if they were a man? 

Where can we bring the change to create a workplace in which everyone thrives, irrespective of their gender?

And that is my short list of steps that organisation leaders – gentle reminder, 91% of whom are men – can take to build a more gender equitable workplace.

* All stories in the piece are of real Indian women interviewed by the author. Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the women.

** Mahima Vashisht writes a newsletter, Womaning in India

Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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