Gender equality

Simply touting equality is passé. A workplace free of gender bias needs to be based on the twin supports of Empathy and Empowerment – towards women and for women. Inclusivity and equal opportunities will only come when the causes of discrimination are understood and removed, not simply brushed under the carpet. And not deemed inconsequential for discussion.

Two statistics struck me hard while reading through the findings of the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap report. India ‘achieved’ an overall rank of #112 out of 153 countries overall. Not to take any credit away from another nation, but just see it in perspective. This rank is not just below some of our neighbours – Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, but also greatly lagging strife torn and economic messes like Rwanda and Zimbabwe.

On the flip side, I also see it as no coincidence that the countries leading this index are more or less the same as the ones on top of the list in the UN World Happiness Report (where we rank #139 out of 149). How can communities be happy if one half of their population is not? One can only progress towards healthy and happy societies when women have the autonomy, strength and confidence to be in charge of their own life.

The second noteworthy number for me was that it will take us close to a hundred years to close this global gender gap at the current rate of progress. Assuming a generation as twenty-five years, this means, not just us, or our daughters, or even our granddaughters, generations beyond will also not have gender parity. We might catch up sooner in some areas like political empowerment and educational attainment. However, the great divide in ‘Economic Participation and Opportunity’ will take approximately 257 years to close. Two hundred and fifty-seven years! You may count how many generations after us would that be. I think we will be carrying this gap to Mars – since there seems to be a better timeline for humans to colonize the red planet than achieve gender parity in the workplace!

The change will begin at home and in our communities

In our country, 46.2% of total enrolment in higher education comprises of women. Yet, when we look at the work force participation number, this falls to 21%.

Consider this, more than half of women who have a college education in India are not a part of the workforce!

This is a huge gap. What makes this worse is the fact that the participation has seen a gradual decline from ~32% in 2005 to ~21% in 2020 (as per World Bank)

All perceived breakthroughs in providing higher education for women in India have NOT resulted in an increased participation in the workforce. The reasons may vary, but primarily revolve around family encouragement and support. Acknowledgement, acceptance and respect for the work that both men and women do, inside or outside of home, begins in our families. This is where today’s children will learn to grow up in a gender-neutral environment. As parents to the current generation, I think we need to go an extra mile to ensure that we are not role biasing and gender stereotyping kid’s activities consciously or unconsciously. Early and equal access to STEM subjects will also help a lot in this regard.

The second step to this will be shared responsibilities in an obvious and visible manner. ‘Only moms cook’ or ‘only fathers drive’ is no longer valid and we need to strive to make this a norm and not an exception. There are both sides to the story here too – if we want men to share the housework, we equally need women to step up and take other responsibilities. The onus is on each of us individually, and on our society collectively, to increase female participation in the workforce – to ensure adequate opportunities and recognition of the work they do. Changing socio-cultural norms will go a long way in enabling women to become both breadwinners and homemakers in equal measure. The change will begin here – once the house is set in order, only then can we expect the workplace to follow suit.

Workplaces of the future cannot be pink or blue – they must be decolourized

We have discussed gender bias in the workplace for the last several decades. And yet, in a survey by Pew Research in 2017, four in ten women said that they have been subject to one or the other form of discrimination in their job, based on their gender – be it lesser pay, lesser opportunities for promotion or receiving less support from seniors, etc.

It will take more than just talking about it to fix this. For many years companies have gone overboard to show their ‘commitment’ towards gender diversity, but statistics tell another story – none of it has resulted in any meaningful impact towards advancement of gender parity or even reducing painful experiences for women at the workplace.

HBR published a highly perceptive study in 2020 seeking to answer what is it that really holds women back at the workplace. It is not long hours. Both men and women struggle to balance work and life. In the general culture of ‘overwork’ that permeates our corporate environment, women are pushed more towards measures skewed in the (incorrect) belief that they are a natural fit for family and men for work. In the guise of ‘flexible’ policies, many women are inadvertently encouraged to adjust – opt for part time roles, work in non-customer facing positions, etc. – accommodations that ultimately increase the divide or derail careers. This is the main reason why we see women being left far behind on the trail.

It is an everyday struggle for women to tackle these conscious and unconscious biases at work. To have the sword, of having to prove themselves at the workplace, hanging over their heads all the time. In today’s day and age, there is no such thing as male oriented or female oriented roles, at least, there shouldn’t be. We have women as CEOs of an auto major and a bulge bracket wall street superpower – both traditional male bastions. Women have helped build newbie tech companies into giants. But we still see doubts cast over women’s capabilities to perform well and especially lead teams to success.

As respect, support and empathy towards the dual role of women builds into the system of home-society-workplace, it will pave the way for equal representation of men and women at work.

  • Hiring managers should stop doubting commitment and start addressing issues that will help more women participated in a more engaged manner at work
  • Women should not be held back from any level or department without being given an opportunity to showcase their competence
  • Equal mentoring chances should be provided. Just because we currently have lesser women as C-suite executives does not mean that the ones aspiring to be one should have lesser access to senior leaders
  • Under-compensation must be removed. Equal pay for equal work should be a blanket policy across all organizations
  • Unbiased and gender-neutral flexible working environment will remove barriers to women taking up more responsibility without the fear of missing out on better chances
  • Last but not the least, any unfair and inappropriate behaviour must be immediately called out and dealt with strictly

Women do, and will continue to shoulder, a major portion of home care and child care responsibility. But that does not mean that they cannot be an equal partner in the workplace. With a little backing, they are capable of a great balancing act. It will be better for organisations, good for the society and have phenomenal benefits at home.

Gender parity will automatically improve when we are willing to understand, share the load and empower women to take charge of their own lives. Their choice should not be ‘either-or’ but the opportunity and belief to make it work under all circumstances.

DIVYA GOSAIN

Professional : Financial services and education technology industries. Interested in digital disruptions and their fast-paced impact