Wonder Women at Workplace

Diversity and inclusion is the buzzword in the circles of HR. The 3G of diversity comes from – gender, geography and generation. Gender-based discrimination is an outcome of norms and values which have become so deeply entrenched in the institutions that their presence often does not meet the eye.

Equality of economic opportunity for women and men is a key element of a modern, well-functioning market economy and essential for sustainable growth. According to a World Bank report published in May 2017, India ranks 120th among 131 nations in women workforce with 27% labour force participation. What is worrisome is the fact that the participation level has been dropping since 2005, despite having 42% women who are graduates.

The Fallacy of ‘Trickle Up Theory’

If the participation of women in the workforce is so low, their participation in decision-making is bound to be dismal. It is a dark reality that the proportion of female decision makers is not equal to female participation in the workforce. International experience shows that the ‘Trickle Up Theory’ i.e. hire more women and they shall rise up the ladder, does not work in reality. We can observe parity in educational attainment but it does not translate into equal outcomes at workplace.

The chief impediments disrupting the success of women in professional setups are:

diversity

A good example illustrating the fact is that of Australian Foreign Services. Since last 30 years the Australian government has a policy to ensure that at least half of their batch intake every year consists of female graduates. However the presence of women across the hierarchy is reflective of the inherent discriminative structure: 57% staff in embassy, 34% diplomats and 27% Head of Missions.

Male Champions of Change

Elizabeth Broderick, Australia’s longest serving Sex Discrimination Commissioner, insists that it is not possible to tackle this structural inequality without strong interventions. She attributed this to the phenomenon of ‘gender asbestos’, the attitudes hidden and embedded in the walls, cultures and mindsets of organisations. She emphasised the fact that these less tangible forms of discrimination are much more difficult to fight than the visible forms.

The perspective of gender matters when progress is uneven. Gender equality is not a women’s issue, it is a key economic and political issue. Elizabeth Broderick has realised that gender inclusion cannot happen without including men in the process of transformation as men hold most positions of power today. The ‘Male Champions of Change strategy’ pioneered by her involves men of power and influence forming a high profile coalition to achieve change on gender equality issues in organisations and communities.

The program has introduced a novel concept called ‘Panel Pledge’. It was noted that 160 leaders who participated in the program speak at almost 2000 events every year. They are asked to pledge that they would not speak at events or on panels where there is less than 50% female participation.

The UN has highlighted the initiative as worth global scaling, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led the establishment of a similar group in 2014, now numbering over 100 Japanese CEOs and companies. Such initiatives have a resounding effect by baring the realities of discrimination hidden under the veil of normality and customs.

Gender Blindedness – Changing the ‘software’ of the organization

 Gender inclusion must be perceived within organizations as means to enhance productivity. Introduction of women into male-dominated areas change the group dynamics, break status quos, and revolutionise the way work is done. Project Aristotle conducted by Google highlights the importance of feeling ‘‘psychologically safe” in the organization in order to maximise productivity. For a group to succeed, they must have shared values and shared vulnerabilities. The peculiar vulnerabilities faced by women at workplace will be shared and understood by men only when they work together.

Anjali Bansal, former global Partner and MD with TPG Private Equity and a strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company in New York and Mumbai, stressed on the significance of the value of gender-blindedness. It must be fed into organizational systems to do away with ascribed roles and responsibilities on the basis of gender in specific social, cultural, economic and political contexts. The classic example is of ICICI bank as a ‘CEO factory of women leaders’. If the banking and finance sector in India has a lot of women bankers at the helm, it has a lot of do with ICICI Bank and several women-friendly initiatives implemented by its former chairman, KV Kamath, now the chief of the New Development Bank of BRICS countries. The bank introduced innovative programs like iWork@home where women employees can work from home for a year, which can be extended. They truly believe in meritocracy which is not gender-specific.

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Image Courtesy – Economic Times of India

There must be change in the terminology used in job description and employment conditions to remove their inherent bias or prejudice. The job requirements like ‘available for travel’ may be biased towards men as it is not always possible for young mothers to travel at ease. The term ‘best person suitable’ may not always reflect merit but may mean a person ‘available’ for late night shifts, erratic meetings and long working hours. The HR fraternity has a significant role to play here in developing a more gender sensitive design of job roles, job requirements.

The cultural milieu compels women to feel guilty for focusing on their career. This mentality is also counterproductive for men who are willing to care for their family and children. It is the duty of the organization to influence their women employee and reduce this dissonance.

Inclusive behaviour comes better through tracking subtle changes rather than through written rules, policies and processes. What matter is the ‘software’ of the organization more than the ‘hardware’. The organizational systems form only the tip of the iceberg of organizational structure. The rest is all the values ingrained in the organization and all the people involved with the organization. The HR fraternity is the custodian of the ‘software’ organization. Thus the onus of engineering the values of inclusion within the strong walls of the organization and making women feel ‘psychologically safe at work’ is a massive task at our hands.

Gender disparity becomes evident by the term used to describe great women at work: ‘wonder women’. It is thought provoking that male leaders are never described at ‘super men’. This is a clear indication that women have to take some additional, special efforts to rise to that position and fulfill the expectations of the job.

BP Biddappa is Executive Director-HR for HUL and Vice President, HR for Unilever South Asia ended the discussion with an intriguing statement for us to ponder upon, ‘The question is not whether women work or they don’t. It is whether women work at home or outside.’

Note: The article is based on the discussions during the programme “Wonder Women in the Workplace”, with Anjali Bansal, Former global Partner and MD with TPG Private Equity, BP Biddappa, Executive Director-HR for HUL and Elizabeth Broderick, Australia’s longest serving Sex Discrimination Commissioner. It was organised by Asia Society India Centre on Thursday, 10th August at 06:30 pm at Trident Hotel, Nariman Point.

Click here to know more about the event and the speakers.

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