The female workplace: Why we lack it, what we need to do about it

If we understand the simple reality that workplaces were created by men, of men and for men,we would know how to make things better for women

Rajdeep Endow March 08, 2014 10:29:11 IST
The female workplace: Why we lack it, what we need to do about it

Today is International Women's Day. We should be thankful for that. We need a reminder from time to time that there's lot to be done to make this an equal world for women.

There has been a lot of research on the need and value of diversity in the workplace. A McKinsey report states that companies with top-quartile representation of women in executive committees provide 47 percent more return on equity than companies with no women at the top. Women globally influence 85 percent of all brand purchases, yet 91 percent of women feel that advertisers do not understand them. Studies show that teams that have at least one female member outperform all-male groups in collective intelligence tests.

We should not need more convincing.

Yet statistics in India suggest an environment where women drop out of employment after thefirst few years.A recent research shows that corporate India has 35 percent women at the entry level, and it progressively goes down till we reach 5-7 percent women in the 15-20-year experience bracket. In 2013 women workforce participation in India actually fell by 1 percentage point.

Clearly women are not finding it meaningful, or easy, to continue working in organisations. Women are exiting the system.

If inclusion of women makes organisations smarter and more profitable, and we have fewer of them, we have a big problem.

Thankfully, corporates have woken up to the need for gender diversity in the workplace. The government has also taken note. The new company law has recently made it mandatory for a specified class of companies to have at least one woman director on the board. Which is just as well, because apparently men occupy 93 percent of all the board seats among BSE-200 companies.

How do we keep more women in the workplace? We seem to do a reasonable job attracting them, but a poor job in growing and retaining . What needs to change?

What is required is not more intellectual understanding, but the honesty and courage to face up to the real issues.

The change has to start with the realisation that most organisations today have been unwittingly created by men, of men, for men. Men have a very limited understanding of the challenges that women face in the workplace. If we rely on men to make organisations attractive for women, we will wait for a very long time.

A couple of weeks back, I asked a female colleague what we could do to make our company easier to work for women who are expecting. At the top of her list - "provide physical comfort, foot stool, back rest, adaptor at desk level to avoid bending under table to plug in laptop." And then, "sensitise male managers on how to support the expectant mother during this period."

I was saddened to read her email. And embarrassed. It often takes so little. And yet, most organisations have very limited awareness of these needs.

We have to accept responsibility that we have been unaware of our own gender stereotypes and prejudices, even as we stand on pulpits and talk about leadership, equality and diversity.

During a meeting in my office, I complimented a male colleague's bold decision-making by saying "You have big courage." Except, I did not use the word "courage". I used a word that stands for a part of the male anatomy that is often used to mean courage. The conversation went forward without incident. After the meeting, a female colleague pulled me aside and told me, "I can try and understand why you would use that word. But by complimenting his bold decision-making and fearlessness using a term that only applies to men, it suggests that women may not have those same admirable characteristics."

I considered myself fairly gender aware, yet I had never considered the possibility of my choice of word having that connotation. It was a huge lesson.

One of the biggest help women employees need is mentorship. Since there are fewer women leaders in organisations, there is a limited understanding amongst senior male executives of what it takes to be successful as a woman. We have to help women employees figure out how to build their careers (possibly post-maternity), how to champion their own work, how to define their work-life balance and boundaries, how to say no and set limits, how to not feel guilty for having to leave office early.

As we work on this mission, we need to deal with a crucial question - should women be treated differently in the workplace? I have found that many organisations simply lack the will and the belief to come clear on this.

The reality is this - for generations, women were underrepresented in the workplace. Much of our practices, processes and policies were designed to fit the work style and needs of the male employee. It is an unintended bias. For example, if a leadership role has international experience as a prerequisite, it is likely that more men will qualify for it. That is because traditionally it has been easier for men to take international postings because their spouses (many of whom were not working) could easily follow.

So in an environment where one gender has been naturally disadvantaged, if we value equality, we need to provide some extra help and support to that gender. That is only the fair thing to do. Yet most organisations try to skirt the issue and not admit to this reality.

What should have been half of corporate India is today no more than 25 percent. We are worse off for missing this voice, this perspective, this balance.

Of all the things we need to change in our organisations, this needs to be at the top of the list.

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