Last Updated : Oct 10, 2018 03:30 PM IST | Source:

Opinion| #MeToo: Number of working women in India is already low, let us not make it worse

While fewer number of women are joining the labour force, the ones already working face innumerable threats

M Saraswathy @maamitalks

The moment you join a new organisation, the human resource manager promptly explains the company policies related to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH). If only companies took these policies seriously, workplaces would be safer for women. The fact, however, is that they don’t take it seriously enough. That is a key reason for the low rates of labour force participation by women.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report, the labour force participation rate for women in 2017 was 28.5 percent in India. That compared to 82 percent for men, meaning a large proportion of men in the 16-64 years age group were working.

The first question that comes to mind is what prevents skilled women from working? Apart from maternity and related factors that play a role, workplace culture is a crucial factor. Women are not encouraged to work in companies that have offices in remote locations or do night shifts, citing safety reasons.


As the #MeToo India movement has highlighted, organisations have been complicit by taking a lackadaisical attitude towards sexual harassment. In several cases, they overtly worked to hush up the matter. If the complainant decides to quit, they let her. What’s worse, as some voices have pointed out, subtle decisions are taken to hire more males to avoid unpleasant situations.

Such organisations might be shooting themselves in the foot. Gender diversity is not a checkbox item in a company’s talent management strategy. Various studies have pointed out that countries benefit from advancing women’s equality.

A June 2018 McKinsey report on advancing women’s equality in Asia Pacific said India could achieve an 18 percent increase over business-as-usual GDP by having gender parity. In absolute GDP opportunity terms, that amounts to $770 billion.

It is no surprise that India is among the poor performers in Asia in the area of gender parity at work. Globally, there are fewer than four women in leadership roles to every 10 men, but in Asia Pacific, only around one woman for every four men.

As an IMF paper released on October 8, 2018, points out, women bring new skills to the workplace. This means that there is a direct economic benefit from diversity. In other words, there are more gains to be had from bringing women into the labour force, over and above the benefit resulting from simply having more workers. It said for countries such as India and Pakistan, welfare gains from removing barriers to female labour force participation would exceed 20 percent.

But this is easier said than done and a lot has to change, especially workforce culture and attitudes.

On one hand, while a fewer number of women are joining the labour force, the ones already working face innumerable threats. In entertainment companies, for example, sexist and misogynistic behaviour is passed off as normal. Detailed policies are in place, but companies never reprimand men for casual sex jokes or overlook these as friendly office banter.

Not only is there a need to call out inappropriate behaviour, companies should also clarify that aggrieved women have the freedom to contact the top boss to file a complaint. HR managers should also watch out for the behaviour of colleagues against these women. The worst period for them is after filing a complaint; threats, social boycott and intimidation are techniques used by management personnel to force them to withdraw the complaint.

Another area of concern is that even if a complaint is filed, the male employee in question is seldom fired. He is either shifted to another team or at best transferred to another location. This gives out a completely wrong message, since it means that the company is not taking the accusations seriously. Also, this further gives a push to these men to continue their ‘activities’ elsewhere.

The message is clear. Address the elephant in the room. The POSH Act was not passed to be locked away into some HR policy docket handed down to new employees. Motivating women to file complaints and supporting them during this process will not only enable them to trust their company, but also give a stern message to the offenders.

Not hiring women is not a solution. Men with predatory behaviour exist; the need is to weed them out to ensure that women don’t feel threatened at the workplace.
First Published on Oct 10, 2018 03:29 pm