Despite having an idea about gender inequality in India’s corporate sector, I wasn’t aware of the extent of its reach when I joined the workforce. I came face-to-face in 2006. My husband and I were employed in the software industry in Bangalore: I, for an MNC acclaimed for its policies on hiring women, while he worked for an Indian company.
My husband got a transfer to Pune, and I initiated one in mine. The company I worked for compensated its employees for relocation. When I raised the issue with my male manager, his response surprised me. He believed I shouldn’t raise the allowance as I was married. My husband should be the one to apply for it from his employers.
I asked my manager whether he would have given a male employee the same suggestion. He remained mum. For the first time, I realised my company didn’t view me as an employee, but as a woman who was married. It was my foremost brush with gender discrimination.
It wasn’t long before I faced workplace sexism again. This time in Pune, in a new team and with another male manager who was based in Bangalore. At that time, I was undergoing hormonal treatment for gynaecological issues. I had informed my manager about it in confidence.
During the same period, I argued with my subordinate over certain work-related issues and reported it to my manager. He opined that the extra hormones coursing through my bloodstream were making me unpredictable and prone to overreacting.
When faced with a copy of the relevant chats and my challenge to cite the instances of my ‘overreacting’, he had no answer. I was informed later, from multiple sources, about the depth of his unprofessional behaviour: he had discussed my medical issues with the other members of my team as well as other divisions over lunch. Yes, the same ones I had confided in him.
Let us examine how sexism and gender bias has wrapped its tentacles around urban India.
The most obvious discrimination has its roots in money. Talking specifically about the IT-ITeS sector, the Monster Salary Index states that women, on average, are paid 26 percent lesser for equal amounts of work.
The bias is extended during the promotion cycles, too. The perception endorsing the disparity is the ‘deficit of fit’. Women are considered to be less competent, incapable of handling teams or even themselves during stressful situations.
Qualified women are overlooked for promotions in lieu of even lesser qualified men, which explains the meagre four percent of women in C-suite leadership positions.
Women who have been newly married, pregnant, or have re-joined work after childbirth are usually placed on the bench. The mindset that denies them integral roles in projects is steeped in the absurd notion that their contribution will be adversely affected by their marital status or pregnancy or parenting.
Another major rung in the inequality ladder is the boys’ club. Most official decisions are generally taken in non-official locations. Men, especially in leadership positions, make decisions about the future of a project while taking informal breaks, or what is colloquially known as a ‘sutta break’ or smoking sessions. The discussion-making continues even though the board room is exchanged for open-air areas.
Women traditionally are not encouraged to smoke and, in most cases, are not invited to these breakout sessions. This results in their absence when key decisions are being taken, decisions that fall under the purview of their jobs.
But it is not restricted to only cigarette breaks. Women are not welcome at after-office parties in bars or restaurants, where men form contacts and build networks. Even if there is no ‘official’ barrier to their participation, women opt out as they end up paying the penalty for crimes against them: safety and security concerns of staying out late at night, or the fear of sexual harassment around a group of men who have had a bit too much to drink.
I have coined a term for this phenomenon, ‘networking interruptus’. Since women are denied the chance to network, their prospects of learning about new opportunities or using these sojourns as steps in career advancements are refused.
A PATRIARCHAL PENALTY
The prejudice is further carried into the workspace. Most women complain of managerial bias. They claim performance standards and expectations differ on a gender basis, even for the same levels or bands. Women need to prove their worth more often than men as if to justify their presence.
Further, most women also have the lopsided burden of domestic responsibilities as primary caregivers at home. The fear of being attacked while travelling or in their workplaces after office hours doesn’t fill female employees with confidence. For these reasons, most women leave offices on time while their male colleagues choose to stay in for long hours.
This leads to a skewed perception of ‘face time’, which colours their appraisals unfavourably and unfairly labels women as shirking employees. Employees who are present in the offices for lengthier durations translate to being more hardworking. Which in itself is a fallacy.
In addition to these pain points, women are subjected to lewd remarks, patriarchal comments and, in worst cases, sexual innuendos. Improper statements about their weight, hairstyles or fashion choices are the norm in many Indian workplaces.
While some companies do have a zero-tolerance policy about it, more often than not the abuser creates a corrosive and unhealthy environment for the female employee, leaving the woman with no other option but to either resign or tolerate the verbal or physical abuse.
Mansplaining is another side-effect of gender inequality, where men talk over women and speak condescendingly to their female colleagues. Several studies have also found that ‘manologues’ and ‘manterrupting’ are hallmarks of the conference room, and men simply do not allow women equal airtime.
The root of the points mentioned above lies in consent. Or the lack of it. Even if companies wish to promote their staff diversity, they often end up doing so by pushing women into events, activities or positions they don’t find interesting or appealing. Pre-decided career paths are forced down their throats, with no regard to their choices or areas of interest.
The solution is to ask women what they want to do and not expect them to toe the line in the name of promoting women employees. This practice of letting women choose starts from our homes, as children. Giving girls the right to make their own choices and then guiding and mentoring them is the only way to raise confident women.