Resolving Workplace Gender Inequality in India
by Prerna Chander
Introduction to and Presentation of the Problem
The developments of the 21st century have ensured that women are in the best positions to influence financial and social circumstances. Women have made astounding strides in the workforce by flooding non-traditional, male-dominated fields such as technology, engineering and business. However, despite women taking a stance and trying to break down conventional gender barriers, they face an enormous amount of discrimination in their respective places of work associated with their gender. Gender inequality in the workplace establishes itself in a variety of forms such as unequal pay, less employment and leadership opportunities, and sexual harassment. This inequality is particularly apparent in India where the gender gap is one of the broadest in the world. India has one of the world’s lowest rates of female labor force participation. According to the report released by the McKinsey Global Institute (2015), the participation rates of Indian females is only 21% and 36% in urban and rural areas respectively compared to that of men which is 76% and 81% correspondingly (p. 7).
The two most recent laws passed by the Indian government to address this issue are The Companies Act, 2013, which states that every publicly listed company must employ a female director on the Board (Ministry of Law and Justice, 2013) and The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which provides protection against sexual harassment. In spite of progressive laws being enacted, workplace disparity continues to persist. For example, the sexual harassment law requires companies to describe their sexual harassment policies and procedures, hold routine seminars and activities to spread awareness. But most companies have not described these policies as yet and they are not able to address the issue of gender inequality correctly (Ministry of Women & Child Development, 2013).
The problem was brought to light in an interview conducted by The Atlantic in 2014, where they conversed with the most successful Indian woman in the world, Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo. Nooyi mentioned that she arrived home late one night after receiving news that she was to become the president of PepsiCo. As she was about to share the news with her mother, her mother shot her down and asked her to go out and fetch some milk. “Leave your crown in the garage,” she said, “You might be the president of PepsiCo, but when you enter this house, you're the wife, you're the daughter, you're the daughter-in-law, you're the mother” (Friedersdorf, 2014). This interview sparked discussion within India concerning Indian women and if they can “have it all.” Traditional Indian customs dictate that women must give priority to family over everything else. They are accountable for domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning in addition to childcare, while men are expected to be the main providers of the family. Women face a lot of pressure to quit their jobs post marriage or motherhood. In a survey of a 1,000 Indian women by the Centre for Work Life Policy in 2010, it was found that 51% felt coerced to quit work after marriage and 52% felt likewise after having children (as cited by Poddar, 2010, para. 3).
Apart from social dictations, women do have personal reasons to drop out of work. Companies in India do not seem to demonstrate an understanding of the challenges faced by working Indian women. One main concern of Indian women is their safety while travelling to and from work. As mentioned in the article by The Times of India (2016), incidents of rape and harassment on local trains are widespread and the Indian railway associations provide no security measures. Rather, they brush off the issue and claim that women can resolve the issue themselves. Another major apprehension is job security revolving around maternity leave. As Arya (2015) states, while Indian companies may have maternity rules that ensure job protection and paid leave, the reality is completely different. Most women are either denied their job or are given less responsibility in the belief that they are now less dependable. Moreover, employers do not provide adequate childcare facilities or employ initiatives to women that will ensure persistence and dedication to their careers. As mentioned by Srinivasan, Murty and Nakra (2013), these insubstantial support systems force women to make compromises between their duty as a mother and wife and their role as a career professional (p. 215). To overcome this major barrier to a developed society and country, how can India best ensure gender equality in the workplace?
Figure 1: Working Indian woman trying to balance work life and child care
(Getty Images, n.d.)
The Role of Companies in Addressing Gender Inequality in the Workplace
In order to address all the issues faced by Indian women, to allow them to gain the same work opportunities as men and to augment their personal and professional lives, it is necessary for companies to execute work-life balance policies and invest in amenities that provide flexible options to working women. Some prospective strategies include establishing flexi-work options, such as reduced hours or work-from-home opportunities, extended maternity leaves, child care facilities like day care, and safe transportation options. As reported by the McKinsey Global Institute (2015), the “double burden” for women in being able to manage work life and familial life is the biggest limitation to increasing gender equality in all levels of management and that focusing on human resources policies such as these will help Indian companies “recruit, retain, promote and develop women” (p. 21). It is necessary to therefore explain the major steps that need to be undertaken within Indian companies by outlining some existing policies in various companies, and the necessity for these schemes to be adopted on a larger scale throughout India.
One of the most important measures that need to be carried out is the implementation of a gender equality committee such as the “Diversity Council in India” that has been set up by the Deutsche Bank. As described by Hewlett and Rashid (2011), this council is presently concentrating its efforts on the issues faced by women at the workplace and how women can be empowered. By means of this council, Deutsche Bank has been able to instigate many new laws regarding maternity leaves such as the ability to opt for flexible work hours for up to two months after the end of their maternity leave. They have also implemented a “maternity coaching program” wherein they train new mothers and their office managers separately on how to deal with this transition smoothly (p. 214). As discussed above, domestic and maternal pulls are held at a great esteem for Indian women and the lack of consideration shown by their companies ends their careers. This step is a very practical and sensitive way to handle the situation, and will make a great impact if undertaken. Job satisfaction will rise a great deal and will ensure that women continue to remain in their fields of work.
Although the argument for flexi-work may seem ideal, the reason many companies choose not to implement it is because of the concern that cutting down working hours might immobilize business. While this is a valid concern, the data cited by The Economic Times proves otherwise. The data shows that 69% of prospective Indian job seekers see flexible work options as a positive step, while 77% of workers mentioning that it is a highly valued advantage that they look out for while selecting their jobs (Chaturvedi, 2016, para. 3). The article also notes that this option increases productivity and efficiency as it is a convenient solution. It is also important to note that flexibility in the workplace does not only apply to working women, but rather to men as well. 77% of women and 69% of men in India consider this a priority for work-life balance to each fit their personal needs (Chaturvedi, 2016, para. 4). In order for companies to remain competitive in their global status and top choice employers, flexible work options are a must.
An example of a possible flexi-work option can be adapted from the innovative idea put into effect recently by the leading tech company, Lenovo India. As revealed in The Times of India, there are no official working hours for the employees. Employees determine how much time they need to spend in the office, and can follow it accordingly as long as their work is done and deadlines are met. Their system is based on the model of trust, treating their employees as equals and only taking away the privilege from those who misuse it, rather than disrupt the lives of the majority of their staff. This progressive step terminates the conventional nine-to-five working model which is not as economical, and increases the quality of life for the employees (Singh, 2016).
Furthermore, one additional step that should be addressed is the safety of women while travelling back and forth from work. As stated by Hewlett and Rashid (2011), a significant step taken by the offices of Google India is that they provide shared cabs for their 1,200 employees in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Gurgaon. The system is very safe and convenient; three employees are often grouped together according to their time slot preferences and are picked up and dropped off right at their doorstep. This option eases stress related to safety in public transport as well as the hassle of enduring slow traffic (p. 220).
One main concern of employers is the costs that will go into implementing such strategies. While most of these policies do not cost money, executing schemes for transport or childcare will definitely be an extra expense for the company. However, this solution serves as the most realistic and practical one on the large scale. As reported by the McKinsey Global Institute (2015), the benefits are innumerable. If India were to implement these steps towards gender impartiality in the workplace, $2.9 trillion could be added to the GDP by 2025, which is 60% more than it would be if the situation is unchanged. India can also bring 68 million more women into the workforce by 2025. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, work-life balance policies also increases productivity and better performance within companies and ensures that there are hard-working and talented individuals to boost the company’s goals and image (n.d.). This is a domino effect of sorts; as women remain in companies, the company achieves more and in turn the nation grows as well.
The Role of Men in Addressing Gender Inequality in the Workplace
An alternative solution that can be considered is changing workplace culture. People in positions of power or senior level managers, mainly men, need to actively champion and advocate for women’s rights in the workplace. As mentioned in the Catalyst Information Centre Report (2012), numerous organizations have been established in this respect to eliminate gender bias in the workplace including the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) and Men Advocating Real Change (MARC). MARC, for example, provides employees with facts about workplace inequality and the best practices for men to take in order to play their part in shifting gender stereotypes. These actions include being attentive towards behaviors that make female co-workers uncomfortable, spreading awareness amongst other male colleagues, and reporting deeds of gender bias. Engaging men to take on the path to an inclusive workplace is essential to bring awareness to all individuals and to embrace workplace diversity (p.5).
However, for men to provide support towards the cause of equality in the workplace, it is imperative that men recognize that inequality does exist. According to The Huffington Post India, men regard the problem of inequality in the workplace as an unimportant one and term it as a “women’s issue.” Most men choose to be in the dark about the issue because they believe that promoting the cause will impede opportunities for men – “that a gain for women could only come at a loss for men” (“First Step: Engaging Men”, 2012, p. 1). This creates an obstacle between men and women which leads to no cooperation or advancement of equality within the workplace (Irde, 2016). To educate men in order to make them understand the benefits of equality is a very time consuming process. While it might work in the long run, it does not serve as a good immediate solution that can be implemented. It also does not serve as a good enough incentive for women to persist at their respective careers as it does not address the issues that make women quit their jobs.
Figure 2: Mural created by Indian college students to highlight the need for work-life balance (Brett Cole, n.d.)
The Importance of Social Awareness in Addressing Gender Inequality in the Workplace
Another solution that can be deliberated is changing individual mentalities. As mentioned earlier, marriage is seen as the ultimate goal for an Indian woman, and a career is just something to preoccupy them with until then. As mentioned by The Huffington Post India (2016), unless there is a change in mindset, women’s professional growth and development will fall short. Given the biased nature of these deeply ingrained viewpoints, traditional gender roles must shift and Indian society needs to recognize that gender equality prevails. In order to do this, awareness needs to be spread within Indian communities. This requires a massive change in the education system of Indian youth along with implementation of awareness campaigns to change people’s perception of the issue. Girls in schools also need to be given leadership roles to raise their aspirations and children need to be taught from a young age about the problem faced by women in order to be sensitive towards the issue and recognize and report the instances in which it happens. Awareness drives also need to be launched in workplaces or places of popular interest to spread the knowledge of the issue, not just to children, but to common people as well.
While this solution may seem like a good foundation to build upon, implementing such a large scale attitude change is quite impossible. As India is a huge country with a population of 1.25 billion, wherein each of the 29 states there are people with different cultures, religions and beliefs, there is no telling how and when this solution will influence the mind of every Indian and inspire them to change their viewpoints. In a poll conducted by The Times of India (2013), 36% of the participants agreed that it is not possible for the Indian outlook on women to change. A change in mindset, to them, seems like an excuse that Indian authorities make when they do not want to address the issue appropriately. This solution is not pragmatic at all; rather, it is quite idealistic. It prolongs the justice that Indian women deserve without taking any solid action to address the predicaments faced by them.
Gender inequality in the workplace is primarily an issue of ethics and human rights. This is a very significant matter because, as mentioned by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, a vast number of UN bodies such as UNICEF and UNDP have acknowledged that in order to address global issues, it is vital that individuals’ human rights be attended to first. Human rights declare that all human beings are allowed a life of dignity and social justice. It is the legal responsibility of the State to ensure that human rights are being fulfilled and the citizens of their country are living in an environment without exclusion and discrimination (Goonesekere, n.d.).
The Constitution of India regulates the laws of liberty and equality. According to Article 15 of the Constitution, discrimination on the basis of gender is forbidden. It also calls for special provisions to be made for women to help them out, which will not be considered as gender bias, but rather as a support for women in India (“Constitution of India, Article 15”, n.d.). Additionally, Article 16 of the Constitution states that should be equal prospects for all citizens irrespective of sex in terms of employment (“Constitution of India, Article 16”, n.d.).
Considering the laws put forth by the Constitution, the current situation is a breach of the fundamental human rights of equality and it is indefensible that women are being treated unjustly as compared to their male counterparts. This is why the solution proposed in this paper is ideal. By providing work-life balance policies, companies are recognizing the value of female employees and arranging facilities to ensure that they are provided the basic constitutional rights.
Apart from the advantage of economic growth that Indian companies – and India as a whole along with them – will profit from if these schemes are implemented, companies also benefit in different, non-financial ways if gender equality is practiced in the workplace. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (2014), higher rates of female employment develops decision making and organization, lowers risk-taking, and fosters diversity and creativity within the company. Equality in the corporate world is considered a mandatory element in order to exhibit business strategy (p. 8).
Women in the workplace can bring a variety of different skills and talents which companies would lose out on if they do not engage or by decreasing female representation. For this reason, it is important to ensure job retention within the female workforce. This is possible through the solution proposed in this paper. By providing flexi-work options, women are more likely to remain in the workforce and instigate the profits for the company.
For companies to respond to these issues faced by women and to find solutions is not an easy task. It requires time, dedication, and the knowledge and recognition of the problem from global and local perspectives in order to ensure that their employees are treated considerately and appropriately. However, as mentioned by means of the various examples above, a variety of companies in India such as Google and Lenovo have adopted the work-life balance approach successfully in order to make life easier for women and to ensure that the labor potential of women is not ignored.
If it is possible for companies within India to provide these amenities for their employees, there should not be any reason for which other companies cannot implement the same. A significant point to be noted about this solution is that it is very adaptable. Work-life balance can be defined differently for each individual within the workplace, and so there is no limitation to what different approaches a company can take to address the issue.
Gender inequality in the workplace in India needs to be addressed and curbed. The solution proposed in this paper is an all-encompassing one as by taking these steps to ensure work-life balance, most of the issues faced by women are resolved. Alternative solutions include changing individual mindsets and transforming workplace culture. While these seem effective, they are quite impractical if the issue needs to be solved urgently. These solutions rely on the idea that people’s beliefs can be easily influenced, which is not the actual case. However, work-life balance options can be carried out easily with a high chance of success as various companies in India have done the same. The benefits of an inclusive workplace are innumerable. Companies that practice gender equality tend to perform better than those that do not and organizations that have women in leadership roles tend to follow ethical procedures more. Furthermore, capitalizing on the female labor force improves the welfare and growth of the country as a whole.
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Prerna Chander is currently a sophomore student studying Computer Science at AUS. Some of her hobbies include reading, travelling and binge watching her favorite shows. As she is from India, it is no surprise that she wishes to follow the 'Indian Techie' stereotype upon graduation: Working for a big company, making lots of money, and living happily ever after.