In the recent US presidential debate, two men accused of sexual harassment discussed how they would manage women’s reproductive rights across the country. Of the 2,095 billionaires as of today, 241 are women. Serena Williams holds three more Grand Slam titles than Roger Federer, but you can’t find her (or another woman) on the list of the world’s highest-paid athletes.
Time and again we’ve heard people say, “I don’t know what women are still talking about. Sexism isn’t like it was before!” And that’s exactly right. Sexism isn’t like it was before, not for many women. But it hasn’t vanished, only changed form. To see it’s newest avatar, one needn’t look further than the global formal workforce.
In India, the female workforce has been declining, especially in the formal economy. Men outnumber women in every position, every profession, of every field in every sector; including, to the surprise of many, the non-profit space. The problem of women’s underrepresentation is then not a particular but global phenomenon. Every industry is complicit, and my own experiences have reminded me time and again that we are all the poorer for it.
Keeping women out of the workforce has never done men much good! The pressure to be a breadwinner in today’s economy is severe. In a typical household, the burden of managing finances, savings, insurances, tax filings all fall on the patriarch of the family. Having no one to share the load with, this burden has a considerable impact on men’s self-esteem and mental health. By keeping women out of the picture, the world is losing millions of skilled workers in every sphere. Efficient hands and educated minds are going to waste. So in the end, no one wins.
And this exclusion hampers efficiency in the managerial space. In America’s Competitive Secret: Women Managers, Judy B. Rosener’s research found that while male managers favoured a ‘command and control’ style, women managers largely preferred adopting an ‘interactive and collaborative’ style of leadership. We know for a fact that the latter style is incredibly effective. In fact, many corporate management courses are designed to train managers to engender just that! Men who are trained in this style are commended for their leadership. So if women have the skills, why aren’t we promoting them as much?
In other words, what’s the barrier? Why have workplaces proven slow to accept women? I had the privilege of being managed by an incredibly accomplished and industrious woman at the very onset of my career. I can proudly say that under her guidance, I came to learn much of what has shaped my thinking, skills, and practices in the workplace. Not everyone is as lucky, and often the lucky ones don’t gauge their luck. In 2018, a study found that male teachers were more likely to leave their jobs if under female management. Moreover, of all the transfer requests by male teachers, most were to schools with male management. No such imbalance was found in the conduct of female teachers. It’s an open secret that some degree of such resistance also applies to most of the workplaces we know. To put it bluntly, we don’t like women telling us what to do simply because they are women.
So how do we break this barrier? Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talks about “lean-in feminism”, explaining that women will only get a seat at the table in male-dominant spaces when they learn to ape masculinity. Being more assertive, being stoic, losing their maternal softness — Sandberg believes that women’s empowerment looks like getting rid of femininity and conforming to masculine spaces.
An unfortunate message to women world over! This is a recipe for a disastrous culture. Not only will this trend keep in place the global phenomenon of looking down upon femininity as a disability, but also ensure that women who can’t or don’t wish to conform will find themselves not being given their due worth. This especially affects trans women and anyone else to whom expressing femininity is an essential part of their identity.
Moreover, as Former Canadian PM Kim Campbell points out, women who ape masculinity often face pushback in the workplace. Being too assertive, having too much initiative, being unwilling to compromise, giving critique — these are traits that workplaces find desirable in men but “too much” in women. “These things are not tolerated from women,” Campbell confirms.
Women shouldn’t need to fit into a masculine space; the masculine space must evolve to accept femininity. How can this be done? First, this would have to include the most obvious need of an end to workplace harassment culture. Subtle sexist comments, coercion, and everything in between is more common in the formal Indian workplace than any ideal society would hope. Taking the guidance of gender experts to create and implement anti-discrimination internal policies, as well as ensuring the promotion of deserving women to leadership roles should be the first steps in ensuring a safe work environment.
Second, the Indian family needs a radical revamp. Fathers will have to take on more caregiving roles to allow both spouses to equally pursue their careers while still maintaining a household and family. This will have to be coupled with paid maternity and paternity leave, so as to not burden new parents with deciding which one of them goes to work and which one of them takes on the primary caregiver’s role.
Lastly, female-female mentorship programmes should be made more widely available to women in every industry. Women-only spaces are a cornerstone in allowing a flourishing of ideas and experiences without the constraints of the male-gaze and social expectations. With the gender wage gap in India showing no signs of slowing down, we require more such spaces for women to come together and prop one-another up in their careers now more than ever!
A co-COVID world is not the time to uphold traditional conservative division of labour. What we need is radical intersectional inclusion — the only way to ensure all hands on deck. It’s high time industry did itself the favour of giving merit its due without prejudice. There’s no moving forward while holding back half of humanity!
–Viiveck Verma – Founder – Upsurge Global & Senior Advisor – Telangana State Innovation Cell