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Promoting gender sensitive workplaces – what can organizations do?

Tamanna Mishra
14th Aug 2017
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Fortunately, the gender and sexism discourse in relation to workplaces is finally taking shape in India. Organizations are finally taking baby steps towards making workplaces more conducive to women –stronger maternity leave policies, workplace safety, and are slightly more open to conversation on workplace harassment than they have been in the past.

But often, a lot of these actions either go unnoticed or seem symbolic at best. This is because policies rarely take care of generations of conditioning. For instance, ever since the longer maternity policies came into place, it is suddenly fair game for “men’s rights activists” (yes, they exist) to point out, “all in good humour” of course, that women are getting more “holidays”. It was fair game for my boss, a man on the wrong side of 50, to relentlessly advocate make up for women at the workplace, always ask the women on the team to take notes in meetings, or prefer to have conversations with me about pressure cookers and woks because what else was I supposed to any way?

Image : Shutterstock

Image : Shutterstock

The good thing in all of this is that women are much more conscious of common everyday sexism and are calling it out like never before. I am not embarrassed to admit that it took me that 50-year-old male boss to truly accept my identity as a feminist. At least something good came out of it!

Often, I find myself debating what the solution to all of this is. It is hard to pick up fights and be labelled everything from “bossy” to “unfunny”; not everyone is cut out for it. It is also quite wrong to put the onus on women to fight inadvertent and seemingly “harmless” sexism by pointing it out to figures of authority. Add to that the generations of conditioning that makes men entitled, which gives them full control of public spaces and discourse, and the inherent insensitivity towards everyday sexism in our culture in general. It is hard not to wonder whose responsibility it really is to solve the issue.

So I decided to read up a little on this and I was surprised that most of the discourse on workplace sexism eventually puts the onus on women – “5 ways to find out if your boss is sexist”, “how to tell your boss you are uncomfortable with his sexist jokes”, “how to speak up against workplace harassment”. For a culture that believes in being cautious and preventing instead of curing, our caution doesn’t seem to reflect much in the sexism discourse. I wonder why!

Of course, patriarchy must end, all genders must be entitled, we all must learn non-violent communication, and see the fine line between humour and deep-rooted sexism. But let’s face it, we are still in a world that still refuses to address gender pay parity.  Deep change will take time – there is no getting away from this fact. In the meantime, the onus is on the men too, to understand what they do wrong and how it reflects on them, as well as on organizations to adopt a no-tolerance policy to “casual sexism” on the sidelines of their significant policy changes.

While it is hard to accept that listicles are the solution to workplace sexism, I am going to make an effort if just to highlight what organizations of all sizes can adopt to counter the issue and bring some real change.

Recognizing privilege

Most workplaces have more men than women and any majority enables privilege. The issue, in my experience, is that men don’t recognize their male privilege or see how their passing comments affect their women colleagues. Most men believe there is no gender discrimination simply because they haven’t “seen it happen”.

The problem is that men are not trained to recognize the signs of sexism. They don’t see how asking women to take notes or do office housework like arranging for coffee and nibbles at a meeting, is inherently sexist. What can help? Open conversations. No blaming, no penalizing, but just being open about how to recognize sexism when it happens. Even if it is for the optics, when men see how their behaviour is sexist, they will be more conscious of it.

Gender sensitizing your male employees is not only a good-to-have drill; it is crucial to develop a diverse and aware workforce and culture. 

Understanding exclusion

Without even recognizing their bias, I have heard male managers point out how their woman employee is suddenly not “reliable”, because she’s getting married or is pregnant. I have also seen certain types of projects being given to specific genders. For instance, lingerie accounts are for women, automotive clients for men. Gender roles are not just limited to homes, it has made its way into workplaces too.

The problem in such situations is that while women with more exposure might be able to claim their right to equality, others might be more prone to accept what comes their way, making them less likely to report instances of exclusion. This is why organisations can't put the onus on women alone to report bias before they take action. It is upon organizations to sensitize women employees to recognize bias too.

The change needs to be intrinsic to the organization's culture. Gender-based exclusion and bias is a serious cultural flaw and needs to be controlled before it makes your organisation unfit for ambitious women and mars your brand's reputation.

Proactive training and development

According to applied sociologist Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, “Gender relations in the workplace require active and on-going management. It means offering mandatory equity and diversity training as a condition of employment. It means providing a safe avenue to routinely check in with women and men to ensure that gender exclusion is being addressed – using routine surveys, interview research, mediation and other organisational evaluations. It means providing formal avenues for women to access mentorship and other professional support. It means drawing on social science tools to regularly measure the progress of your workers at both an individual and organisational level.”

She says that if an organization wants to extract the very best from its employees, it must stay reflexive about gender and diversity matters. Emphasizing on periodically reflecting on workplace patterns, interactions and policies, then changing practices as a result of the observations. Reflecting doesn’t mean relying on personal opinions and experiences, including what one thinks he sees or doesn’t see. Gender dynamics work beyond individual perception, it requires in-depth, social scientific support.

Rope in external evaluators

Several independent social scientists, consultants and organizations such as Gender At Work and Global Citizen India work in the space of gender equality at the workplace. An external consultant can ascertain gender dynamics of your organization from an objective, outsider’s point of view and establish training needs. They use scientific methods to analyse policies vis-a-vis behaviour to point out specific problem areas and educate employees and managers to recognize deep-seated “casual sexism”.

Eventually, organizations must understand the cultural backgrounds and nuances that their male and female employees bring to the workplace and how it impacts gender dynamics. Instead of waiting for female employees to report cases of sexism or harassment and consequently penalizing male employees, organizations need to prevent such instances.

As the gender discourse takes shape in our society and more women join the workforce, the onus is on organizations to prevent losing valuable employees – men and women – because of their lack of timely investment in the most crucial element of workplace culture. We don’t want another TVF and for that, the dude bro culture of our current workplaces needs to go. It is a shared goal, a collective responsibility.

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