We need big changes to bridge the 100-year gender gap

Conversations around gender need to get louder and solutions’ more creative. We need to stay away from blanket solutions, rethink old advice and open the door to uncomfortable conversations.
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Over the last decade there has been a forward march on gender diversity. As per the India Skill Report, female employment in India stood at 47 percent in 2019, up against 38 percent in 2017. McKinsey points out that women representation in the C-suite increased from 17 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2019. Not a significant jump, but an increase, nonetheless. Despite this progress, we still have a fair distance to cover.

The WEF’s Gender Gap Index 2020 mentions that it will take 100 years to close the gender gap. This means, conversations around gender need to get louder and solutions’ more creative. It also means staying away from blanket solutions, rethinking old advice and opening the door to uncomfortable conversations.

As a disclaimer, this article is not a five-point plan to help you achieve gender diversity metrics at the workplace; rather, I am sharing some insights and observations along with hard hitting changes that I believe need to happen, if we want to make real progress on gender equality.

Find your tribe

If I had a penny for each time, I’ve heard someone say, ‘Women need to network more’, I would be a millionaire. I have often seen women struggle with this term. Does ‘network more’ imply that one should be seen at office get-togethers, make connections with the right people, and be part of an ‘inner circle’ to progress their careers? When women are served up this advice, they usually ask – don’t work and competence matter? Or, how do I make time for this when I am juggling so many priorities at home and work?

The truth is women are excellent at networking - ask them what’s happening in their children’s school or find household help and you’ll know. Instead of telling women to network more, which could be vague and overarching, maybe we should be asking them to find their own tribe, channeling their innate ability to network to create several mini networks. So, for instance, there may be a go-to network in office for you to speak your mind, and another where you seek technical mentorship and career advice or maybe one where you hang out with folks who share your passion for food and films. Women are known to make deep and authentic connections – we should leverage that to create a holistic and meaningful ecosystem that helps them grow and flourish.

Demand more at home

In her book “Invisible Women – Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”, the author Caroline Criado-Perez points to an alarming statistic - world-over about 75 percent of unpaid work is done by women. Years of societal conditioning has given us gendered roles and responsibilities – men go out and earn and women stay home to look after the family. While women have entered the workforce in large numbers, challenging the exclusivity of men as ‘bread winners’, the distribution of labour at home remains unchanged.

Women continue to be primary caregivers and most of them have internalised this role. But, if we are now one part of the double income family, then shouldn’t we demand more partnership and sharing at home? Women have to get comfortable having these conversations – one, with ourselves to break the barriers in our mind; and second, with our partners. And here’s a question for fathers - how would you want your daughters to be supported by their partners, and why not start with setting an example at home?

Guilt as a compass

A good friend once told me, “While we welcome the joy of being a mother, we burden ourselves with guilt”. A report by GCWL indicates that 48 percent of women drop out within four months of returning from maternity leave. The burden of social expectations often leaves them in a dilemma, as they struggle to prioritise between their family and work. Instead of constantly questioning their capabilities as mothers, wives or daughters from the lens of societal expectations, it helps to look within and understand what your priorities are. Is dinner with your family important to you? Is attending your child’s school events a non-negotiable? Choose what matters the most and make that happen. Guilt can be paralysing or it can be a catalyst to act on what’s important to you, so direct it wisely.

Aspire for more

Today, there are more conversations than ever around flexibility, women-friendly policies, job sharing, sensitisation, etc. While these are necessary and important, we need to bear in mind that the end objective of these measures is not just to keep women in the workforce, but to empower them to reach their full potential.

I’ve seen managers unconsciously exclude women from critical assignments once they are back from maternity. While they are being genuinely supportive, an unintended consequence of this support is that they limit the scope for women in challenging roles.

What starts with unconscious bias by managers, often results in women losing the confidence to take on the challenging roles that create maximum impact. So, while we need to provide a supportive and flexible environment for both women and men, we also need to give women the opportunity to take on challenging roles. Women too must not self-select less demanding work; instead be open to critical jobs and ask for the right support to help achieve these goals.

Stop celebrating perfect role models

For the longest time, women role models have been stereotyped as super-achievers - a superwoman, who balances a demanding career with her equally demanding responsibilities as a wife and mother and does all this with ease and elegance. Our society celebrates women who seemingly ‘have it all.’ This puts tremendous pressure on women to pursue an unrealistic image of perfection.

Studies show that women suffer more stress than men, mainly because they bear the burden of domestic duties and emotional care. It’s time women reimagined their role models by redefining what success looks like. If success is establishing a healthy balance between work and personal life, then we should lean in to support systems, scale back our ‘to-do lists’ and reject impractical role models.

This does not mean settling for less, but level setting our dreams to what makes us happy and comfortable - as opposed to what society prescribes as ideal happiness and success. If we look around us, there are remarkable women from all walks of life – technologists, scientists, artists, authors – who may not fit into our nicely packaged ideal, and yet are trailblazers who have changed the world. Let’s embrace diversity in our role models too.

To end, navigating the complexities of gender equality may not be easy, but today a space is opening up for different voices to be heard. This is the best time to seize the opportunity, challenge conventional norms and drive change to reflect our new reality, aspirations and capabilities.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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