‘Othering of Women in the Workplace: A Deep Crack Requiring Repair’
Featuring Avnie Garg’s creative piece that developed as an original project over her term at the Young India Fellowship
This is an analytical paper that looks at different factors that lead to the ‘othering’ of women at the workplace(s) and what has prevented their equal participation in the workforce. Having understood the issues, the paper also suggests some measures to mitigate the problem.
“Of all the negative influences that can hamper a business from realising its full potential from its employees, ‘otherness’ is perhaps the most subtle—and, in many ways, the most insidious—of all.” (Hitchiner 2016)
What do you feel about the phrase ‘women in the workplace’? Do the words ‘women’ and ‘workplace’ seem odd together? Does the phrase make you sad because it brings to your mind a harsh reality? Do these words remind you about a case of harassment in your office? Does the phrase appear to be borrowed from a book on feminism? Irrespective of what your answer is to the above questions, this paper is for you if you are willing to explore ‘women’ and ‘workplace’ together.
The phenomenon of ‘othering’ has a subtle way of playing out at the workplace. A common way in which it manifests itself is through gender. The yearly “Women in the Workplace” reports by McKinsey have consistently produced evidence to indicate that women are barred from getting equal opportunities and fair treatment in the workplace, which is dominated by men, both in number and authority. Many companies do not realise that the under-representation of women is a problem; those that do, do not know how to deal with it. This paper analyses the implicit and explicit problems that women face at the workplace, and how having more women in the workforce is momentous for an organisation. Towards the end, the paper attempts to explain why the existing solutions to promote the participation of women in work are inadequate, and also discusses some of the approaches used to bridge the gender gap and make women feel included. This paper attempts to develop a nuanced understanding of the brunt borne by different categories of women (for example, women of colour, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women). The point of the paper is to corroborate that there is a problem with ‘othering’ of women in the workplace, and to look at the problem optimistically by suggesting some solutions. Out of all the workplaces, the paper refers to the workplaces that form part of the formal and organised sector, unless stated otherwise.
Two Dimensions of Gender Diversity
This paper analyses the problem with workplace gender diversity through two broad dimensions. The first dimension is the limited opportunities available to women to get hired and promoted. In the corporate hierarchy pipeline, “women are unable to enter, stuck at the middle, or locked out of the top” (Krivkovich et al. 2016). The second dimension deals with everyday discrimination, explicit or subtle, that women encounter at the workplace. While explicit discrimination can include cases of sexual harassment, subtle discrimination can include a feeling of ‘otherness’. The feeling of ‘otherness’ can have serious repercussions on an employee’s behaviour and productivity (Hitchiner 2016). In both cases, women get discouraged from entering and continuing in the workplace. Hence, to address the issue of gender diversity at the workplace, it is critical to analyse what leads to some of these problems.
First Dimension: Few Women Hired and Promoted
Why are fewer women hired in comparison to men? There are certain ‘blind spots’ in this regard. Many organisations do not realise, in the first place, that they do not have gender parity. Many employees are of the view that women are well represented in leadership positions, because to them, even a few women seem to be a good representation when compared to no women at all. Employees are ‘comfortable with the status quo’ and do not feel the need for change (Krivkovich et al. 2017). Secondly, increasing the gender diversity of the organisation may not be an important goal for the top management. A study showed that typically when a human resource head of an organisation is asked about gender diversity as an agenda, the usual answer is that it is among the top three priorities. On the other hand, merely 37 percent CEOs and about 20 percent line managers of organisations rank gender diversity in their top three or four priorities (London et al.). When the top leadership of an organisation does not find this agenda salient, it is much more challenging to enhance the participation of women in the workforce. Thirdly, corporate organisations feel that women, who have to deal with periods and pregnancy, are less productive than men. As far as promotions are concerned, it is generally believed that women leave the workforce due to reasons concerning family and children, and hence a meagre percentage of women move up the career ladder. But, in fact, research shows the opposite. The attrition for women is lower than men (London et al.). Thus, unconscious bias comes into play while hiring and promoting women. Even for a country like the USA, it will take more than 100 years to reach gender parity in top-level management, called the C-suite, given the current rate of improvement (London et al.).
Later in the paper, we look at solutions to correct the problem of few women being hired and promoted.
Second Dimension: Everyday Discrimination
In addition to the quantitative exclusion of women at the workplace, the second broad problem is related to the day-to-day realities that create obstacles to women’s growth in the organisation. An atmosphere of discomfort for women at the workplace hinders them from reaching their full potential. These include “everyday discrimination, sexual harassment, and the experience of being the only woman in the room” (Krivkovich et al. 2018). Let’s explore each of these three issues.
Everyday discrimination is inconspicuous in nature; it includes instances such as making jokes about a woman coworker’s capabilities, judging women if they talk about their personal lives at work, and mistaking a woman at the senior level for being in a junior position. Women have to constantly prove their competence, and their judgments are questioned even in their area of expertise (Krivkovich et al. 2018).
Sexual harassment at work is rampant, and most of it goes unnoticed. Many women have faced sexist jokes and/or have been touched in a sexual way at some point in their careers (Krivkovich et al. 2018). Most men are silent spectators to it, and most women laugh it off. Women find it ‘risky or pointless’ to report an incident of sexual harassment (Krivkovich et al. 2018). At this point, one might want to ponder: Does this not indicate how unsafe women feel at the thought of speaking up against sexual harassment? or does this also signify that women know that they won’t be heard? Later, the paper briefly touches upon The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, popularly known as the POSH Act (Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act).
Another problem is that of being the only woman in the room at work. It is not just about the quantitative presence of women in the workplace; it is also about the behaviour that the only woman meets. This woman is at a higher risk of sexual harassment, and she also feels that she is always under scrutiny. The only woman becomes a ‘litmus test for what all women are capable of doing’. This experience is in contrast to men’s experience as an insignificant proportion of men reported that they are the only male member in the room; whenever they are, they ‘feel included’ at the workplace (Krivkovich et al. 2018). Thus, the capabilities of the only man at the workplace are not doubted. The only man does not feel discriminated against at the place of work, which is in sharp contrast to the experience of the only woman.
Dealing with Segments of Women at Work
All the problems that women encounter in the workplace and the feeling of otherness are amplified for women of colour working among Whites, and lesbian and bisexual women. For a moment, imagine that you are an Indian woman dreaming to live and work abroad, let’s say, in the USA. Talk about women in corporate America: while “1 in 5 C-suite executives is a woman, only 1 in 25 C-suite executives is a woman of color” (Huang et al. 2019). Women of colour have to work extra hard to prove their worth. They have a hard time finding mentors from the C-suite and senior executive levels. They are not provided career-advancing projects. Lesbian and bisexual women have to ‘downsize their aspirations’ at work. They have to be fine with the fact that they may not get good projects or promotions even if they have high potential (Thorpe-Moscon & Pollack 2014). Around three-fourths of the lesbians have heard demeaning remarks at the workplace (Krivkovich et al. 2018). Given the hardships that they face, will solutions that improve the situation in general for women also improve the situation for all segments of women? Towards the end, the paper reviews the one-size-fits-all approach.
An interesting point to note is that even infrastructurally, the workplace is not conducive to women. Take, for example, the temperature set for air conditioning at the workplace. The metabolic rate of women is significantly lower than men. Ignoring this fact, the room temperature in offices is set to be fit typically for the male body, making the current offices “five degrees too cold for women” on an average (Criado-Perez). Similarly, various gadgets, tools, and equipment required for work are designed as per the average male size. For example, the standard equipment employed at a construction site is designed around the male body, leading to “higher rates of sprains, strains and nerve conditions of the wrist and forearm” in women (Criado-Perez). The size of a standard brick and a hand wrench is too big to be gripped properly by a woman’s hand; devices such as keyboards and 5.5-inch mobile phones are designed according to the male hand; women in safety-related work are always at risk because the standard safety harnesses are ill-fitting for women (Criado-Perez). The compromises that women have to make with regard to the personal protective equipment (PPE) can prove to be fatal:
In 1997, a British female police officer was stabbed and killed while using a hydraulic ram to enter a flat. She had removed her body armour because it was too difficult to use the ram while wearing it. Two years later, a female police officer revealed that she had had to have breast-reduction surgery because of the health effects of wearing her body armour. After this case was reported, another 700 officers in the same force came forward to complain about the standard-issue protective vest.
But although the complaints have been coming regularly over the past 20 years, little seems to have been done. British female police officers report being bruised by their kit belts; a number have had to have physiotherapy because of the way stab vests sit on their body; many complain there is no space for their breasts. This is not only uncomfortable, it also results in stab vests coming up too short, leaving women unprotected (Criado-Perez).
Clearly, increasing the number of women employed will not solve all the problems that deter women’s participation in the workplace. It is of utmost importance that the workplace is designed keeping in mind that there are two kinds of people who work, and they have different bodies and bodily processes. So instead of parroting the age-old narrative that women are not made for jobs such as police work or construction, it is time to face the truth that certain jobs are infrastructurally designed ignoring women, or actively keeping them out.
Why Should Companies Consider Gender Diversity?
Evidently, if women join the workplace, there is going to be a need to redesign and restructure the workplace, which demands time and money investment. In that case, why should companies care about equal representation of genders? Even if the cost was not the issue, why should organisations care about gender diversity as a fair principle? Research shows that organisations get better financial returns when more women are added to the workforce. One sociological research shows that gender diversity attracts better investments because it signals to investors that a firm uses best practices and is ‘well-run’ (Turban). Another research indicates “a jump in stock prices after firms win an award related to diversity initiatives” (Turban). Further, the research claims that diverse teams bring more innovation, unique ideas, and different perspectives to the team (Turban). Thus, adding more women to the workforce can lead to multiple benefits for an organisation, including attracting top talent, getting better financial returns, and enticing investors. This all happens in a loop: surveys conducted by the job site Glassdoor produced results that suggest a majority of top employees, especially top women employees, look at “workforce diversity when evaluating an offer” (Turban). Therefore, to attract talented women to an organisation, there should already be good representation of women in the organisation.
In fact, better representation of women in the workforce proves to be fruitful not only for the organisation, but also for the socio-economic condition of the entire country, and many agencies of the United Nations (UN) swear by it. Women Empowerment Principles of the UN state that economic participation of women is necessary to “build powerful economies, create stable societies”, achieve goals for “sustainability, development and human rights, improve quality of life for families and communities”, and “boost the operations and goals of businesses” (Kaur 37). Considering the advantages that gender diversity brings with it, incurring the cost of making the workplace more gender-inclusive is justified.
Does Diversity Training Work?
Though there is difficulty associated with ensuring gender equality at work, firms have begun to recognise the advantages that gender diversity brings with it. Several companies have their solutions in place to improve gender diversity. Then, why has this goal not been attained at least for these organisations? One of the reasons is that many solutions do not work. Let’s look at diversity training or anti-bias training as a solution. Diversity training encourages positive interactions among group members belonging to diverse gender identities and/or social, economic, and cultural groups, and aims at reducing prejudice and discrimination. Anti-bias training makes people aware of their implicit biases and provides tools to eliminate discriminatory behaviour. The problem with such training is that these training methods normalise the message that ‘implicit bias is everywhere’. So, an interviewer begins to think that it is ‘normal’ for him/her to be biased in favour of some candidates. Besides, many trainers report that employees see diversity training as efforts to ‘control them’ and react with anger and resistance. This led to the finding that forcing anti-bias on someone, in fact, enhances their bias (“Can You Train People to Be Less Prejudiced?” BBC Worklife). Many men perceive that gender diversity efforts are disadvantageous to them (Krivkovich et al. 2017). They feel that hiring and promoting more women means that their share of the jobs is reduced. Hence, they commit to such initiatives less. Therefore, diversity training is definitely not the best solution for promoting gender diversity at the workplace.
Making Solutions Work
What can be some of the ways to address the problem of gender diversity in the workplace? First of all, recruiters and evaluators need to be made aware, through facts and figures and not simply training, that women are crucial to the development of the organisation. They should also be acquainted with the fact that the family-work-balance narrative against women is false and is not supported by research. This will convey to them that it is not okay to normalise their gender bias, as it will only be a disadvantage to the organisation. Thereafter, specific measures can be taken to target specific problems.
While hiring new candidates and reviewing the performance of the existing candidates, unconscious gender bias creeps in. To check this, the recruiters/reviewers should have clear criteria, such as a rating scale as opposed to an open-ended assessment. For example, a rating scale that allows them to rate candidates from 1 to 5 on the skills required for that job role as well as on the job fit will be more objective than making an open-ended assessment where they write why a candidate is not suitable for a role. In the case of an open-ended assessment, a recruiter might reject a candidate with thoughts such as ‘she was too soft’, or ‘I don’t think she will stay in the company for long as she seems to be of a marriageable age’. On the other hand, the rating scale will contain questions about proficiency in a particular skill, and a total score on such questions would help the recruiter exercise objectivity. However, it is important to note that having rating scales only will make the recruitment process quite mechanical, and thus a combination of a rating scale (the first step which can have more weightage and keeps gender bias in check) and an open-ended assessment (the second step which can have lesser weightage and helps make the process more human) will be ideal. Research shows that having a third party in the room can be helpful when evaluators discuss candidates as it makes it possible to “highlight potential bias and encourage objectivity” (Huang et al. 2019). After interviewing a candidate, they should ask themselves consciously what the basis is for accepting or rejecting them. Clearly listing out the factors can reduce the number of female rejections.
Even before interviewing, the first step is to send out a job posting, and how the job profile is described matters. The language of the job description is important; to describe the ideal candidate required, instead of using words such as ‘aggressive’, ‘ninja’, ‘rock star’, which are usually associated with a male, one could use more gender-neutral language (O’Brien). Further, to keep the salaries of male and female employees equal, companies should make the salary structure transparent. This will ensure that female employees are not paid less than their male counterparts. The role of the CEO becomes important if these solutions are to be implemented. First of all, the CEOs should understand the complexity of this form of discrimination and should be aware of their own biases. If the CEO issues ‘clearly articulated mandates’ that gender discrimination will not be tolerated, then the managers, officers, and senior executives will follow suit (Wade 374). Nevertheless, the success of these measures is contingent on making everyone aware of the importance of including women in the workplace. It is only then that the employees will understand the importance of anti-bias training, and such measures can be applied.
Tackling Sexual Harassment
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that without solving for the discrimination that women continue to encounter, merely quantitative inclusion of women in the workplace will not help. Including a greater number of women would only mean an increase in the cases of sexual harassment and a spike in situations where women are paid less for the same work and receive fewer promotions than their male counterparts (Wade 350).
As a basic step in the prevention of sexual harassment, the company leadership should publicly make a clear statement that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Companies in India are obliged to comply with the POSH Act. However, simply including the POSH Act in the list of contracts that one signs when joining an organisation is not enough. It is essential to curb the feeling that reporting harassment would be risky and/or pointless. Organisations should ensure that human resource managers are properly trained to deal with such cases and the POSH committee checks that investigations are thorough and quick.
Moreover, women themselves need to be intolerant towards everyday discrimination and sexism in the workplace. Instead of laughing off a sexual comment or insult as a joke, it is important to become assertive about such instances by presenting the same statement without its gendered nuance in such a way that the harasser’s bias is questioned. For instance, if a male colleague says the following when a female seeks his help in operating MS-Excel, “Why are all women bad at Excel!”, she might say, “Well, I don’t know Excel because I am from an arts background, and you probably know it because you are an engineer with two years of work experience in Data Analytics.” Another method is to simply ask, “Oh, was that a sexist comment?”; it helps in cases when the harasser himself is not aware that his statement had a sexist nuance, and based on his answer, a conversation can be carried forward. One of the reasons that sexism at the workplace operates is the unconscious bias, and making the bias explicit in front of the perpetrator can help.
Concrete Action Points
When introducing women at meetings, the speaker should consciously avoid talking about her appearance (Priestley). The introduction should include achievements and capabilities and not how beautiful a woman is or how well she carries herself. Another initiative that has been found to work wonderfully is to allow women-to-women networking by specially organising events for this purpose. This means that women across roles and industries attend conferences to discuss trending topics, share their experiences in the workplace, or exchange opinions about topics such as leadership. A study in several states of the USA found that after attending such conferences, “the likelihood of women receiving a promotion doubled” (Achor). Women became more realistic about their present and optimistic about their future, received a pay increase of more than ten percent, and felt a sense of social connection (Achor). Such initiatives should definitely be taken to the rest of the world.
Moreover, some companies are including the gender equality agenda in their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programmes which can play a ‘dynamic role’ in providing equal access to job opportunities and equal treatment of women in the workplace (Kaur 37). Such initiatives not only set an example for other organisations, but also accentuate that the glass ceiling— “a barrier so subtle that it is transparent, however so strong that it stops women from moving up in the management hierarchy”—needs to be broken (Kaur 37). Additionally, CSR strategies will help in correcting gender perceptions at societal and familial levels as well.
Does One Size Fit All Women?
To solve the problem of gender diversity, companies should not take the approach of one size fits all. The problems faced by women from different parts of the world and different gender identifications are varied, and thus different policies should address them. Organisations need to consciously provide lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and queer women with mentors from the senior level. There should be transparency in payrolls, upcoming projects, and vacant senior positions in an organisation so that every employee has equal access. When choosing a suitable employee for a position or project, the evaluators must consciously ask themselves questions such as: “Am I rejecting her just because she is a lesbian?” or, “Have I asked her if she would be able to relocate for this project or am I assuming on my own that she is not open to relocation?” Homogeneous cultures kill creativity, and therefore investment with respect to promoting diverse cultures is worthwhile.
Summing It Up
Economists around the world talk about unpaid household work and the low participation of women in the workforce. But how will these parameters improve if women are continually made to feel like the ‘other’ at their workplace? In order to improve organisational growth, and ultimately ensure greater development of the economy, there is a dire need to improve the gender ratio by working at each stage of the corporate pipeline. The senior executives should sit together with the head of human resources so that the organisation as a whole can prioritise gender parity and create a feeling of ‘belonging’ for women. To create gender equality, an equal workplace would not serve the purpose. Men and women are two different genders, and an equitable approach, which takes care of the special needs of women, is required. Women menstruate, and therefore two extra days of working from home for women won’t hurt an organisation if the work done is up to the mark. Women have to deal with pregnancy, so flexible rules for pregnant and lactating women are something to consider. Of course, different organisations need different strategies to bring about change. But a basic path would involve checking the status of gender diversity in the organisation, realising that there is a need to improve the status, building effective solutions, and implementing them to (quantitatively and qualitatively) include more women. Providing women support and acknowledging their work will unleash exponential growth levels because the potential that organisations are currently able to see in women is just the tip of the iceberg.
About the Author:
To Avnie, writing is like going to a faraway therapist – she loathes the hard work she has to put in the journey but looks forward to the therapeutic experience at the end. At the Young India Fellowship, she was pushed out of her comfort zone several times to embark on this journey of writing only to look back today and gleam at her learning curve. Writing, she says, feeds her entrepreneurial and free spirit; she can get imaginative with words and styles and offer the reader her bare thoughts. Having written for newspapers, social media handles, blogs, and websites, she considers her entry to the Final Draft as one of the write-ups she takes pride in.
Avnie Garg is an Indian entrepreneur, academic, and the founder of Elucidation Today. She aims at creating awareness about and enhancing access to available opportunities in education and career. She designs and conducts skill development programmes for school and college students and fresh graduates. She is keenly interested in changing how students, parents, teachers, and policymakers look at ‘education’.
She is trained as a Talent Advisor and holds experience in recruiting for multinational firms including J P Morgan & Chase and Randstad. Her strength lies in strong communication, relationship building, conflict resolution, and need-based learning. She appreciates independence, perspectives, politeness, and constructive feedback.
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(This was first published in the Final Draft, A Journal of the YIF Critical Writing Programme.)