Are Indian Workplaces Women Employee Friendly?

Posted: June 8, 2011

Though working women in India are no rarity, the problems of Indian women at work are far from over! How can companies be more women employee friendly?

By Dipika Singh

There has been a steady rise in the number of working women in India over the last few decades. While this has resulted in added opportunities for women , more families with a double income and has helped the economy with literally an extra pair of working hands, have our work spaces been able to keep pace with the needs and expectations of women? More importantly, is there are even an acknowledgement of the fact that our work spaces may not be women employee friendly?

Women employees & basic facilities

“The washroom is common and so dirty. There have been times when I’ve walked across to a mall to use the loo.”

Praneeta Deshpande* works with a travel company based out of Mumbai. The company is facing a space crunch and has placed employees across satellite offices 2-3 kilometers from the main building. Praneeta is based out of one such building. There are 2 departments working out of this office and the majority of the employees are men. The trouble is that there is a common washroom for both men and women at this place.

She says, “Forget about disposal of sanitary napkins and the associated embarrassment, my bigger problem is that the men seem to have no sense of hygiene at all. There is always urine spilling over the toilet seat and the stink is unbearable.” Praneeta wrote to the ‘Chief People’s Officer’, ironically – a woman, complaining about the issue. The lady came down to visit, instructed the office janitor cum office boy to keep the washroom clean and regularly spray a freshener. Two days later, the situation was back to square one. Praneeta does not want to raise the issue again for fear of sounding like a whiner.

Anamika Gupta* who works with a financial services company, and travels widely for audit purposes observes, “A common washroom is more frequent at satellite offices and even more so in Tier B and C cities. So while the corporate office even has a sofa in the loo, I face this issue when I travel to our branch offices. I brought this up with HR who told me that space constraints do not allow the ‘luxury’ of two loos. He’d rather put in a storeroom in the available space!”

Insensitivity to women employees

“My boss joked during a meeting that since I was wearing loose clothes I had to be pregnant.”

“This was during the first 3 months of my pregnancy,” says Kritika Deshpande.* I went from super high heels to absolute flat shoes and from fitted shirts to loose, flowing tops. A lot of the women who guessed the status respected my need to not reveal the truth about my pregnancy till I was comfortable with sharing the information. However, post a team meeting one day, my boss joked that I was looking different and I was clearly pregnant. I felt it was a breach of my privacy. Also, women are aware that before the first trimester is over, no woman likes to divulge the news about the pregnancy, but not so with men. They think it’s a joke!”

The issue here has to do more with an underlying insensitivity towards and incomprehension of women employees by some of their male counterparts.

Deepta Rao, a HR professional who has worked with leading companies such as Infosys and HDFC Bank, has an interesting comment to make. She says, “Most companies invest heavily in skills development and training across various functions especially soft skills and relationship skills. What no one is addressing is the basic differences between men and women and the underlying lack of sensitivity that men show at work. Men, especially men in leadership positions need to be more sensitized on how to deal with women in their teams.”

Working women in India: How safe?

“There have been times when I have felt scared for my own security.”

Meera Bhatia*, works as an assistant to a well-known dentist at a Mumbai suburb. She comes in an hour earlier than the dentist to reconfirm his appointments and leaves an hour later than him post filing all paperwork. The clinic is in a quiet lane. By the time the last patient leaves, it is nearly 8. Strangely, it is not the journey back home that troubles her. It is being alone at the clinic with nothing but a flimsy door and a dodgy guard. She suggested an alarm switch to her boss who did not really take the issue seriously.

Security issues abound across industries. From women in BPOs who travel, alone or in company cars, post night shifts to nurses and doctors in hospitals, women have been continuously challenged in this respect.

Women employees seek flexibility

“A little flexibility in office timings would go a long way.”

Nandini Deo* works with a leading media company and is scared stiff of the biometric attendance system installed in the office. The policies are such that a 15 minutes’ delay 3 times in a row means deduction of half a day’s pay. She says, “Though it has never happened, I feel very scared that I’m being judged by the time I reach the office. If the policy is that I have to work for 8.5 hours, then how does it matter that I come in at 10 instead of 9.30! I land up being in office for more than 8.5 hours in any case.”

Sunil Saini, working in the same company as an HR manager replies, “It’s a discipline issue. While there will be some honest employees, a lot of them may also abuse the system. Hence, there is a need to install a system to monitor attendance.”

While this would apply to both men and women, in practice, women find flexible work timings a big asset because of the fact that women still do a disproportionate share of housework and child-care .

Childcare, the biggest problem for Indian women

“Where do I leave my baby?”

The biggest problem, however, continues to be a question all new mothers face. In the absence of a family support system, where do they leave their babies if they want to continue working? A creche in the office premises would be a boon for all mothers.

While working women continue to be challenged by issues of gender inequality, discrimination, unequal opportunities and salaries, it is imperative that companies take a long hard look at their work spaces and whether they are compounding the problem or compensating for it. As Shruti Kanakia*, Marketing Manager with a real estate company puts it, “My CEO allowed me to bring my 1 year old baby to work when he heard that I might quit. Trust me- I’m not leaving this job even if I get a 50% increment elsewhere!”

*Names changed on request.

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