The Diversity Trap: Are Women Really Welcome In The Workplace?

Making women at workplaces welcome has to be about more than just ticking the box for 'diversity'.

Making women welcome at workplaces has to be about more than just ticking the box for ‘diversity’.

When I stepped into the real world after my doctorate, I first learned that I contribute to a metric called ‘diversity in the workplace.’ In other words, real-world (and in fact, the other-world) workplaces are so homogenous that in order to be called diverse, it is enough to represent half of humanity.

Since then, I have been attending conferences and programs aimed at retaining and promoting women in the workplace. Most of these conferences make it a point to have a few sessions on how women need to be louder, pushier, and cautiously aggressive among other things generally considered masculine. Of course, I will never advocate that women should not be any of these things – but only point out that it is a little old to actively seek to hire people who are different from you (diverse!) and slowly wish them to become more like you.

What can workplaces do (short of brainwashing women to become more male) to retain and promote more women? A few companies have adopted flexi timings, child care facilities, and other policies suggested by their women employees. Yet, these things at best allow women to work, but do not give them something to work for.  In this article, I wish to argue that it is time companies world-over understood what their women employees want from work, and structure their workplaces to provide for such.

It isn’t ‘All or Nothing’

Top women executives have confessed that they cannot imagine women might have it all; even if their sad resignation and cynicism are to be humoured, it cannot be inferred that women must have nothing just because they cannot have it all.

…it cannot be inferred that women must have nothing just because they cannot have it all.

In fact, a 2012 survey of office-goers and workers across 33 countries showed that more than 70% of both men and women equally believed that they can be satisfied at both work and otherwise. Men and women equally want it all, and mostly cannot have it all – for the world is not such a happy place after all.

Yet, both genders must be equally free to harbour illusions of having it all – no one gender should have to carry the burden of another’s illusions.

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Start valuing what women bring

Companies often exhort women to be more visible, more demanding, more bold, aggressive, and willing to market themselves. While it is good to encourage women to step into roles they have been conventionally discouraged from, it is important not to negate a woman’s character and show her as somehow being ill-prepared for rise in her work, simply based on qualities common to her gender.

Instead of demanding that women shed all their social conditioning (however inhibitive), companies must realise that while women might be more virtuous to a fault, the virtues themselves cannot be discarded. I would love to see some programs for men in the workplace that urge them to learn from their female colleagues – to think before they speak, be polite, not be unduly aggressive, carry themselves with more humility, and let their work speak for itself.

Unless women are congratulated for being different, and encouraged to not allow their differences to temper their ambition, they will not feel welcome.

If a workplace is serious about being equal, it must do as much to make its high-strung male employees calmer, as it does to encourage its few female employees to be louder.  Unless women are congratulated for being different, and encouraged to not allow their differences to temper their ambition, they will not feel welcome.

Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance always comes up in women’s programs and conferences alone. Are we conceding that men do not have a life, or that they can do with outsourcing the life portion of their balance to the women?

The reason women find it hard to balance work and life is because they are often balancing their own work against a lot of other people’s lives. Men must be encouraged and incentivised to equally participate in their homes and in childcare, and women must be told that work-life balance is not their problem alone.

Work places must not frown upon men who engage themselves fully in domestic chores, child rearing, parental care, and other responsibilities as ‘sissies’, but incentivise such men.

Be serious about combating sexual harassment

Most Indian workplaces have a very poor conception of what sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour constitutes. I have personally witnessed cases where the HR or special committee appointed to look into such complaints indulges in victim blaming and rubbishes complaints as “these things happen.”

There are endless popular precedents – the Tejpal case, an intern alleging unwelcome advances from a supreme court judge, the hushing up of an Infosys senior manager case, the recent harassment case against the COO of SUN TV, and so on.

First, most workplaces are in violation of the Vishakha guidelines and the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women Act of 2013 when they do not set up external committees to investigate incidents of harassment or unwelcome behaviour. Secondly, by not educating the HR and workforce on what unwelcome behaviour constitutes, except through ludicrous fifteen minute flash presentations packaged as mandatory courses – companies are doing for prevention of harassment what CBSE (and other boards) have done for sex ed : sidelining and undermining the issue as filthy and unworthy of open discussion.

Recruiting women for the sake of it

As a principle, I see nothing wrong with this – for the numbers world over clearly indicate that men have for long been recruited and promoted on account of being men. Surely, taking a conscious policy stand to reverse that discrimination is a good thing.

In practice, however, when a woman is hired – it is not viewed as the company correcting its oversight, but as the woman’s use of unfair advantage. The infamous minority complex of the majority should not get in the way of hiring more women – company senior managements must make it clear that women employees are to be taken as seriously as any competent male employees.  Otherwise, positive discrimination policies will remain as funny as this nearly true fictional depiction.

Penalising the gender for an individual

At the women in technology conference I attended last week, a senior female executive explained how her company had chosen a woman senior leader just to make a show of their diversity index. The woman was, however, found unsuitable to carry out her work afterwards, and had to be removed rather embarrassingly. The company then felt cautioned about hiring any additional women for its top rung. The executive quoted this proudly and went on to sermonize that women must not take up a job if they feel it is wrong for them – for they put down the whole gender on account of their inabilities.

It is a classic example of blame-transfer: if the company in question made a bad hiring decision, I fail to see why women as a whole must take responsibility for it. Many men and women take up non-ideal jobs – they fit in later or drop out. The point is to make this process no less difficult for either gender. In that light, workplaces must not penalise women any more than they do men.

Keeping women engaged

The general consensus across government and industry bodies that are eager to include more women seems to be that women need a special support group to cope with the workplace. Their ideas to keep women engaged generally involve gently coercing/strongly mandating women to be part of support groups.

Support groups can be wonderful when women want the support, and when they are company-backed. Yet, most support groups are weak self-help groups operating at the fringe of an organisation.

Women join them to get mentored, learn about career opportunities and rise – and end up speaking mostly to hapless fellow-women about how to balance work and life.  Instead of such insincere attempts to be inclusive, companies must work to understand what drives women to work.  A few surveys and studies indicate that women want their workplaces to be “nicer,” as in more equitable, inclusive, interesting and engaging, less tolerant to sexism (overt and understated), with friendlier management, and offering better rewards and growth.

This shows that what women really want is what most reasonable men want too – a nicer place to work at, where they feel welcome.

This shows that what women really want is what most reasonable men want too – a nicer place to work at, where they feel welcome. The magic formula to bringing in more women is turning the workplace less (pointlessly) aggressive and uncouth, and more civil and welcoming.

That’s good news. Or not?

Men looking at women’s heel image via Shutterstock


About the Author

Aruna Rajan

I am associated as an advisor and volunteer with Magasool, a not-for-profit initiative to make agriculture viable for small and marginal farmers. I have been a researcher in the payments and the IT read more...

6 Posts | 48,269 Views

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