India Inc. Has A Toxic Work Culture; Dangerous For Women’s (And The Nation’s) Progress!

Servitude isn’t the same as commitment. Confusing work life balance with a lack of ambition and ethic only serves the interest of managers (and corporations).

The year is about to end soon, the festive season is soon coming to a close too.

Karan continues to have koffee, Mr. Murthy wants us to work 70 hours a week, women are still dying from dowry demands, and the moral fabric of humanity was at risk for women are choosing to experience physical intimacy with multiple partners before committing to be monogamous. (Not even touching the human vs. Animal dilemma here).

What would be worth writing about amidst so many worthwhile topics wasn’t difficult to choose however.

Moral expectations will continue to be biased against women until there’s social equality. Social equality comes through economic equality. The work hour topic, therefore, is the one that provides an opportunity to discuss a matter long overdue.

What’s the point here?

Yes, quite a lot has been said about what Mr. Murthy might or might not have meant, but I think the key point hasn’t been made. I will start with that point.

Work hours are not equivalent to work ethic, nor do they symbolize achievement and productivity. What they do instead, when put in as either a mandatory requirement or an aspiration, in a patriarchal society where gender rules still weigh heavy, is perpetuate gender inequality.

The burden of unrealistic, gruelling, merciless corporate culture is borne disproportionately by women causing them to drop out of the workforce, move into alternative careers, move out of STEM, or take career breaks which are hard to bounce back from. This leads to lower income causing economic inequality between the genders.

The cycle continues.

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Economic power is social power. Women dropping out of the workforce is a socio-economic disaster that India’s toxic work culture slow but surely taking us towards.

Understanding the why and what of toxic work culture

First, how dare I call India’s work culture toxic? Well, this is how – from personal experience.

In 2019 I was placed in a role which allowed me to oversee, while working in the US, how multinational corporations work with each other. To be specific, I got to work directly with IT teams from corporations head quartered in both India and the US (and a couple of other countries part of our near shoring strategy). I was in an US team but spent time in our India offices too. I worked with teams located in India, who also had peers in the US.

The difference in expectations and attitude displayed towards an employee if they were in an India team by their own companies was astonishing, almost criminal.

Strong words? Yes. But not strong enough!

Of course no laws are being broken, for that’s how laws are carefully designed in this world: corporate guidelines and expectations, not rules. But I consider it criminal violation of respect, which I can define as treat an employee and his/her needs mindfully. Violation of that is abuse.

A deadline? No worries, India teams will meet. That’s the whole reason why US corporations are off-shoring anyways: for converting humans into efficiencies. But it won’t be met through better work culture, it will be met through gruelling work. Call times can and will be set primarily meeting US time zone requirements. Golden hours? When I worked with Japan in a previous role, those were hours of reasonable overlap (5-7 pm US, 7-9 am Tokyo). When I worked with India, it could be late evening, into and past midnight. Definitely whole evenings.

Think of this. Someone sitting in the West Coast of the US (of any ethnic origin) could say ‘sorry that’s too early for me’ or ‘sorry, that’s my kids homework hours’, but the voices over the bridge couldn’t. I wondered why, many times. I cam discuss the reasons and origins of these reasons as much as word count will allow, going into colonial history, economic positioning of nations, and anthropological nuances.

But let’s keep it simple. It’s because the Indians in Bangalore or Hyderabad have managers (mostly male but also female) perpetuating the toxicity they have endured. They expect their subordinates to be spineless serving non-humans who are, irrespective of their human form, efficiencies. They speak up against their and their people’s interest (barring far and few), committing to a standard of excellence they believe need to be met at the cost of self-respect.

The link between work culture and gender

Ok, but why is this a gender issue? Indian men have it harder, one might argue. The women can leave the workforce if they fail to take it anymore, but the men have nowhere to go from their primary earner responsibility.

Yes, they’d be right. And that is exactly why this is a gender issue.

If you must invest your evenings (and nights) away from the duties of child rearing, elderly caregiving, housekeeping and homemaking, who will need to give? Who will be judged harshly for having to do so – by others and by themselves?

Let’s consider a ‘utopian’ ideal state of affairs

Consider that the woman has supportive in-laws who believe that both their son and daughter-in-law need to excel in their careers. There are affordable house help(s) putting food on table, or a husband sharing equal load of cooking, cleaning, and homework. In that home too, when a child will be yearning for the attention of a parent – the mother will give. When social engagements will pile up, the wife will be handling the logistics. The wife will consider giving up her job eventually, for that’s what would come naturally.

This is a simplistic example, of course. Complicated pictures don’t need to be drawn here, for those are lived every day by women. But we can, if we want to, bring into this

  • favouritism,
  • nepotism,
  • lack of representation (most of these careers have men in larger numbers than women, and higher ranks are predominantly male held),
  • career progress impacted by gender assumptions and expectations,
  • transit/travelling hours (and safety concerns around the same),
  • off-site requirements that are harder to meet for women,
  • lack of support for monthly cycles and the health issues many face during those days, mental anguish…and so on.

I have seen all these scenarios experienced by my family members working in India. Still, I talked to quite a few women on the same. Most shared the same story. I am choosing one below, as one is enough.

Toxic work expectations by her immediate boss

Anjana M (one of the rare few who didn’t care about anonymity) shared her experience of working in pharmaceutical research from which she had to take a break.

The work needed long hours of standing and she couldn’t continue to do so while pregnant. There weren’t any requirements from the HR on paper, only the expectation expressed by her immediate boss that these life events shouldn’t be made into excuses for slacking in performance. She quit, and unlike most others, was lucky enough to be rehired into the same company post a career gap. She had to quit again, for her daughter would study only with her. She chose a teaching profession instead, to be able to find more hours in a day.

The salary, as she says, was not even one-fourth, possibly merely one-fifth (which immediately weakens her financial standing and independence). But more bothersome to her was the fact that with home grading and other obligations, work hours didn’t reduce much. She joined corporate work again, trusting a promise of great work from home benefits and minimal onsite requirement. Yet she found herself on off site travels for months at a time. And when Covid came, she found herself in social isolation when at home, for her travels didn’t reduce. ‘I took Covid test 40 times,’ she says, ‘and then with sales declining, my company had to diversify, adding more pressure of travel.’

‘What about work from home days?’

Indian bosses expect Indian employees to be logged in all waking hours

She sighs. I realize I shouldn’t have asked. What she shares is what all my relatives (men and women) I know in Indian corporates have shared. Expectation is to be logged in at 7.30 am and to be logged in until midnight.

“Even if I go downstairs grocery shop, I am to be logged in and available for ping. When on vacation and in family wedding, I stayed logged in and my boss would express candidly that since I am idling at home anyways and had a computer, it shouldn’t be a problem to answer pings and getting minor things taken care of. Higher up bosses were from Norway. They never expressed such expectations and in fact, when I was forced to say ‘it’s fine’ would express astonishment and ask how can it be fine? Don’t I need a break? I dropped out again,” Anjana wraps her story. “The field is such that even men are having fights with their wives and can’t keep up. How could I? I now do teaching again, teach Cue-Math online to international students. Still have to put in late hours, but at least it’s by choice and with self-respect.”

As I know and the readers know, Anjana’s story isn’t unique. Many I know are trying to run online music schools, art schools. Quite a few are trying to sell stuff. It’s not just about financial freedom, it’s for mental health too. For self-worth.

This is dangerous and needs to be stopped

Lack of financial freedom and lesser financial position make women vulnerable to gender-based violence including domestic violence.

Many women face financial abuse (my non-profit published on this recently) and stay in abusive situations due to lack of financial freedom.

It’s not that this happens only in India. This and gender disparity in the workplace causing women to lack the language of progression, disproportionate loss of women from workforce, gender gap in ranks, are global problems. But it’s exaggerated in India by sub-servient and toxic expectations. By lack of respect for personal space and boundaries.

Last, what about work ethic though? Shouldn’t hard work be gender neutral? Well, loads of productivity data exists to show that there is significant decline in productivity post a certain amount of slogging. Also, servitude isn’t the same as commitment. Confusing work life balance with lack of ambition and ethic is a self-made problem used to serve the interest of managers (and corporations). It’s not that hard to distinguish between the two.

This is not just a social problem, it’s an economic one

The New York Times published about this recently.

“There is one change, so simple it can be described in just six words, that could lift millions of people out of poverty and expand the world’s fifth-largest economy: Get more Indian women paid jobs.”

As the article continues to elaborate, not only is India significantly lagging in propelling economic growth through female labor force participation (one of the lowest percentages in the world), it is also seeing decline in the same (down to 24 percent from a 29 percent in 2010). If the article is to be trusted, Bangladesh is seeing a better trend on this than India. Therefore, like I have said in my book Beyond #MeToo previously, keep social justice aside – economically India can’t afford to not have women in paid workforce.

In Anjana’s words – “We will stay a ‘developing nation’ forever because of this, because we don’t respect our own. Our slave mentality is going to keep us from getting any respect from the world” – are emotional and haunting, but I hope they don’t come true.

Image source: by kzenon Free for Canva Pro

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About the Author

Tanushree Ghosh

Tanushree Ghosh (Ph. D., Chemistry, Cornell, NY), is Director at Intel Corp., a social activist, and an author. She is a contributor (past and present) to several popular e-zines incl. The Huffington Post US ( read more...

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