Last updated on July 13, 2020
It was my great good fortune to have spoken at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School’s India Conference on Women in Business: Breaking the Glass Ceiling. I say this because having this very crucial topic on the agenda of a conference is an acknowledgement of the problem and a step in the right direction. This is especially so since this conference is said to be one of the largest student run campaigns on India in the US and it was attended by eminent women thought leaders. So it is my view that the situation for women has improved since we are acknowledging the criticality of the matter, of the challenges we face and are now talking about how to improve the status quo.
However, while there are prominent campaigns and a lot of rhetoric, the real change on the ground is negligible. The continuous noise around the matter also encourages a sense of complacency. Statistically speaking, approximately only 5% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2018 were women. To make matters worse, this was a 25% decline from the previous year. My co-panellists at the talk, Manisha Girotra, of Moelis & Company in India and Dhanya Rajendran, of The News Minute, also shared their struggles on their own journeys. The examples they gave of being challenged and embarrassed in the workplace further illustrates what an uphill battle this is for women.
The Status Quo
The stereotypical roles and responsibilities that society places on men and women are also quite firmly entrenched in the workplace. It is a fact that women are treated differently from men in the workplace. For example, often people do not make direct eye contact with a woman in the boardroom, whereas this definitely is not the case for men. And, significantly, the salary gap is an ever prevalent issue that. Often, when a woman who is part of a working couple has a low-paying job, she has to sacrifice her career. A real world example of this is the fact that lower earning women take longer breaks from returning to work after having children.
While there are many reasons for this, one of them is the caregiver situation. Most women are charged with being a caregiver for most of their lives; they have to take care of children and their ageing parents or in-laws. When I was a young mother working in London, I had to take an apartment close to work and hurry home during breaks in order to breastfeed my child. This meant I was often skipping lunch, not to mention the hefty rent so I could make my way back to my child during its mealtimes. However, men are more or less free of these kinds of responsibility, in the sense that they are considered more providers than caregivers. The way to even this out is to have men step up more as caregivers while simultaneously offering women more opportunities in the workplace.
One of the biggest obstacles in the way of levelling the playing field is that men are in denial of the problems that women face. The challenges that women must overcome are seemingly invisible to men, since they do not encounter these themselves. This realization concretized for me when I was pushing for the #PowerofW program at ReNew Power, which promotes gender inclusiveness. Initially, many of the men did not see the merit of it, since they do not face such biases themselves.
Solution Driven Approach
We need to make men allies in this struggle with us, so we can strive towards equality together. Another crucial factor that will help in this fight is that working women must support their own; the way to do this is to have them mentor and sponsor other working women to encourage inclusiveness.
I have three key pieces of advice for women professionals. First, know what you want, speak up for yourselves, be persistent and be extremely ambitious and demanding as far as career is concerned. Second, surround yourself with people who support you. Third, make allies out of men and help change their mind sets. For organisations to be truly inclusive, just nurturing women is not enough. Men, too need to step up, assess their interactions with others – especially women – and serve as allies to help those who are underrepresented in the company feel included.0