The need for “women supporting women” shows the problem with the “boys’ club” in Indian offices

Finding an equilibrium.
Finding an equilibrium.
Image: REUTERS/Yara Nardi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“When women support other women, incredible things happen.” Sounds inspirational, doesn’t it? If you are a woman reading this, I wouldn’t fault you for saying yes. But, if you are a man, and you find yourself nodding or simply feeling indifferent, then you may subconsciously be part of the problem. As a male human resources leader, I find this statement irksome. It is a poor reflection on men and highlights the existing problem of the “boys’ club” at workplaces not only across India but the world.

One would think by 2021 we would be past the pack culture, but here we are!

A recent LinkedIn study has shown that while 66% of Indians feel that gender equality has improved compared to the time their parents worked, 85% of women still believe they missed out on a raise or a promotion owing to their gender. In fact, one in every five working women said their companies exhibited a favourable bias towards men.

There is also a huge perception gap with regards to workplace experiences of both sexes. While 37% of India’s working women say they get fewer opportunities than men, only 25% of men agree that this happens. Similarly, 37% of women say they get less pay than men, while only 21% of men share this sentiment.

As a majority of leadership positions continue to be occupied by men, this disparity in perception poses a huge challenge. The status quo will remain unless men join in this fight to create an equilibrium where both genders can have equity.

Equality versus equity

The latest available data(pdf) by the International Labour Organisation shows that the workforce participation rate of women declined to 27.2% in 2011-2012 from 34.1% in 1999-2000.

Also, as per data by the National Statistical Office, over 90% of Indian women participated in unpaid domestic work at home in 2019 compared to 27% of men. And, only 22% of women participated in employment and other related activities compared to 71% of men.

When you look at these numbers together they clearly indicate the fact that while we have been fighting for equality in the workplace, the word seems to have lost its essence. Creating equal opportunities is important, but it means nothing without equal access. It is no longer about equality but about equity to level the playing field.

If we operate in an external environment where the majority of the population lays the burden of household responsibilities on women alone, the workplace culture has to make amends for that. Leaders can no longer turn a blind eye to these pertinent facts and must create policies that enable women to fulfil their professional responsibilities without creating barriers at home. The fact is that if their working conditions are untenable, women will choose to drop out of the workforce altogether.

Flexible working hours, contractual jobs and work from home models have been beneficial in keeping women within the workforce. Take for instance the life insurance industry, which has a proven record of meaningfully engaging women at work. Considering that the advisory business offers flexible working hours, more women are able to fulfil their responsibilities as caregivers and also be economically independent. This has led to a gradual rise in the number of women advisors working in the insurance industry over the years.

The dreaded gap years

Motherhood or other caregiver responsibilities (which often fall on women) lead to more women taking a career break than men. However, when these women want to resume work, it is often an overwhelming task. I have personally interacted with mothers who wish to resume work but find that they have to undergo multiple tests to do so.

A lack of network within their profession of choice and worry over lack of relevant skills are the key challenges they face. Even if a woman with a career gap is shortlisted as a candidate for a job, she often worries about justifying her commitment to the potential employer and explaining why the career break was necessary in the first place. Women in such conditions often have to settle for a lower designation and a lower salary.

However, as the workplace becomes more fluid than before, we must leave this traditional thinking behind, for it contributes to a culture of disparity between the two genders at work. Instead of being punitive towards a gap in their resume, we must support a return to work not only for women but also men.

Several companies are already taking note of the evolving times and creating policies conducive for women to return to work after an extended break. They are also making significant investments in reskilling such employees to help them catch up on the time lost.

Empathetic leadership

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the world how women can effectively manage a company or a country during a crisis. Take, for instance, countries with female leadership such as Denmark, Germany, and New Zealand. These nations have been far more effective in managing the pandemic as compared to countries with male leadership. These nations have seen fewer Covid-related deaths, a smaller number of days with confirmed deaths and a lower peak in daily deaths.

One study has shown that women leaders were quick to shift their business models for greater relevance during the pandemic and a majority were confident about overcoming this crisis.

Women leaders have displayed authentic, confident, effective and empathetic leadership during the crisis and organisations are showing a growing preference for that kind of leadership.

The idea of leadership and therefore the traits a leader must possess have changed significantly in the past year. Women leaders have often been told “how to be” and emulating the male leaders has often been perceived to be the ideal. However, the pandemic has shown the effectiveness of empathetic leadership over aggressive and hyper-masculine leadership.

This is not to say men haven’t exhibited the former type of leadership, but women have done it more. As corporates continue to tackle an unprecedented situation with the pandemic raging on, teamwork, sensitivity, inclusion, collaboration, and understanding will continue to grow in preference.