|Saturday, July 5, 2003||
While private companies assert that there is no gender discrimination at the workplace, statistics and studies show that this claim is far removed from reality. The workforce is male-dominated and the companies are still far from being equal-opportunity employers, says Gitanjali Sharma.
ARE the corporates friendly towards its women employees?
Friendly? But why? There is no gender discrimination to speak of! There is no bias against women in the first place, and that is where the buck stops. In the highly competitive corporate world, equal work results in equal opportunities and calls for equal facilities and conveniences, gender differences notwithstanding.
"equal-opportunity employers" mouth this seemingly logical
argument when confronted with the above query. Flashing a clean slate,
they also confidently declare that sexual harassment within the
workplace is almost non-existent. Their contention is that it cannot
occur if both sexes are treated alike, with equal amount of
Contrary to what the corporates profess, statistics and studies scream of bias against women in the workplace. A bias that could be subtle or overt; direct or indirect; at the induction or senior level. It could result in refusal of promotions or denial of challenging assignments. It could even be dubbed as "discrimination for women" when they are fallaciously favoured with cushier back-office jobs, which in real terms are not as growth -oriented as the sales and technical sectors. Ostensibly, it could also more often than not be touted as the fallout of the typical image that most working women sport by placing their homes above their careers in the priority list.
So in whatever shape or form it appears or for whatever reason it results, the bottomline is that bias exists. Anuraag Khanna, Deputy Manager (Receivables) with Cholamandalam, maintains that while women enjoy equal facilities and perks like men in the corporate world, they are almost never preferred on the main line. Men enjoy the upper hand when it comes to collections and recoveries, while women are found more competent, sincere and trustworthy for back-end posts. Here this marketing professional candidly admits that while both the desk and the field person might start off with the same salary structure, the latter will be leaps ahead of the former in a couple of years.
Besides the overall employment figures tilting heavily in favour of men, there are a number of other disturbing indicators like the concentration of women in administrative and junior-level posts; and their low density in technical and sales-related sectors as well as at top positions in the fields apparently inundated by them like banking, media, IT, travel and advertising.
Now what reasons do the corporates attribute this uneven layout at the workforce to when, as per them, there is no gender divide? Vinod Sawhny, CEO, Air Tel (Northern Region), while denying any discriminatory goings-on in Bharti, one of the largest equal-opportunity employers, ascribes the uneven spread of the workforce to orientation of men and women towards certain jobs. While men do well in engineering and technical sectors, women perform better in IT, call centres, etc. The success of an organisation, he admits, depends on having an equitable mix of both sexes. Scoffing at suspicions of invisible curbs on women reaching top echelons of power, Neena Singh, Vice-president of the HDFC who has 35 branches in the region under her care, asserts: "The glass ceiling exists only in our minds." If a worker is determined, irrespective of the gender, none can stop them from attaining success.
The ground reality, however, speaks of just a handful of women heading more than 200 bank branches in Chandigarh, considered to be the highest banked city in the country. Though difficult to brush such disconcerting facts under the carpet, most corporate workers, both at the senior and junior levels, spoken to vouch for equal opportunities offered by their employers and lay the blame for such discriminatory figures on a number of extraneous factors. A senior manager in one of the multinational banks in the city succinctly summed the problem as: "You cannot have an organisation working in isolation." While a corporate may readily take in women to handle its sales, the clients in the field may not be as forthcoming. Offering a similar explanation, another senior official of a private bank says women face problems when they go to get business from people in these small offices, cabins, who take delight in calling the girls over and over again. "I've had to withdraw girls from the marketing team." Since removing women from the field is not the solution and at times may not even be feasible, you have some organisations stepping in to make things comfortable for its female staff. The Bank of Punjab makes sure it sends two women or one male and female worker together to make calls at people's houses while undertaking priority banking. But many a time socio-cultural pressures make corporates shy of accepting women for certain posts. The HDFC discovered this when it appointed a woman tele-caller at Khanna. Soon enough, they had to ask a male colleague to relieve her. Most of the times, however, women receive little sympathy or support from their organisation when confronted with unwelcome attention. They have to learn on their own to sharpen their claws. As an insurance adviser attached with a mutinational bank points out: "The male colleagues pity you initially, but if you manage to beat their score, it has them making sexist remarks about the advantages of being a woman."
For women, a major deterrent to the flight up the corporate ladder is their aversion to mobility. Most of them shun marketing, as it involves travelling to small towns and making outstation contacts. Those with desk jobs are also known to forsake promotions which entail moving to a different location. Though by and large most corporates believe that success of the organisation lies in choosing the right postings for its employees and many of them are even considerate enough to post a woman at her husband's station of work. But these acts of generosity are not handed down to the employee as a matter of right, the outcome of a written rule. Instead, they are treated as favours doled out by employers.
Speak of few women rising in the corporate world, and the business bigwigs are quick to blame it on the psyche of Indian people. Women, traditionally, want to get married and settle down. A recent study by the IIM, Ahmedabad, observed that an alarming number of women MBAs were not pursuing a career. Career comes second to women as they are not brought up to treat themselves as the main bread-earners. This marks the absence of ambition and aspirations, which are enough to sound the death-knell of any career in the competitive world, leave alone that of women, who many a time have to put in extra to prove their worth. Anupama Tyagi, Senior Manager, Customer Care, Spice, though extremely satisfied with the positive culture in her office, says a woman has to work doubly hard to make her mettle known. "I couldn't have the luxury of a maternity break for I didn't want to lose out on my work. I feel less number of women reach senior levels because they are not aggressive enough. They are unwilling to walk that extra mile, which I gather can be undertaken if one has a supportive family."
Interestingly, most women employees spoken to wanted the corporate world to be supportive of the needs of its employees but did not want preferential treatment for themselves (read women). Amar Deepika, General Manager, HR, Punjab Tractors Limited, who has more than two decades of work experience behind her, stressed on equal treatment of both genders: "As soon as you start looking for concessions, you create discrimination for yourself."
Such statements may sound too politically correct when read in a larger context that has women performing a dual role in society. "You cannot take the role of mother away from her," says Neena Singh, who had taken one year away from work when her son was born. There might be a lot of talk about mothering being overtaken by parenting but, at the end of the day, it is the working mother who has borne the major household work and its related tensions. Organisations which cater to needs of women in fact manage to extract the best out of them.
As Anupma Kohar, Branch Manager of Haryana State Cooperative Bank, Sector 34, puts it: "Pleased with the consideration shown by my organisation towards its women employees in terms of leave concessions and suitable working hours, I like to give my best shot to my work." Showing thoughtfulness towards women, Bank of Punjab, which has the male staff working till late evening, allows the women employees to pack up at the stipulated closing time of 6 pm.
"Women work doubly hard, not at the workplace, but in order to do the balancing act between the family and work," asserts Harpreet Bedi, Branch Head of Standard Chartered in Chandigarh. An active sales leader, who can boast of 11 women in her 25-member sales team, Harpreet considers herself as an individual at the workplace. More than the organisation, she feels it is the family that can be the guiding force behind one's success.
Though many organisations
care not to have any formal rules dictating a secure and comfortable
working atmosphere for women, they are not averse to showing
consideration towards women at an informal level. They sense that even
written policies and codes of conduct will have little effect unless
perceptions of people change. Besides the organisations, it falls on the
family and society to help women have implicit faith in their might and
capabilities to take on the world.