Today more and more people are identifying themselves in different genders. They are embracing their gender with more confidence, as opposed to what it was even few years earlier. There is definitely a paradigm shift in society.
However a society ensuring equality, safety and inclusivity for all its genders is still far-fetched. With the advent of Covid, there has been a general shift in patterns of our daily lives. There is more attachment with self, family and workforce than before, because the workplace has now shifted to homes. Thus, the working hours and expectations around work has also changed. It becomes extremely important for us to talk about gender in our workplace communion. Naturalising the conversation around many taboo subjects. From that point be able to strive for a place which celebrates equality, ensures safety and facilitates inclusivity.
Here is a checklist for companies and organizations to embrace as part of their policies, implementations and procedures.
A Workplace Which Understands Gender
Do any of these statements sound familiar to you? “We don’t have any pregnant women workers listed in our company because most of them are above 40 years of age, and therefore they are not in reproductive age”? Here was the answer of a male human resource manager to the following question. “Why has no instance of pregnancy ever been registered nor have maternity benefits been applied for given 90% of the workforce is constituted of women? “.
Another male manager working in a labor-intensive manufacturing unit stated “we do not have a lot of women in machine unit. It’s tough work, women cannot do that. They prefer to work in the packing division, it’s easier”. Upon further probing the manager, we asked if the women themselves told the management they prefered packing jobs to machine jobs. Or had the manager just assumed this. To which he quipped that is how the culture is. We also noticed that the company had never engaged their unskilled workforce in any skill development program. Nor had it provided any space for personal and professional growth. As a result, a large chunk of its workforce remains unskilled, in lesser paid jobs, with little to no opportunity for promotion.
This kind of attitudinal behaviour also speaks about a company’s sensitisation towards gender issues. The subtlety required to understand the nuances of gender around recruitment, providing access to workers to grievances and structural systems becomes a challenge. There is seldom any discourse around these topics in any company. Most also equate gender to women’s issues, but such is not necessarily the case. Many people and professionals do not know that there are around 64 terms that describe gender identity and expression. Even though we may not like ‘labels’, these labels and terminologie are very important part in understanding gender. Unless we acknowledge this, we cannot expect society to affirm and support gender inclusivity.
A Workplace Encouraging Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are often used interchangeably. Yet they are different yet connected. It is simple – if employers do not promote diversity, there will be no inclusion. If there is no inclusion, there is no diversity. It took decades for women to get a foothold in professional space. Still, we observe a void in certain industries like engineering, transport & warehousing, software developers, professional drivers etc.
Also, just imagine cooking and cleaning which is considered a ‘woman’s job’ at home is mostly very male-dominated professionally. There are more male tutors and professors teaching professional courses like engineering or space sciences. When it comes to kindergarten and primary school teachers are primarily women.
If you think of an image of a farmer, in India for instance, you probably will be thinking first of a male farmer. In reality however, woman contribute equally in farming but are paid lesser and have less representation in collective bargaining. Consider how women, who form half of the population, face such issues. What about gender minorities, like transgender people? Transgender individuals who belong to lower castes/different races? People with disabilities? With each nuance, inclusivity and diversity becomes extremely challenging.
A Workplace Which Engages in Open Discussion on Menstruation
Most workplaces have 50% women representation in their workforce nowadays. Despite this high representation, there is still a fairly high level of taboo. Talking about a common phenomenon like menstruation is still unsual. Although menstruation can’t be defined by gender. Contrary to what most people think, it is not just a “woman’s thing”. People that identify to other genders menstruate as well. Still, due to the sensitivity of the subject, there is no discussion around it at workplaces.
After all, it’s a very important biological function. Some bodies experience it strongly and it has direct bearing on their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Menstruation is a cyclic process and periods are but a very small part of it. There are also conditions like PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome), PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), endometriosis, PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) that affect an individual on non-period days as well and sometimes leads to body imaging, shaming and ridiculing at workplace.
For this, we cannot blame the workplace alone. Such behavioural changes need to happen from a very young age. It is an entirely different matter in the workplace. Based on a study conducted by Menstrual Hygiene Day, 71% of the girls in India have no knowledge of menstruation before their first period; 63 million girls in India do not have access to toilet in their homes; 1 out of 5 girls drop out of school after they start menstruating. These startling statistics in fact reinforce the gap in our communication. We lake appropriate infrastructure in homes, schools… and workplaces as well.
A Workplace Which Provides Grievance Channels to Address GBV
Gender-based violence or GBV at workplace could mean gender-based recruitment discrimination, stigmatisation and exclusion, sexual harassment or rape, forced labor and sexual coercion by colleagues and so on.
How many companies do you know or have worked for have dedicated grievance channels to address issues around these social issues ? If your answer is none, it is not surprising. Unless we attain the above checklist, where we have a workplace without gender boundaries, inclusiveness, open dialogue around sexual orientation and acceptance, can we see the need for internal channels for employees. They need to know they can raise their concerns more freely and without any prejudice.
Again, isolating the workplace may not be the best solution because workplace is a reflection of how our society and political dialogue is. In most countries, heads of State can showcase a rather nonchalant attitude towards harassment and rape against women. A national leader in Pakistan once said “if a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men, unless they are robots. It’s just common sense”.
Reacting to increasing sexual violence in a northern State in India, one of its local state leaders provided the following media byte: “boys will be boys, they make mistakes. Girls get friendly with boys and when they fight and have differences, they term it as rape”. A female Chief Minister in Eastern India quipped that “rapes happen because men and women interact freely”. The list can go on endlessly. The gist of it is that if the representatives of States and political parties, both men and women, have such opinions about gender violence, how can one expect a company to think differently?
A Workplace Which Takes Grievances Around Sexual Harassment Seriously
An International Financial Corporation study in 2016 highlighted 74% of professional women in the EU reported experiencing sexual harassment. In a study conducted by CARE in 2017 enunciated that 1 in 3 women workers in SEA garment factories have experienced sexual harassment. The National Commission for Women (India), in 2018-2019, received 88 complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace, which increased to 376 complaints in 2020. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the workplace shifted primarily to homes; It became a much greater challenge for companies to monitor and sensitise employees on issues pertaining to workplace harassment.
NBC news reported, in 2017, that at least 29 ‘powerful’ men in the field of entertainment, business and news have been publicly condemned for their alleged sexual misconduct. The word ‘powerful’ men is a strong keyword here. We indeed see more often people in ‘high positions’ outed for such acts. The reason is simply because men charged with such cases are often in high position. Women involved in the general workforce lack representation in higher positions.
Time to speak up
Of course, we are all aware of the infamous Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct case where a whopping 87 members of the entertainment industry accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Beyond the immediate scope of the case, it created an opportunity for the victims to share grievances. They finally could come out of their silence, feel and realize they are definitely not alone and therefore an integral part of #metoo.
As for the law, few countries (including India) are required to establish internal complaints committees. These typically involve select members to be trained to managementcomplaints from their employees on matters relating to workplace harassment. However, based on experiences from the field, we see that most of these committees are either just for show or members are not adequately trained to deal with such sensitive issues as harassment. They are less likely to observe grievant confidentially. Consequently, employees are still relying on social media to share their grievances rather than their own company’s internal systems.
What Can Companies Do To Achieve The Checklist?
- Strive to develop gender policies and procedures. Especially on issues like gender inclusion, diversity, menstruation, encouraging work-like balance. Companies should strive to implement policies, by conducting measurable benchmarks and developing criteria to track their performance on gender indexing.
- There is a huge need in bringing about an attitudinal change among management representatives. This to be more gender sensitive and use gender-appropriate language in offices and at home. This would only be possible if there was more open discussion around societal taboos.
- Have monthly or quarterly coffee-breaks of short group meetings and invite employees to provide them with an opportunity to talk about issues beyond work. Offer them a space to talk about what may be affecting their mental, emotional and physical well-being. These opportunities allow employees to build a strong emotional bond with the company. It ultimately brings positive results, such as better production and higher employee retention.
- Engage with local stakeholders, like schools and colleges. Take part, through their social responsibility activities, in helping institutions understand the importance of gender discourse at a young age. They should facilitate the conversation with important government officials and school management. Eventually, they must develop student-friendly guidelines together on addressing gender as a whole. The main focus will be on label acceptance, addressing issues around gender roles, gender stereotyping, safety around menstruation, teaching both girls and boys the important of consent in relationships, talking about channels to help students address issues around sex and sexuality.
- Conduct regular trainings with employees on subjects around workplace rights and responsibilities, workplace harassment and violence. Work closely with inter-departmental managers to establish multiple grievance channels to focus on addressing issues around gender in a professional manner and ensuring justice delivery on time and with full confidentiality.
Developing a checklist to secure a more gender sensitive workplace is difficult to encapsulate in just a few words. The result is of course not exhaustive. There’s still a long way to go until we achieve a society where women no longer have to fight for equal pay. Where there are more women representation in higher positions. More representation in jobs considered to favor men. Where employers take a positive stand on issues like gender and racial equality. Where people from all genders access professional opportunities that help them develop skills for appropriate employment, recruitment, pay raise and promotion.
Dr. Rituparna Majumdar is an International Consultant on Human Rights with more than 15 years of work experience. She currently heads a Delhi-based consulting firm Etico Consultancy, working on corporate governance, ethical trading and decent work. Her focus areas include labour and gender rights wherein the workplace compliance assessments, research, monitoring, training and policy development is implemented from rights-based approach. She works with multiple international development organizations like Ksapa, Fair Labor Association, Fair Wear Foundation, Business for Social Responsibility, GoodWeave International, ISEAL Alliance, Consumer Goods Forum, The Dragonfly Initiative among others. She speaks English, Hindi and Bengali.