I recently watched a movie called “Down With Love” – a 2003 rom-com set in the 1960s, in New York City. What stuck with me after watching the movie, was a dialogue by Vikki Hiller (played by Sarah Paulson):
This got me thinking… is it actually true that workplaces aren’t made for women? Are women merely accommodated in the workplace even in the 21st Century?
Considering that workplaces have historically been dominated by men, it is no surprise that workplaces have evolved according to male preferences. Women have had to fight for being accepted and acknowledged at the workplace, at every stage.
This is especially visible in issues that divide the so called “public sphere” from the “private sphere”. Take the example of maternity benefits for working women. It was only after tiresome lobbying and years of struggle that companies began to provide some relief (with no pay) to pregnant women workers. The increase in the participation of women in the workforce after the Second World War forced legislators to take this issue more seriously – for political as well as pragmatic purposes (read more about the history of maternity benefits here and here).
While legislators still have a fair bit of work to do, what can we say about the companies today? Do they do enough to make workplaces better for women?
A few months ago, I was speaking with a cousin of mine who was looking for a new job. She was in her late 20s and was married. I learnt that the one question she was asked by most employers was “are you going to have children anytime soon?” I was quite surprised to hear this, and later found out that her’s was not an isolated incident. This is an issue women face across borders ( even when such questions are considered illegal in some countries such as the UK. Read more here).
Instances like these can make women feel as if they do not belong at work.
Men aren’t asked the same questions. This is because society puts a disproportionate amount of pressure on women to be the primary care givers and men to be the primary bread winners for the family. The hypocrisy in the situation is that when men transgress this divide, they are applauded and cheered, unlike their female colleagues. A study by American Sociology Association found that when a man requested flexibility at work for child-care reasons, 69.7 percent people said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to approve the request, compared to 56.7 percent approval, when a woman made the request.
As it turns out, my cousin got a job at a great place where they have maternity AND paternity leave, creche services near the office and flexible working hours! But this is an anomaly. How many women (or even men) can say this about their workplace?
For women to feel like they belong at the workplace as much as their male counterparts, it must be made clear that women are not “exceptions” that need to be “accommodated”. Rather, they are as much the norm as men at the workplace. The public-private divide is not just for the society- in-general or for legislators to solve. Companies are also equally responsible to help bridge the public – private divide for men and for women. A study of 1069 firms across 35 countries and 24 industries shows that diversity at the workplace, in fact, makes companies more productive, as measured by market value and revenue, ONLY when gender diversity is “normatively” accepted, because it creates a self- fulfilling cycle.
“We have to create support structures to allow women to balance the roles they have to play, because there are some roles that we cannot delegate to men”Indira Nooyi, Ex-CEO of PepsiCo in an interview at the Forbes Women’s Summit, 2018.
Surely, women are in a much better position today than ever before. But the issue remains that women continue to be “accommodated” into pre-existing male establishments. Women should be more than accommodated for one to claim that the workplace is “cut out for women”. Companies can do this by starting with simple things like providing free menstrual hygiene products in the restrooms (read why) to making more structural changes such as flexibility in working hours for all employees.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.