By Lalita Panicker
With more women dropping out of the workforce, it becomes vital for Indian workplaces to rebalance their structures and eliminate biases from the recruitment stage
As the #MeToo maelstrom swept across many Indian offices, an observation I heard often was that of women choosing to leave the workplace rather than put up with sexual harassment. Those who could not, for whatever reason, came out with their stories emboldened by a more receptive and sympathetic environment and a show of solidarity among victims. On the face of it, many of us expressed admiration for those who walked away. That took some courage, we thought.
But what happened is that the women who exited also lost their incomes and had to start all over again. So women went up the ladder and slid right back to the starting point, thanks to harassment and gender discrimination among other things. In India, the diminishing presence of women in the workplace is part of a growing problem.
Some women may choose to keep quiet but opt out of what is a stressful work environment vitiated by sexual harassment or on account of being diminished by gender discrimination. Let us take women in high-paying jobs. We have heard so often about how women are not heard, their ideas are not accepted or considered worthy of discussion, and how women should support each other in such situations in which they are effectively shut up and shut out by the boys’ club.
But in a country like India, which prides itself on innovation and ideas, what a staggering loss it is to neglect the ideas and innovations that women bring to the workplace. There is a huge economic advantage to be had here. Half of India’s population is women, a huge market if nothing else. Surely, we need ideas from these women right from the grassroots to the boardrooms that can create quiet revolutions in the way society and the economy is shaped.
It was a woman’s courage and experience that set off the debate on sexual harassment in the country in the first place. Bhanwari Devi challenged patriarchal orthodoxies by openly advocating against the evils of child marriage as a saathin in her village, she was raped and ostracised for it yet she has never given up. This is the woman who made the workplace safer for women in so many ways.
I have heard a lot in recent times about how men have had to pay a huge price for what may be considered a minor indiscretion, how they have had to give up lucrative contracts, indeed resign from their jobs. I do agree that often the #MeToo enthusiasts have gone overboard to label all sorts of innocuous actions as threatening and discomfiting. This is not fair. But, do stop and think about how many women have quietly had to leave their jobs or been pushed out for not giving in to sexual and other demands at the workplace.
When men lose high-profile jobs, we all get to know about it. Some sympathise with them. Many lament the loss of their leadership roles. In the case of an environmental guru, people felt that his indiscretions were overshadowed by his monumental contributions in the field. But when it comes to invisible women, we don’t know and perhaps we don’t even care.
With more women dropping out of the workforce, it becomes vital for Indian workplaces to rebalance their structures and eliminate biases from the recruitment stage. Of course, harassment at the workplace is not the only reason why women discontinue working or do not join the workforce in the first place. But, for many women, the fear of confronting a harasser who is usually in a superior position at the workplace is a huge deterrent. So, it is time for workplaces to be far more proactive in laying down guidelines and making sure everyone is on the same page right from the word go. It is not good enough to act once a woman has been harassed.
Women I know have not just walked away from a toxic workplace where they were harassed. They have even chosen to change their professions because they were so disgusted with what happened to them in the previous one.
According to the latest Economic Survey, just 24% of women are in the workforce. Imagine the economic and social gains if this number increased. It makes economic sense for companies to make the workplace a zero-tolerance zone as this would attract and retain more women and also create a more comfortable environment for interaction between the sexes.
Source: Hindustan Times