Leaders Talk

Women in the workplace: an unequal crisis

Cauvery is an accomplished, senior business leader with 18 years of strategy, marketing, communications, and management experience and the ability to provide creative, innovative, and forward-thinking leadership.

Early on in my career, I participated in a team-building activity, river rafting in Rishikesh. While we were asked to quickly put our team together, a colleague came upon a novel idea of forming an all-girls team. Extremely enthused with the idea, we did just that, forming a group that had an eclectic mix of adrenaline junkies, the worrywarts, and the ones in between. After the customary briefing of instructions, precautions, and warnings of a life-changing experience we boarded the bright orange raft. True to the guides’ prophecy the next hour seemed like a lifetime – starting in the placid waters feeling at the top of the world, paddling with all our might in turbulent waters and then hitting the giant waves and capsizing the raft and dunking ourselves in ice-cold water, forgetting all instructions forcing the poor guide to drag us back to the raft one by one flailing and gasping. For several hours, we learned the significance of listening to the guide’s instructions. His steady demeanor aided the five of us who were beginners with no prior rafting experience to work together and strategize the safest course down a raging river. At the end of the journey, the guide walked up to us and encouragingly said – ‘Your group did extremely well’ and while we were basking in the praise he added the dreaded five words ‘for a bunch of girls’.

Over the course of my career in the following years, I learned that our work life has its fair share of placid waters and rapids. It is true that most often than not women in both middle and senior positions must execute at a higher standard than their male counterparts to achieve the same level of success. This undue performance pressure often confines women’s remuneration and promotion prospects. Many of us will hit the glass ceiling more than once in our career span and encounter unconscious bias pretty often. Add to this we often begrudge ourselves in a role conflict that many women encounter as we try to navigate the often discordant roles of worker, wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. And many women experience an identity crisis pushing themselves to excel in a work environment where masculine management styles are better accepted and rewarded. But the point I am trying to make here is, sometimes, reaching out and taking someone’s hand is the beginning of a journey. At other times, it is letting another take yours and lean in.

From our movies to advertisements to our textbooks, the narrative on power and influence almost always center on men. But I am by nature a people optimist and firmly believe that gender equality is within our reach. We are now in a position, a place and time where we have the opportunity to increase girl/women power, contribution to the social order and public dialogue. Most women exert a fair amount of power, influence, and control in their home front, so why can’t we extend that to our workplaces, and in our communities.  Historically the words “powerful and influential” are not attributes linked to women as much as their male counterparts — nor are they qualities that women themselves associate with. What does success look like? It is a future in which Indian women grab a larger share in workforce participation; enter lucrative, male-dominated, fast-growing sectors in greater numbers and split child rearing, caregiving, and other responsibilities more equally with men in the household. At a fundamental level, it is a future in which an increased number of Indian men want and accept women exerting greater power and influence in our society.

During the pandemic we have witnessed that a high percentage of women work in jobs that expose them to a high risk of catching the virus: Asha workers, nurses, doctors, and other frontline health care workers, frequently without a safety net. And for many others, the virus has increased the burden of unpaid care for children, the elderly, and the sick, and domestic work which is disproportionately taken on by women. The COVID-19 working from the home experiment has further burdened women employees because it has brought to the fore how household and parenting obligations are still unequally distributed between men and women. The situation is compounded by existing gender inequalities.

Let us accept the fact that inclusion does or doesn’t happen in millions of moments each day and all of us need to stop denying the reality for women and become aware of all the ways we enable inequality to unfold within our sphere of influence. When you decide what gets endorsed, accepted, supported, overlooked, and rewarded, stay strong, and use your influence wisely. This reminds me of American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s famous quote - Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women. In times of turmoil & uncertainty and even in times of harmony, we’re simply better together, bound together by choice.