Instilling a Woman-Friendly Work Culture

Recently when Google, Yahoo, and Facebook published their diversity report findings, it came as no surprise to me that women comprise a paltry 30% of the technology workforce. CNET observed that the balance is even more skewed in engineering and technology teams.

Last quarter, I had the privilege to address a group of women employees who worked in functions like Finance, Accounting, Legal, and Information systems. As our discussion progressed, I realized that we women need more than motivational seminars or coaching sessions to flourish and bridge the gender gap at work.

“I was put through more rounds of interviews than a male friend who applied for the same job”

Notwithstanding increased sensitization about including more women employees, I have observed skepticism among male hiring managers in Indian companies while screening and interviewing women for technology positions. What is amazing is that this holds true even for team leads and managers belonging to the millennial generation. While it’s true that women give birth and require maternity leaves, they are in no way behind when it comes to working the 24-7 shift or staying back late to fix a client escalation. There is this implicit perception that women aren’t that technically adept in fixing or troubleshooting complex problems, which is why hiring managers in these companies put women candidates through more stringent reviews.

Question: How can we design and implement better hiring assessment instruments to evaluate and select candidates irrespective of their gender?

“When we women gather around to talk, we’re accused of gossiping.”

Most women like to talk and express themselves irrespective of where they are! They share confidences, exchange ideas, discuss problems, and feel lighter. Talking and sharing is the cement that binds them to their job and the people around. That said, the above accusation is justified when women employees shirk work and produce insubstantial results. However if they do indulge in harmless banter during their break hours, and are conscientious and timely in their work, then why the bias?

Question: How can we facilitate open discussions between male and female employees to help them accept and respect differences?

“I am subject to jibes and unkind comments from my male co-workers about my constraints.”

It’s a well-known fact that Indian women still juggle their traditional roles of a parent, home-maker, house-keeper, and corporate professional. Women find it necessary to draw boundaries between their work hours and their time with their families, which is actually a very practical way of achieving the right work-life balance. I remember when I resumed work after my first maternity leave, I found ways to accomplish more during my work hours and leave office on time, so that I could spend time with my daughter. Rather than stepping out for coffee or a lunch break, I found myself eating at my desk as I worked. I did the Math and discovered that I was spending more productive hours at work after my baby. I started valuing my job and career much more, and actually started finding better ways to contribute to the company. Of course I couldn’t stay late most of the time, and nor could I put in hours on Sundays, but I was so grateful to my company for their support, that I found myself going over and beyond in my duties. I made sure that my company and teams could completely rely on me.

I remember one of my team members approaching me with a problem. She usually left office at 5.30 PM as her child had to be picked up from the day-care at 6 PM. She had no other option since her husband worked in another city. She was distraught and hurt with a male co-worker’s sarcastic comment when one day she decided to stay back late for a critical client meeting. “What a surprise! You are actually working late today! It’s sure a blue moon tonight!” I too have been subject to hurtful barbs about not being able to attend office parties as I had no one to take care of my daughter.

Question: How can we encourage male employees to behave with more understanding, empathy, and sensitivity? On the other hand, how can we encourage female employees to be more assertive?

“I’m paid less than my male counterparts”

I recently read this article that sheds interesting light on this burning issue. Apparently this is due to gaps or interruptions in women’s careers. On one hand we want to woo more women into leadership by offering them maternity leave or introducing special benefits, and on the other hand we penalize them for taking a justified break for their families. Something doesn’t quite add up right here. In my experience I have seen women employees going to extreme lengths to hold on to their jobs, especially when they love their role and have friendly teams and colleagues. Most Indian career women are very smart at finding a way to continue working, unless they find the work environment unsupportive or unrewarding.

At times, when women resume work after a break, their technical skills are obsolete. They either fail to get jobs, or if they do, they get hired at lower levels or paid far less than what they deserve. I personally think this is one of the top reasons why we see this enormous gap in the ratio of male to female employees. Any individual with basic technical competency also has the ability to quickly master new technology. When I took a break from my career and resumed after 4 years, I was able to catch up on all that I missed, within a month. I have hired women who have resumed after a break and found them to be really quick at grasping new technologies and catching up with their peers within no time at all.

Question: How can we objectively assess and evaluate people based on their current generic competencies AND future potential, and not hold a genuine career gap against them?”

“Why wasn’t I considered for that promotion?”

This is a common grouse and concern for over 70% of the women I have coached or mentored. I faced this during one of my jobs. There was a senior level position that I had set my eyes on. I knew I had the capability and so did my peers. I was in for a rude shock when another colleague got that promotion instead of me. He was capable too, but I felt I deserved the promotion more, because I had more hands-on experience in the same field. I remember feeling very cheated and let down by my manager. It took me several months to muster up courage to ask my boss why I wasn’t considered. I was surprised to hear, “I thought it might be too difficult for you because of your family constraints.” I blamed myself for a while, but then realized that it was also the manager’s responsibility to at least give me a chance by asking me.

It’s difficult for most women to walk up to their managers to ask for what they want. Not only work, some women hesitate reaching out to friends or family for help. One of my friends confessed that her boss found her aggressive because she asked for a promotion!

Question: How can we help people break out of stereotypical thinking? How can we get women to confidently voice their career aspirations?

Opening Up Possibilities

There is growing evidence that organizations with a higher number of women and women-friendly policies benefit from better business results. That said, there are several misconceptions I’d like to clear. Having a women-friendly culture does not mean eliminating or excluding men! I liked reading this article where we see companies that are introducing gender-neutral and inclusive policies. I agree that somewhere when we talk about maternity leave, we mistakenly assume (and encourage a chauvinistic bygone theory) that men don’t need to stay home to take care of their kids!

I’m elated and excited hearing and reading about companies that are genuinely interested in building better policies and encouraging a more open workplace for attracting more women employees. I remember reading this article a couple of years ago where Wipro introduced mentors for women employees. Many companies are also introducing coaching as a mechanism for women.

To attract more women, we need to look at re-examining our people policies, introducing inclusive competency measurement and assessment processes, educating people, and creating acceptance in the minds of managers/leaders. When we already invest a lot in rolling out training and development initiatives in areas like sales, customer service, communication and cross-culture sensitivity, surely we can create better momentum in this area of gender inclusion. Merely training women to be assertive will not do. We not only need to sensitize men about how they can make their female colleagues feel respected and valued, we also need to instil a non-judgmental open culture where people are accepted, nurtured, and provided growth based on their talent and potential alone, and not because of their gender or ethnicity.

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