Feminism beyond the buzzword

01 May, 2017

From hidden bias, to boys’ clubs – perspectives from a feminist’s journey. How can we do better on gender equality?

The recent Godrej Leadership Forum, our annual meet which brings together our leaders from across the globe, was themed on the ‘XX Factor’. As part of the event, we hosted some wonderful sessions by award-winning columnist and feminist writer, Mona Eltahawy; mountaineering twins, Tashi and Nungshi Malik; filmmaker, Paromita Vohra; ISRO Mars Mission scientist, Moumita Dutta; transgender activist, Gauri Sawant and the founder of Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, Chetna Sinha. We learnt and talked about women leadership in different spheres, as well as how unconscious bias is impacting the real progress we should be making to become more inclusive.

While there have been lots of conversations around gender for many years now, both data and anecdotal evidence show that we still have a worryingly long way to go. Despite the obvious considerable value that diverse teams offer, progress has been painfully slow. Women are underrepresented in corporates at every level, particularly in the senior ranks. Research suggests that Corporate America promotes men at 30 per cent higher rates than women in early career stages. And at the current rate, it will take 300 years for women to reach parity as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

In fact, the impact of subtle discrimination is as bad as the effect of overt discrimination—and many women seem to agree. Liz Dolan, CMO of Fox International Channels, resigned her seat on Quiksilver’s board of directors citing unconscious bias after she was excluded from a series of critical meetings about firing the company’s CEO. In Dolan’s words, “I learned that even when a woman earns a seat at the table, the men can put you in a soundproof booth.”

Unconscious bias isn’t proof of malicious intent or a deep conspiracy. When asked, a vast majority of people say they support gender equality at the workplace.

The prejudices that stop women from reaching their full potential are often hidden deep within our minds and existing structures. Practices and policies that appear gender-neutral often aren’t neutral at all because they reflect the values and realities of the men who created them.

This phenomenon, which inadvertently benefits men and impedes women, is called second-generation gender bias.

I am very pleased that Amrita Purkayastha has written this week’s message themed “Feminism beyond the buzzword“. Amrita joined us as a Gallop Management Trainee in 2012. She worked as the Area Sales Manager before moving to work on our BBLUNT brand. She is currently Brand Manager for our BBLUNT Salon Secret range. Amrita is a Godrej LOUD (Live out Ur Dream) 2017 winner and is writing a book which discusses sexism in pop culture, the workplace, and families, among others.

Please read on…

I grew up in a middle-class, Bengali family. My mom had a full-time job, a tidy home and well-behaved kids—all of which she managed effortlessly, without much help and without the slightest complaint. She has always been dutiful, adjusting, perfect. I haven’t grown up to be any of that! I have always been the one to question, the one to demand my fair share. I think that other than funding my existence for more than two decades, this ability is the greatest gift my parents gave me.

Growing up, I never had a gendered perspective in life. We were two sisters. We were allowed to choose our friends and hobbies and our progressive and busy parents let us both be. In Vadodara, a relatively safe city of India, we didn’t experience unsafe roads and hardly had deadlines to come home by. I basically didn’t have a benchmark to know gender inequality. In the utopia of my happy childhood, I wouldn’t have been a feminist. I needn’t have. As I grew up, saw the world, had my own experiences, I realised how this world doesn’t extend the same opportunities, courtesies and privileges to women as it does to men. I realised how my gender determined the possibilities of my life—not my personality, aptitude or ability. I knew I wasn’t ever going to be OK with that. 

Over the years, I have transitioned from an observant feminist to a more vocal one. My book, which thanks to Godrej LOUD now has sponsorship and a deadline, is an attempt to start conversations around gender inequality, and with some humour and empathy, help change things. I have personally derived a lot of courage and conviction by reading and knowing other feminists. I believe every time someone writes about equality, it inches closer to becoming a reality. That’s why the book, that’s why this blog. As I share some perspectives and thought-starters from my journey, I hope some of you find solidarity and find something to introspect about.

Being an angry young feminist 

I hate the stereotypical whiny, angry image feminists are often reduced to. Not being allowed to express our justified anger and frustration is one of the most unfair things we face. But I think that mixing our activism with a healthy dose of empathy just makes more sense. This is not to take away our right to rage. However much we wish that we had a magic wand that could erase years of patriarchy, we really just don’t. So, let’s start with empathy. Let’s accept that blind spots are often difficult to spot and years of beliefs and behaviours are difficult to recalibrate. Sometimes we do need to throw out political correctness, in the face of an unwelcome touch or a disrespectful joke. But at others, we need empathy and reason to get our points across. I have responded to sexist comments with anger and worse, with silence in the past. I realised, with practice, that dispassionate reason works much better and leaves a longer impact.

Overcoming the biases and helping others do the same 

I think gender-equality is about having the opportunity to be our truest self, irrespective of gender. The thing that teaches girls to be quiet and coy is the same thing that teaches boys to never cry or show emotions. We must reject it completely. Shaped by many years of pop-culture and an extremely patriarchal conditioning, gendered expectations of roles and personalities are so ingrained in us that we hardly ever stop and question them. Because of these set notions, we unknowingly end up measuring men and women by different standards. Studies show that women are 2.5 times more likely to get feedback about an aggressive communication style at work. A woman’s likability drops disproportionately, as she rises in the corporate ladder. A significant number of men are far less likely to put women in leadership positions. Guess we can stop blaming the leaked emails for Hillary Clinton’s election loss!

These biases are the outcome of years of imagining people to be a certain way, basis their gender. Let’s accept, at least to our own selves, that we do have a problem with the way we asses, perceive and judge women—in our homes and in our teams. Question when you fall into the trap of categorising a woman colleague as either “aggressive”, whether she is really assertive or “incompetent”. Don’t be so quick to bracket strong women around you as scary, angry or unfeminine. To change, we must make a conscious effort to identify and recognise the biases within ourselves and navigate around them. I am not suggesting that to counter these unfair biases, we replace frameworks like competition and meritocracy and encourage professional free-hands to women. But as organisations and as leaders, we must be aware that all frameworks fail when our conditioning blinds our objectivity and we judge men and women differently without ever realising it. There is no single way of doing this right. Introspect, question, acknowledge, recalibrate.

But it’s not just the men. Studies show women are significantly less likely to take credit for their own success at work and far less likely to negotiate for a salary hike. For us women, many battles in the journey to break the glass ceiling are internal – they are with our own set notions. Over the years, I have tried to be more aware of internalised patriarchy and how it has translated into my instincts. But I know how difficult they are to recognise and overcome. As I started researching my book, I realised the importance of sharing our experiences and finding our lessons in each other’s stories. In meeting strong women and thinking these thoughts, I have found myself getting some strength and more hope. Find your mentors and importantly, be a mentor to someone else. Let’s be each other’s cheerleaders; let’s be each other’s voices.

Being in rooms full of men 

Pretty much everything in this world is still a boys’ club. The offices, the roads, the playgrounds— there is a huge under-representation problem almost everywhere in the world. While these clubs are gradually fading, there are still some functions, roles and levels where they exist quite visibly. Meeting rooms are often filled with men and the few women continue to find ways to “lean-in” and get heard. Outside of boardrooms, coteries of men with shared interests emerge—some are football banter groups, others are smoke-break partners. These clubs are usually harmless, but they often unintentionally become exclusionary.

Inside or outside of professional settings, we must do better to make our workplaces more inclusive. While we take a more formal stance inside a meeting room, outside of it, simply being more humane and observant will go a long way. In an all-men sales team, I have had great managers who valued my opinions and included me in decision-making. More importantly, I have had colleagues who included me in all the fun. I know it probably didn’t come naturally to them and they had to actively make the effort to include me in their jokes and find shared interests to discuss. But thanks to them, I never felt alone and could do my job better. We can’t instantly change the fact that there are rooms full of men everywhere, but we can have better men in them.

Not being the “language” expert 

Language matters, but actions matter much more. For example, in many situations, an outcome of high passion, pressure and tempers are the cuss words. But more than the word itself, I often got more uncomfortable with the apology that follows. If you blurted out an unparliamentary word in a meeting and feel you should apologise, do so to the whole audience and not just to the few women in the room. The apology comes from a well-meaning notion of chivalry, but it is divisive, infantilising and worse, hypocritical.

For the ones who said “I have to be careful of what I say in front of you, lest I might feature in your book or blog”—well, you just got featured in the blog. But I have never been much of a language police. Sure, many of the words and phrases are particularly sexist and they do bother me at times, but I still care far more about actions and behaviour than just words. When you get called out for a sexist remark, your reaction to it is probably a greater testament to the problem than the remark itself. Words are important and often become a window to our culture and our biases, but what we do and how we operate are more accurate indicators of who we are.

Being an equal 

When I got married in 2015, my husband, Aditya, was working in Delhi and I at Mumbai. After a year of taxing weekend travels, we realised the long-distance marriage was tiring us out and wasn’t making economic sense. We assessed our situation objectively and concluded that I loved my job more than he loved his. That was the only criteria we had in mind. He quit his job and moved to Mumbai and now we can finally fight over wet towels on the bed!

People tell me how lucky I am and how thankful I should be. While I agree I am lucky in many ways to have Aditya in my life, I don’t think being considered an equal in my marriage is a privilege. It is what I am entitled to. I know this sounds idealistic. In a world where basic human rights for women are in question, I do come from a place of privilege. But the assumption of equality is where all the change begins. I have seen how women lower their expectations and are happy with token-equality, like being “allowed to work” or being “allowed to wear what they want” and are often overtly thankful of even the smallest of gestures. Equality won’t come to us as a hand-out. It won’t come to us packaged in sympathy. Please let’s at least start assuming that we are worthy of equality and start demanding it.

For a cultural program during Durga Puja about 20 years ago, my dad directed a sarcastic Bengali drama. The plot revolved around reversing roles in an Indian wedding scenario and had the bride, a police officer, interviewing the groom, a knitting student, and asking if he could make fish curry for her family and if he’ll be able to take care of the kids. It was quite funny actually and beautifully imagined. It got the impressionable 10-year-old me aspiring to be that woman—the one with all the power, all the say. But I realise equality isn’t about gender role reversals. It’s about breaking the mould of set roles. More than anything, it’s about mutual respect. And that will only happen when we work towards it collectively and individually. A woman could choose her career, but till we check our biases and have a more equitable workplace, we will continue to stop her from realising her full potential. We could check our language and have the most respectful words, but till we translate those into truly equal opportunities, we won’t get anywhere. We will continue to have rooms full of men and women who continue to think their voices don’t matter. Balance, progress and fairness is in equality. And we need more people to work towards it—in our workplaces, homes and streets.

Many thanks to Amrita for sharing such a wonderful personal account. There is a lot for us to reflect and learn from the perspectives that she has shared.

Here are some suggestions to kickstart progress towards gender equality in the workplace:

1. Talk about it

Awareness is the first and arguably most important step towards real change. Along with bringing a clearer understanding of imbalances, it also enables women to be more proactive. In the Harvard Business Review article, Educate Everyone About Second-Generation Gender Bias, the authors explain the empowering impact of awareness:

‘We find that when women recognize the subtle and pervasive effects of second-generation bias, they feel empowered, not victimized, because they can take action to counter those effects. They can put themselves forward for leadership roles when they are qualified but have been overlooked. They can seek out sponsors and others to support and develop them in those roles. They can negotiate for work arrangements that fit both their lives and their organizations’ performance requirements.’

2. Pay attention to context

Most leaders often prioritise the issue of gender diversity, spend a great deal of time, money, and effort, without much to show for it in the end. That’s because setting aspirational targets for women without addressing underlying structural issues is an exercise in futility. We need to examine how inherent biases and unavoidable realities set women up to fail—and figure out how to fix the real problems.

3. Redefine leadership

We must find ways to consciously broaden the idea of an effective leader and take the pressure off women who are constantly forced to battle negative perceptions. In their Harvard Business Review article, Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers, the authors suggest a shift of focus, from external perceptions to end goals:

‘Instead of defining themselves in relation to gender stereotypes—whether rejecting stereotypically masculine approaches because they feel inauthentic or rejecting stereotypically feminine ones for fear that they convey incompetence—female leaders can focus on behaving in ways that advance the purposes for which they stand.’

4. Beat default bias through process

In order to stop your brain from making a lazy decision, you need to outsmart it. This means striving for greater objectivity during hiring and promotion. Bring on the checklists, the blinding techniques, the statistics—there are plenty of tools to help us make truly gender-neutral decisions. And as leaders, we must model these behaviours to take the stigma out of battling one’s own unconscious bias. Only when we accept that we all have room for improvement can we begin to make strides towards a more diverse workplace culture—together.

5. Create alternative networks

This is a must to address the existing lack of access to influential colleagues, networking and mentorship opportunities, which women often face. Around the world, women leaders are starting to form centres of support and advice for female employees—as an alternative to informal, ‘men-only’ networks.

At Godrej, we have always taken much pride in being an inclusive place to work. Given how intrinsically this is linked, not just to our legacy and values, but also our growth strategy and aspirations, we strongly believe there is much more that we need to do. And that we need to do it much more quickly. So, we are making this a priority, with senior level commitment, definite goals and have constituted a Group level diversity council to mentor and track progress. In addition to this, we are constantly looking at ways to make our people policies and practices much stronger.

The battle against workplace bias is a tough one, even more so when it comes to hidden prejudices. It involves tussles and skirmishes—even with ourselves. But with so much at stake, we can’t afford to not take this head on. Good intentions simply aren’t good enough when it comes to addressing gender inequality. Implicit bias, entrenched cultural assumptions, and structural imbalance are all invisible but powerful barriers and we need to tackle them together. Remember, this is not a zero-sum war. A victory against bias is, ultimately, a victory for all of us.

As always, I look forward to your perspectives.


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