Women’s Day is so yesterday,” said my husband, when I discussed this column with him. True, but that is precisely my point. The championing and addressing of women’s issues is so Women’s Day centred, (incidentally, were the celebrations this time around just a tad muted or is it just my sense of ennui?). Everybody seems happy with the rah-rah messages that go around and the hearty toasts raised to rounds of self-appreciation at corporate kitty parties; the “niggles”, the ones that slowly corrode and create deep pools of discomfort among women, particularly junior and middle management, get ignored.
To spoil the festive atmosphere, in no particular order, here is my list of the top niggles:
Late-evening meetings are on the radar of most gender diversity programmes. So let’s not go there. But what happens when the working week spills over into the weekend? Easily the most trigger-happy organizational response is, “Capture Saturday morning to mop up the workload overhang.”
“I can give away my Sunday morning, but not the Saturday,” said a very house-proud (nothing at all wrong with that!) senior lady executive to me. “That’s my key day for work at home—the purchases only I can make, appointments at the salon and couturier, and ballet classes for my daughter. Please don’t ask me to give that up.” Do organizations even understand this angst?
If meeting times are inconsiderate, what about the locales? Hotel rooms, bars and lounges are popular choices for impromptu discussions and even interviews. And yes, sometimes they are “Men Only” venues as even the redoubtable Iron Lady experienced in her salad days of political leadership. “Bad enough being the minority at the off-site, yes I was the only woman there, but it is the discomfort associated with the informal discussion venues that is my problem,” said a high-flyer on returning from a coveted senior management retreat. And even if a sensitive boss recognizes this, the usual solution is to not invite the woman. The casualty then is informal networking and all the “outside of formal meetings” information that a professional so values.
Likewise, the smoking corners. The fast-paced Gen Z women say they are immune to all of this—but spare a thought for the multitude of conforming middle-class women who are uncomfortable with this, and even more uncomfortable voicing the discomfort.
No, I am not speaking about the swish ones in the top-notch facilities but the ones that women are assigned in the large majority of organizations. The numbers, the lighting, the tortuous paths to get there, and lest I forget, the “most recently cost-cut tissueless box” sitting desolately near the washbasin. Even the more progressive organizations somehow don’t seem to design them looking at the density of women and their specific needs. And so it is a toss-up between an uncomfortable queue outside or getting up from your seat repeatedly to check if the loo is free. This especially when the other gender gets, dare I say, almost always a better deal, at least in numbers, even topped with monogrammed towels in the higher echelons of some C-suite restrooms.
Cornered: Meeting times and locales can be uncomfortable for women.
Toilets on travel are another game altogether. Forget the railways, that’s par for the course, but any guesses for the most “hazardous” domestic airport toilet? It is an obstacle race to manoeuvre the wet floors with laptop on one shoulder and the ubiquitous purse on the other. And God forbid, you have to manage the many-pleated sari as well. No wonder the graceful Indian attire is facing extinction in women’s corporate wardrobes.
Espousing the male spouse
The intent is noble. Self and spouse events are great for family bonding. But what about the male spouse in a predominantly female spouse demographic? Where does he fit in? Many a worthy spouse ducks the event in discomfort. Take a poll next time you attend one of these spouse-included events and do note the creative excuses the embarrassed women employees come up with.
The gender divide, literally
And what of the female employee? Does she hang around with the women spouses or wend her way to the men’s side of the drawing room? Don’t fool me, there are usually sides. This particular niggle stood out starkly at an exclusive governmental dinner I attended recently. One walked into the beautiful banquet room to stop short at the sight of all the men on one side, all the lady spouses on the other. And the one senior lady official stood arraigned, uncomfortably yet stoically, with the feminine gender. I did not have the heart to ascertain if her spouse had even attended the function.
The most vexing of all—sure-fire safety
“How do we get them to the workplace and back safe?” is paramount. Taxi assignments, late-night arrivals or departures in cities both strange and familiar, guest house and hotel safety. The list goes on and on. Organizations are quick off the block with policies to address these, but the challenge is, do we execute them with finesse? The most popular and simplistic is to ensure women don’t have to resort to them—whether it be late travel or late work. Or ensuring company cabs for women, irrespective of level, when they need to travel at “zone of discomfort” times, even if these have been abolished for the male counterparts.
But it is in these solutions themselves that the niggles lie. Because there are two sides to this coin and a well-meaning solution, when institutionalized, can actually end up discriminating against the very group it is intended to protect. A time cut-off for women team members and the harried manager battling tight budgets and tighter deadlines wails, “Oh please don’t assign a lady to this assignment. It is a tough one and I don’t want to get blasted by my bosses on why I have a woman working late.”
Safety is one end of the spectrum, discomfort the other. A young woman executive told me how her family and she felt acutely uncomfortable when her boss decided to drive down to another city for a meeting with three other male colleagues and invited her to join them. As a professional, she would have loved the opportunity to participate in this meeting. As a woman, both she and her not-very-conservative parents were uncomfortable. She didn’t go, but to this day reckons it was a missed opportunity. Another, the first-class-bogey, no pun intended. Women who are entitled to travel by first class on train usually opt for the safer second class due to the sheer discomfort of handling a co-passenger compartment which has only men. Tough luck but niggles all the same.
Many of these are dilemmas with no straight answers. But organizations would be well advised to think through them, debate them and come to their own solutions to create a truly safe, harmonious and inclusive work environment. And since we are still basking in the golden afterglow of Women’s Day, this is probably the right time to think about some of these under-the-radar niggles.
And while we are at it, here’s one for the road. Could those companies that insist on a “minimum 3 days and a medical certificate a must” proviso for employees to avail plain old sick leave, please remove this niggle for women?
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.
Write to Hema at email@example.com