We often wondered if the millennial women want affirmative action at the workplace to ensure equality between men and women, or use meritocracy as a reason to reject it. Affirmative action in this case can be described as a policy or programme designed to counter discrimination against women in areas such as employment and education.

In previous decades, this has been one of the most popular strategies for moving towards gender equality and creating opportunities for women. Interestingly, an overwhelming 93% of our survey respondents—a sample of urban, educated millennial women—said they believed in the power of affirmative action, even today, drowning out the small voice of those who believe it goes against gender equality.

“When you have more women in leadership, other women will be encouraged to approach management to address issues. It also creates role models, and is beneficial in increasing productivity in the long-run," suggested a young woman during a focus-group discussion on the issue. It is finally becoming acceptable for women to favour women in the workforce.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, women struggled to even find separate restrooms for themselves in their workplaces. Managing director and vice president of Adobe India, Shanmugh Natarajan, in an article in Mint highlighted how things have changed. “A few years ago, I would have called myself gender neutral because I felt it was important to be fair to men and women alike. Earlier, I would have encouraged women to be more participative, vocal, visible and aggressive in the workplace, but I no longer believe they need to mimic the opposite gender." Natarajan has moved from thinking about men and women as “equal and same", to “equal but different"—this is a huge mindset shift and could be the beginning of effective affirmative action in the workplace.

While women across generations agree on the fundamental need for women-friendly policies at workplaces, do millennial women value what were previously considered the most important tenets of such environments? Our survey says, they clearly don’t. Previous generations of women measured women-friendly workplaces based on conventional maternity leave, childcare facilities, and safety and transportation facilities for women. Organizations, accordingly, wove these demands into their policies.

However, today, 92% women who responded to our online survey demand parental leave—not maternity leave. The most popular policy from the existing women-friendly policies is flexible working hours. Interestingly, this may actually not even be a women-specific demand today, since both men and women in this generation prefer to work with flexible working schedules. According to a 25-year-old man working in a higher education start-up, “Most people (men and women) in my circle have multiple income streams. Freelancing helps add to your experience and it helps to not be tied down by fixed working hours."

More than 90% of our respondents believe that the right women-friendly policies at the workplace can and will lead to increased participation and retention of women at the workplace. At the same time, policies on paper do not appease the millennial women. They recognise the failure of these women-friendly policies over the years and believe that rigid and unfriendly mindsets are the cause. One respondent observed, “If the people who work with working mothers are not supportive and understanding, no policy change will sustain".

What changes do these young women expect? A large majority at 76% demand equal recognition of good work; 66% millennial women root for non-discrimination in projects and roles traditionally biased on the basis of gender while 55% women want workplace safety and support. They believe these factors will encourage them to continue in the workforce and enjoy meaningful careers.

In a nutshell, corporate India must wake up to the higher aspirations and changed priorities for millennial women and weave these into their affirmative action plans. Else, another decade on, we will be battling these very same inequalities.

The Millennial Girl is a column based on an online survey conducted with over 100 urban, working millennial women to uncover their attitudes and opinions about the workplace.

Anuradha Das Mathur is founder and dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, and a Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016. With inputs from Mohini Gupta.

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