"Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere," said Albert Einstein. At our program, Vedica Scholars, we encourage millennial women to “imagine" their ideal world beyond gender biases and discrimination—a utopia where there are no preconceived notions about competencies or roles. While this is an exciting endeavour, it is tougher than we expected.
After all, it is easy to think incrementally, but can we take a leap of imagination and construct a gender-equal workplace? For example, in that world there would be no reservation for women on boards—a serious preoccupation of everyone committed to diversity and gender equality in recent times. Or there would be unisex washrooms and all of them would be equipped with diaper-changing stations unlike now where the latter is restricted to the women’s loo mostly. In fact, women would be equally represented as security personnel, taxi drivers or delivery agents, while men would have an equal chance to pursue careers in childcare, beauty business or even be stay home dads without any judgment being passed on either gender’s career choices.
In terms of the “feel" of the workplace, equality would imply that the opinion of a man and woman carries the same weight, “mansplaining" wouldn’t even be a word, behaviours would not be generalized based on gender, empathy would be as pervasive among men as women, and tears in the workplace would not be a reason for shame for anyone. The gender wage gap would be hard to imagine and people would be judged on merit. Bosses wouldn’t assume that women would prefer ‘easier’ roles with limited travel, and both genders would value work-life balance—or not!
Finally, in this world beyond gender, men won’t necessarily be the primary bread-winners of the family and therefore, workplaces wouldn’t be building this responsibility into their assumptions around hiring, roles and compensation.
While our previous articles focused on a step-at-a-time changes that organizations can strive towards, here we talk about a dramatic shift in mindsets which can lead to radical, exponential transformation. Current solutions like enforcing maternity or parental leave and flexible working hours for women are reactions to the injustices faced by women at the workplace. How do we move beyond these corrective solutions to imagining a world that starts without any gender-related biases? Can we change the baseline?
Even in exemplary countries such as Iceland and some Nordic countries, until now the aim has been to only ‘correct’ issues related to gender biases and discrimination. Iceland is held up as the most gender-equal country since they have reduced their gender wage gap significantly recently, even though their equal pay act dates back to 1961, making it illegal for companies to pay men and women differently, for the same work. According to the 2016 Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum, Norway was declared as the world’s third-most gender-equal country. And yet, for every $1 a woman earned in Norway, a man earned $1.27. Even Sweden, with the global reputation of being one of the most gender-equal countries, has seen more than 80% managers of listed Swedish companies being men, and not a single new business on the stock market with a woman boss in 2016.
Is this the best we can do?
Millennial women want more. “Commitment to gender equality needs to be institutionalized through policies, processes and structures to create conducive physical, social and emotional climate in the workplace. From ambient temperatures to team constitution, pay, child care, sick leaves and opportunities for growth. Strong deterrent measures by way of inclusive conversations and educating everyone —i.e. men and women—on gender dynamics as part of trainings is needed," said a 27-year old respondent in our survey of 100 urban millennial working women.
The millennial working women are conscious of the measures workplaces need to take to sensitize both genders in order to make lasting change, at an institutional and systemic level. This is well beyond a ‘catch-up’ game for women; it is world that would be better for both, men and women.
Corrective “solutions" are not aspirational enough for the millennial girl. A small leap of imagination by corporate leaders can lead to dramatic leaps and this is the way to achieve gender equality at the workplace. According to a 28-year old millennial woman in our survey, “A lot has been said and talked about in this regard (equality at the workplace). We need to implement these by starting to live our own words. It’s easy. If we believe in something, we will see that it gets into action. If we don’t, then nothing can be done to achieve it."
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.