Like most workplaces, my office also celebrates women’s day. As part of the women’s action network, I have been actively involved in the celebrations. Over the years, we have been conducting games and events such as sessions and discussions specifically targeted at women. While the games served as a networking opportunity for women, the sessions inspired them and gave them a platform to voice their opinions and concerns. We also had one or two events that included all employees. This way we celebrated with all employees and did not leave space for some of the men to knock at our cubes that they felt left out.
A few years back, we added one extra element to the celebration and that seems to have bothered a few men. We started leaving a rose, a greeting card and chocolate in every woman’s cubicle early in the morning so that they find a nice little surprise when they come into work on women’s day. Along with this, we once even gave a relevant book called “Lean In” to the female employees.
Most employees appreciated this gesture and thought this was a neat idea. I even had a male friend from a different branch ping me yesterday to know what surprise we left for the women and thought it was cool. However, some men plainly complained that they felt left out and it brings out a divide between men and women.
Two years back, I had one person tell me something on the lines of, “We were all harmoniously working together as a family, with no difference between men and women. Today when I came into work, I saw rose and chocolate in women’s cubicles and I was hurt by that. By leaving a gift only on women’s cubicles, you are bringing a divide between men and women.” I didn’t know if I found this funny or irritating because I knew for a fact that his team did not work as a family, the men and women were not treated equally there and his team was well known to have a high attrition rate. Since everyone outside his team knew of how toxic his team’s environment was, he was either blind to the reality around him or was in denial or worse, thought this was the norm.
I usually do not address these childish tantrums because only a few men seem to have such prejudices while most of the men I encounter are good. Today, I was ticked off because a friend of mine was very disappointed on women’s day. Someone had taken away all the chocolates we had left in the cubicles of the women in her team. She was excited on her way to work to see what we had left in her cubicle, only to be upset that someone had taken all the chocolates. She suspected that it was a prank by one of the men in her team because they had all joked about this the previous day.
So I decided to write a post explaining the need to celebrate women’s day. While men also may have their own problems in the workplace, women face a harsh reality that is unique to them and all men may not be familiar with this. So let me elaborate.
It starts with hiring. Many employers prefer not to hire young women because they assume that they would quit their jobs or not focus on work once they get married or have kids. Few also have the stone age idea that women in the workplace will be a distraction to the men. I also know of a team where they specifically do not hire women because the team is full of men and the new hire would feel uncomfortable.
Others managers hire women with the sole idea that women are cheaper labour. The gender pay gap is a well-known issue, even in developed countries. Employers know that even if they pay a women lesser money, she would stay as long as it is not extremely uncomfortable. The women stay because other companies are also going to do the same, so there is no point in switching unless things are really bad and they need a fresh start.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a place where people are treated equally and fairly and all of us get treated the way we deserve. However, attending discussions which serve as a platform for women to voice their concerns, I hear so many appalling stories where women are treated unfairly. My friends and relatives often speak of the way they are not seen on equal footing with the men.
There are many women who have been denied well-deserved hikes and promotions because they are about to go on maternity leave. One woman’s manager frankly explained her during an appraisal that although she worked well, he cannot promote her now since she is going on maternity leave for 2 months and would be busy taking care of her baby when she returns, so she cannot give her all to the company. The man he was promoting now may not be up to her level, but the act of promotion will motivate him to work harder.
Appraisals are about what the employee did in the past, not what they are going to do in the future. However, many managers exploit women who become new moms because they aren’t going to quit anytime soon. As icing on the cake, he also gave her advice as a “well-wisher” to focus on her family and work flexibly. But then, once she was back, he also expected her to give her 100%. So she had to do the same work as usual without the title she deserves.
My friend once worked in a place where bachelors were valued less than married men and spinsters were valued more than married women. The leads in the team there held the belief that men were playful and didn’t focus until they get married and once they have a family to take care of, they become more serious. So bachelors were passed for promotions or hikes whereas married men were favoured because they were seen as the breadwinners of the family.
For women, they held the opposite view. Single women were seen as more focused on work whereas married women were considered to automatically hold their personal lives higher than work. There was no proof to support this claim though. Men and women, married or not, who worked in a similar fashion and produced similar results were seen by this clouded lens from the management and given different ratings during appraisals.
My friend who had a consistent track record of good performance and got outstanding ratings started getting less important work just because she was engaged. People assumed (read gossiped) that she would be spending a lot of time on the phone with her fiance and wouldn’t be able to work to her full potential anymore. Now, we are talking about a woman who was so driven and ambitious in her career that she spent so much time on an upcoming release that she didn’t even have time to choose the accessories to wear for her engagement ceremony and left all the choices to her mom.
Since her fiance was abroad, people expected her to quit and join him any time soon. She, on the other hand, wanted her husband to join her because she will not be legally allowed to work in the place he lives. Being stuck in a place where perceptions and gossips were more powerful than the actual work one does, my friend got sidelined and was given menial and monotonous work because people were being “considerate”. They were just scared that she may leave any time and wanted to give the interesting work to people who they knew would stay. She didn’t receive good work even when she requested and kept hinting that she wasn’t planning to leave. Over time, she knew her career would be stagnated here and was forced to switch jobs.
While the bachelors in her team were seen as less dedicated than the married men and prejudiced against, they were still invested on and had mentors to train them. The women in her team were pushed out one by one by being assigned thankless and unimportant tasks that made them unhappy and didn’t grant them an opportunity to improve their skills.
Notice the pattern here? Such managers are always “well-meaning” and “considerate” when they “let” the women take less important tasks so that they can focus on their family. While some women may feel happy to have a flexible job even if it means that they don’t progress in career, what about others who value their work and are ambitious?
Such things wouldn’t happen if there were more female managers, you say? To an extent, yes. Then why don’t more women become managers, you ask? Well, it takes a special kind of woman to be a manager. Imagine having to balance managing your house and a bunch of people in the workplace, some of whom may disregard you just because of your gender.
For a woman to be a manager, it takes a lot of support from the higher management (to understand if someone is protesting her just because she is a woman), from her home (she may need to attend a lot of late night calls) and all her direct reports. She would need all her reportees to be unbiased and view her for her capabilities and not her gender, which may not always be the case.
When my cousin was a team leader, she used to have this one guy in her team who would object doing things just because a woman asked him to. There was also this one case in my office where a man had to be suspended because he was giving a very hard time to a manager, just because she was a woman and his ego didn’t let him work under a woman. Of course, harassment cases take months to resolve and need hard evidence if any progress is to be made. So imagine the amount of stress the manager had to go through till her accusations were proved and actions were taken.
Speaking of harassment, let us not forget about sexual harassment just because it is less common in the corporate world (or so we think). Yes, there is the Vishaka Guidelines, but how many companies actually implement it properly? How many issues are addressed with the victim in mind and the urge to bring justice? From the stories I’ve heard, these committees aim to preserve harmony by calling the victim sensitive and/or defending the culprit by subtle victim blaming.
If you say that women around you are not harassed and you treat them well, then good on you. But the reality is that most women who face sexual harassment do not voice it for fear of repercussions. No matter the evidence produced, the woman is still interrogated endlessly as if she is the accused. No matter how they claim to keep it confidential, the word still goes around and the woman is shunned, even before the case is closed.
Now, men do not intentionally ostracise the victims. In a society where victim blaming is prevalent, coupled with the incorrect assumption that women can get away with falsely accusing men, most men try to stay away from the victims who have the guts to register complaints. This is not about ignoring the victim. This is about avoiding trouble and self-preservation. The thought process here is, “What if she misunderstands me and complains about me as well? Let’s keep a distance just in case.” So if a woman was to speak up about sexual harassment, it would affect her work because the men would start avoiding her.
Especially in an environment where the majority of employees are men and the number of women is negligible, this would turn out to be a huge ordeal for the victim. To preserve the status quo and to avoid the gruelling interrogations and embarrassingly personal questions that come with registering complaints, most women choose to stay silent.
In an office, as in anywhere in society, everything about a woman is judged – what she wears, who she interacts with, what she eats, how she carries herself, what she cooks, etc. I once met a woman who made it her point to educate me on cooking, despite me constantly hinting that I’m not interested in her lectures. While a lot of women share cooking tips on random days and that is more than welcome, the problem with this particular woman was that she had this urge to shove every cooking tip she can down my throat.
The issue here is that she felt that cooking is the most important thing for a woman and tried to take me under her wing by offering advice every single day. It wasn’t like, “You should try this recipe. It’s good.” It was more like, “Wait, you can only cook these many dishes? As a woman, you need more recipes in your arsenal. Here, let me share some of my wisdom. Oh, you say you don’t have time for all this? You can always make time if you have the will. You can always let go of other interests/hobbies to focus on cooking.”
It wasn’t like I couldn’t cook at all. I can prepare a decent meal and cook well enough to survive. Her problem was that I didn’t know how to cook everything under the sun and didn’t make elaborate three-course meals for everyday lunch. Needless to say, I had to avoid her like the plague.
These are all just the troubles women go through at the workplace. Many of them have to deal with problems, inconveniences and irritations at home and by the society as well. It is 2019, but women are still expected to fulfil the traditional role of taking care of the household before concentrating on work. Where I come from, married women typically manage the whole house, perform most of the household chores or supervise the help, take care of most aspects of child-rearing if not all, teach the kids, care for relatives, fulfil the social obligations expected of a woman and along with all these fulfil their role in the office.
I’m not saying that women need to be given special attention because they do so much at home and then come to work. I understand the employer’s standpoint wherein what work one does at the office is what is important and personal life may be deemed irrelevant. The problem is when women are denied the promotions and pay rises they deserve just because they are much less likely to complain.
Apart from all this, women also have to deal with playful content shared on social media that stereotype women. I know the jokes and memes about women are just for fun, but after a while, they can get really annoying, especially if it is in, say, an official WhatsApp group. Imagine having to ignore subtle misogyny in the workplace because you don’t want to be called too sensitive and overly emotional and then you return home only to see that it follows you through social media as well.
Though the intent is humour, they come across as dumb at best and misogynistic at worst. Coming back to the chocolate thief, pranks are fun when everyone is laughing. In an office environment, jokes should be made only where it is welcome. When in doubt, it is best to stay professional. If someone is upset because of a prank, that is not fun, that is just being mean.
My teammate also took our chocolates, but instead of hiding his act, he wished us a happy women’s day and thanked us for the chocolates he took. None of us took it seriously and we teased him back. After a while, he returned the chocolates saying that he was kidding. None of us felt bad, so it was fun. In my friend’s case, she was upset because she was expecting something and someone had taken it away on that one day out of the entire year when she is given permission to feel special.
This is not about the chocolate. This is about how inconsiderate and insensitive some people can be and how it all adds up. Think of it as similar to eating a birthday cake before the person gets to cut it. It is funny if the prankster is close to the birthday kid and the birthday kid likes such pranks. Otherwise, the act is annoying and makes the environment awkward for everyone involved.
To the people who simply do not understand why we need to celebrate women’s day in the workplace, I hope this post clarified it for you. It is okay if you still don’t get it or disagree, but don’t go around raining on women’s parade. Rather than a happy parade, it is already an obstacle race and we would appreciate it if there is no downpour.
Before I’m deemed too sensitive and serious for writing this, let me present the concept of death by 1000 paper cuts. One small cut here and there doesn’t seem like much. Women constantly get a cut at home, in the office and from society, so they learn to ignore it and live with it. But over time, all the cuts that haven’t healed completely accumulate and take a toll. At the lowest point, a single minuscule cut can be fatal.
I appreciate the employers who want to make diversity a reality and focus on hiring more women. However, it would be nice if they can stop and wonder why women leave the workplace and try to fix that as well. There is no point in bringing in more women when you don’t treat the existing ones right and eventually make them leave.
This is why we celebrate women’s day in the workplace. To remind women that despite the hardships they face at work, we are working on bringing equality. That we pledge to make work a safe, inclusive and righteous place. This may take time, but we still value women’s contributions to the company and wish they would stick with us while we strive to provide the equality that is their fundamental right.
Note: I’m writing this article post women’s day, so I am only addressing women’s issues. Being from a tech background, I can only write about my personal experience and things my friends and relatives have gone through. I know there are other minorities affected in the tech world. I know women are affected in other fields in a different way, but I can only write about what I know and who I can reach.