Ksapa and Dr. Rituparna Majumdar, International Consultant on Human Rights, open the debate on diversity, particularly in Asia, outlining a checklist for achieving an equal, safe and inclusive workplace.
With kind acknowledgements to Ksapa and Dr. Rituparna Majumdar. How to achieve an Equal, Safe, and Inclusive Workplace: A checklist was first posted on the Ksapa blog under the title Checklist for an Equal, Safe and Inclusive Workplace.
An increasing number of people identify themselves on the basis of different genders. They are embracing their gender with much more confidence than just a few years earlier. This definitely constitutes a paradigm shift in our global society.
However, a society ensuring equality, safety and inclusivity for all its genders may still sound like something of a pipe dream. With Covid-19, there has been a general shift in the patterns of our daily lives. There is more attachment to one’s own self, family and workforce than before. This notably because the workplace has now shifted to one’s very home. As such, working hours and expectations around work have also changed.
It is becoming extremely important for us to talk about gender in our workplace communion, rendering the conversation more natural around many taboos. In that perspective, striving for workplaces to celebrate equality effectively ensures greater safety and facilitates inclusivity. Here is a checklist for companies and organizations to embed across their policies, implementations and procedures.
An inclusive workplace which understands gender
Do any of these statements sound familiar to you? “We don’t have any pregnant women workers listed in our company because most of them are above 40 years of age. Therefore, they are not in the reproductive age bracket”? This was the answer of a male human resource manager to the following question. “Why has no instance of pregnancy ever been registered, nor maternity benefits applied for, given that 90% of the workforce are women?”
Another male manager working in a labour-intensive manufacturing unit stated “we do not have a lot of women in the machine shop. It’s tough work, women cannot do that. They prefer to work in the packing division, it’s easier”. Upon further probing the manager, we asked if the women themselves told the management they preferred packing jobs to machine jobs. Or had the manager just assumed this? He simply quipped that it is how the culture is.
We also noticed that the company had never engaged their unskilled workforce in any skills development program. Nor had it provided any space for personal and professional growth. As a result, a large chunk of its workforce remains unskilled, in lesser paid jobs. With little or no opportunity for promotion.
This kind of attitudinal behaviour also signals a company’s awareness of gender issues. Consider for example the challenges of adapting to various nuances of gender around recruitment, providing access to worker grievance mechanisms and structural systems. There little discourse around these topics – in any company.
Most also equate gender to women’s issues, but such is not necessarily the case. Many people and professionals do not know that there are around 64 terms that describe gender identity and expression. Even though we may not like ‘labels’, these labels and terminology play a very important part in understanding gender. Unless we acknowledge this, we cannot expect society to affirm and support gender inclusivity.
An equal workplace encouraging diversity and inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are often referred to interchangeably. Yet, they are different though connected. The question can be boiled down like this: if employers do not promote diversity, there will be no inclusion. Where there is no inclusion, there can be no diversity. It took decades for women to get a foothold in the professional space. Still, we observe a void in certain industries like engineering, transport and warehousing, software developers and professional drivers.
Similarly, think of cooking and cleaning, which is considered a ‘woman’s job’ at home. As it turns out, itis mostly male-dominated professionally. There are more male tutors and professors teaching professional courses like engineering or space sciences. When it comes to kindergarten and primary schools, teachers are primarily women.
If you draw up an image of a farmer, in India for instance, you are probably envisioning a male farmer. In reality however, women contribute equally in farming but are paid less. Moreover, they are less represented with regards to collective bargaining. Consider how women – who after all form half of the population – face such issues. What about gender minorities, like transgender people? Or transgender individuals who belong to lower castes/different races? People with disabilities? With each new nuance, inclusivity and diversity becomes increasingly challenging.
A workplace which engages in open discussion on menstruation
Most workplaces employ 50% of women nowadays. Despite this high representation, there is still a fairly high level of taboo.
Talking about a common phenomenon like menstruation is still unusual. Incidentally, menstruation can’t be defined based on gender alone. Contrary to what most people think, it is not just a “woman’s thing”. People who identify to other genders menstruate as well. Still, due to the sensitivity of the subject, there is no discussion around it within the workplace. After all, it’s a very important biological function. Some bodies experience it strongly and it has direct bearing on their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Menstruation is a cyclic process and periods are but a very small part of it. There are also conditions like PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome), PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), endometriosis, PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) that affect an individual on non-period days as well and sometimes leads to body imaging, shaming and ridiculing at workplace.
For this, we cannot blame the workplace alone. Such behavioural changes need to happen from a very young age. It is an entirely different matter in the workplace. Based on a study conducted by Menstrual Hygiene Day, 71% of girls in India have no knowledge of menstruation before their first period; 63 million girls in India do not have access to a toilet in their homes; 1 out of 5 girls drop out of school after they start menstruating. These startling statistics in fact reinforce the gap in our communication. We lack appropriate infrastructure in homes, schools… and workplaces as well.
A safe workplace which provides grievance channels to address Gender-Based Violence
Gender-based violence (GBV) in the workplace could mean gender-based recruitment discrimination, stigmatisation and exclusion, sexual harassment or rape, forced labour and sexual coercion by colleagues and so on.
How many companies do you know (or have worked for) have dedicated grievance channels to address these social issues ? If your answer is none, it is not surprising. Achieving the above checklist would structure a workplace without gender boundaries, inclusiveness, open dialogue around sexual orientation and acceptance. This clearly spells out the need for internal communication channels for all employees. They need to know they can raise their concerns more freely and without any prejudice.
Again, isolating the workplace may not be the best solution. The workplace is a reflection of how our society and political dialogue is. In some countries, heads of State have had a rather nonchalant attitude towards harassment and rape against women. A national leader in Pakistan once said “if a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men, unless they are robots. It’s just common sense”. Reacting to increasing sexual violence in a northern State in India, a local leader provided the following media byte: “boys will be boys, they make mistakes. Girls get friendly with boys and when they fight and have differences, they term it as rape”. A female Chief Minister in Eastern India quipped that “rapes happen because men and women interact freely”.
The list goes on. The gist of it is that if the representatives of States and political parties – both men and women – have such opinions about gender violence, how can one expect a company to think differently?
A workplace which takes grievances around sexual harassment seriously
An International Financial Corporation study in 2016 highlighted that 74% of professional women in the EU reported experiencing sexual harassment. A study conducted by CARE in 2017 enunciated that 1 in 3 women workers in SEA garment factories have experienced sexual harassment. In 2018-2019, the National Commission for Women (India), received 88 complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace. That increased to 376 complaints in 2020. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the workplace shifted primarily to homes. It became a much greater challenge for companies to monitor and sensitise employees on issues pertaining to workplace harassment.
NBC news reported, in 2017, that at least 29 ‘powerful’ men in the field of entertainment, business and news have been publicly condemned for their alleged sexual misconduct. The word ‘powerful’ is a keyword here. We indeed rarely see people in ‘high positions’ outed for such actions. The reason is simply because men charged with such cases are often in high position. Women involved in the general workforce lack representation in higher positions.
Time to speak up
Of course, we are all aware of the infamous Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct case. A whopping 87 members of the entertainment industry accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Beyond the immediate scope of the case, it created an opportunity for the victims to share grievances. They were finally able to come out of their silence, feel and realize they were definitely not alone and therefore an integral part of #metoo.
As for the law, few countries (including India) are required to establish internal complaints committees. These typically involve select members to be trained to manage complaints from their employees on matters relating to workplace harassment. However, based on our experience in the field, we see that most of these committees are either just for show. Alternatively, members are not adequately trained to deal with such sensitive issues as harassment. They are for instance less likely to observe grievance confidentially.
Consequently, employees are still relying on social media to share their grievances rather than their own company’s internal systems.
What can companies do to achieve the checklist?
- Strive to develop gender policies and procedures. Especially on issues like gender inclusion, diversity, menstruation, encouraging work-like balance. Companies should strive to implement policies by conducting measurable benchmarks and developing criteria to track their performance on gender indexing.
- There is a huge need to bring about an attitudinal change among management representatives. This, in order to be more gender sensitive and use gender-appropriate language in offices and at home. This will only be possible if there is more open discussion around societal taboos.
- Have monthly or quarterly coffee-breaks of short group meetings and provide employees with an opportunity to talk about issues beyond the workplace. Offer them a space to talk about what may be affecting their mental, emotional and physical well-being. These opportunities allow employees to build a strong emotional bond with the company. It ultimately brings positive results, such as better production and higher employee retention.
- Engage with local stakeholders – like schools and colleges. Take part, through their social responsibility activities, in helping institutions understand the importance of gender discourse at a young age. They should facilitate the conversation with important government officials and school management. Eventually, they must develop student-friendly guidelines together on addressing gender as a whole. The main focus should be on label acceptance, addressing issues around gender roles, gender stereotyping, safety around menstruation, teaching both girls and boys the important of consent in relationships, talking about channels to help students address issues around sex and sexuality.
- Conduct regular trainings with employees, targeting workplace rights and responsibilities, workplace harassment and violence. Work closely with inter-departmental managers to establish multiple grievance channels to focus on addressing issues around gender in a professional manner and ensuring justice delivery on time and with full confidentiality.
Developing a checklist to secure a more gender sensitive workplace is difficult to encapsulate in just a few words. The result is of course not exhaustive. There’s still a long way to go until we achieve a society where women no longer have to fight for equal pay. Where there are more women in higher positions, and more representation in specific jobs considered to favour men. Where employers take a strong stand on issues like gender and racial equality. Where people from all genders access professional opportunities that help them develop skills for appropriate employment, recruitment, pay raise and promotion.
- Link up with Dr. Rituparna Majumdar on LinkedIn
- Discover Sustainability-ESG consulting firm Ksapa
- Browse the Ksapa blog
- Read a related article: How managers can create a culture for women to thrive.
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