Building a Woman-Friendly Work-Place – M.S.Srinivasan

flower_yellow_redWhere the women are respected, there the gods dwell with delight.

– Manu in Manava

Dharma Shastra

(As the previous article describes vividly, the present corporate world is not very safe or friendly to woman. If the corporate world wants to harness fully the potentialities of its woman-force it has to create an environment which is safe from the menace of sexual harassment, free from the hurdle of sexual discrimination, sensitive to the special needs of woman and helps her to balance her work and life or in otherwords, it must be an environment which is safe, fare, sensitive and supportive to woman.)

Homepage intro: which is safe, fare and sensitive to woman.

Key-perspectives: safe to woman; fare for woman; sensitive to women; feminine advantage

Safe to Woman

The first requirement is safety. The menace of sexual harassment is threatening and crippling to corporate woman.   What is the remedy? Let us proceed step by step, moving from the external to the internal remedies. The first step in the process is reporting the offense. The organisation has to create the right environment and the right process which is safe for the victim to report, which means two thing: confidentiality of the reporter and an assurance that there will be no reprisal from the offender. The second step is to create a redressal mechanism or system which a fare and firm, swift and decisive. Most of the progressive organisations which take sexual harassment seriously have a zero-tolerance policy; if the offender is found guilty he is dismissed. In general, we can say this is the right approach. However the process of justice should be not only firm and decisive but should also be fare, which means the following factors have to be given due consideration and not hastily dismissed in our over eagerness or feminist zeal for justice:

  • Genuineness of the complaint
  • Nature and circumstance of the offense
  • Social and cultural background of the offender
  • Proper training of the investigating officers in conducting the enquiry or the enquiry has to be done by people who have the right expertise or competence for it.
  • Possibility of reformation of the offender through wise counseling.

Take for instance, the cultural background of the offender. Here is an example narrated in a leading Indian business magazine which brings out the importance of this factor in conducting a fare enquiry. A young man from a rural background, fresh from college, joined a software firm. He was attracted to one of his female colleagues and e-mailed a love letter to her. She was offended and reported the incident immediately to her superiors. When the offended was called to explain, he was shocked and surprised to know that his behaviours was not acceptable in the company. Similarly, when engineering or management graduates are recruited on a large scale, they come with their campus habits like loose flirting, lewd language or eve teasing. Many of them may not be aware that such habits and behaviour are unacceptable in a more matured and professional corporate environment.

One more example from a cultural-spiritual organization. He is basically a decent and well-behaved young man who was very friendly with a female member of the organisation. But certain unpleasant incidents created a sexually charged tension and conflict between them. The female member felt harassed and threatened and complained to the authorities. The psychiatric experts said that the offender was unbalanced and had to be temporarily suspended until he regains his balance with medical treatment. The leaders of the organisation pondered over the situation; considering the circumstances, past history and nature of the person, he was treated with understanding and patience; slowly the young man regained his balance and again became a normal and useful member of the community without any further trouble.

The reporting process and the system of justice should be as fast as possible.   But it should not be too swift, which ignores the fine nuances of the problem and the need for fareness. There should be no fixed or rigid rules like for instance the victim should report the offense within 24 hours. The harassment may be subtle and the woman may be uncertain about the intention of the offender. For example, Nira Anand, Head, Human Resources, World Bank, states, “In the early part of my career, while on travel a colleague wanted to finish a report late in my room and another commented on my lipstick. What you will do.” So the person who experiences harassment, must be given sufficient time to see how the thing develops and decide or discuss the matter with a knowledgeable and understanding counselor.   If the process of justice has to be fare, taking into many causative factors, it needs an optimum time frame to deliver justice.

In a large organization which has sufficient resource, all these factors which he have discussed above can be properly documented, researched and analyzed. This may lead to a deeper understanding of the problem, which can help the company in taking preventive measures in recruitment, training, induction programmes and other HRD policies and practices.

We have discussed so far some of the external remedies for sexual harassment. They are very much necessary but not sufficient. The lasting solution to the problem can be achieved only through an inner change and transformation brought about by education. This education must be an integral part of the training and development programmes for employees. Here again providing information on the various aspects of the problem like for example what constitutes sexual harassment, related laws, company policies and practices is necessary but not enough. There must be a deeper and broader awakening into the social and psychological causes which lead to the offence. The trainee or the learner must be given a clear understanding of the causative factors in the social environment like for example media images of woman.

Along with this external education there must be an internal education through self-observation. The trainee has to be taught how to observe his inner movements with scientific objectivity and detachment, which leads to a deep, insightful understanding of the inner sexual or sex-related impulses that cause violence against woman, like for example, compulsive infatuation or lust or the urge for power, domination, enjoyment, exploitation. He must see and feel how much he is driven like a slave by these impulses and experience the inner freedom which comes from inwardly stepping back from them. Another factor which can bring about deep inner change is aesthetics. A comprehensive and holistic aesthetic education through cultivation of the sense of the beautiful and harmonious can bring about a deep refinement of the consciousness, especially in the sexual impulses. When this psychological and aesthetic education, combined together, is pursued with sincerity and persistence it can lead to a more beautiful, harmonious and understanding relationship between man and woman and put an end to all forms of violence against woman.

Fare for Woman

To be fare for woman means there must be no discrimination based on gender and equal opportunities for growth and advancement. More than half of human population is woman; In the working population, share of woman is progressing rapidly toward 50%. In this demographic situation, if there is no discrimination against woman, then 50% of leaders and managers must be woman. But this is not happening. The performance of corporate world in this domain is not very satisfactory and that of corporate India is dismal. For example only 15% of all senior management positions in corporate India are held by women – this puts India in the bottom five globally.

Here again, what is the solution? Make a conscious effort to achieve the target of 50% woman in the total employee strength as well as in leadership positions─not in order to comply with legal requirements but for the sake of equality and diversity. There are some progressive companies in India and abroad, which are making this effort toward gender equality and diversity. IBM, India has placed an executive, Diversity Manger, to take care of gender and diversity issues. Mahindra and Mahindra has set the target of 50% woman in its workforce and has a recruitment policy stating that if all factor other than gender are the same, it will prefer to hire woman. At Infosys, Narayana Murthy, had set up IWIN, Infosys Woman Inclusive Network in 2003, with the following objectives:

  • Create a gender sensitive and inclusive work-environment and thereby make Infosys the employer of choice for woman.
  • Help woman in their career life-cycles through support groups and policies and thereby enhance retention
  • Develop woman for managerial and leadership roles and thereby maintain gender ratios at all the levels of the organisation.

We need many such initiatives to make the work-place more fare to woman.

Towards Inner Balance

However 50-50 principle should not be confined to the external life of the organization; it has to extend itself deeper into the moral and psychological dimension, into the realm of values, qualities and faculties. Since the dawn of human civilization, except perhaps in a few civilizations or in some epochs of history, the Male psyche and its hard masculine values of power, aggression, authority, hierarchy, control, subjugation, rationalism, individualism, self-assertion, had more or less dominated the inner and outer life of the race. The time has come to restore the balance through an increasing manifestation of the “soft” or feminine values like beauty, harmony, grace, balance, compassion, ecological and social sensitivity, equity and a more non-hierarchical, participative and inclusive leadership.

There are two types of inner change which are needed to create this inner balance. First is an inner change in attitude and a sincere inner acceptance of the need for equality and balance. Without this inner change, discrimination will persist in a subtle and less conscious form. The well known Apparel firm, Levi Strauss discovered this obstacle to achieve diversity when a small group of woman and minority managers asked for a private meeting with the CEO Robert Hass and expressed their grievances. The performance of Levi Strauss in diversity was excellent in terms of numbers. But the managers who met Haas felt that there were invisible barriers keeping woman and minorities from advancing in the organisations. After a long heated and painful discussion and debate in a retreat, the top management of Levi Strauss came to the conclusion that equality and diversity is, “not a matter of numbers but of attitude and that considerable unconscious discrimination still exited at the company something needed to be done.” This example from Levi Strauss shows that to achieve genuine equality and diversity there must be a strong emphasis in the education and training programmes and policy directives on change in inner attitudes which translates itself in corresponding outer practices. (Haas, R, 1990)

The other inner change which has to be achieved is an increasing manifestation of feminine values, qualities and faculties through a positive encouragement to the growth of these inner factors. For, every individual has a masculine and feminine side, though those who have a feminine or masculine body may have a natural and inborn affinity or inclination for the corresponding qualities or values. . However, the aim or ideal to be achieved is not a swing to the other extreme of domination by woman or feminine qualities but a psychological balance between feminine and masculine qualities and faculties in the work-force. Emotional intelligence, social sensitivity, pragmatic intuition, executive competence, caring for people, nurturing community, collaborative leadership are some of feminine qualities and faculties natural to woman. On the other hand conceptual intelligence, logical and analytical thinking, envisioning the long-term future, perceiving the big-picture, philosophical or metaphysical speculations are some of the masculine competencies natural to men. There must be a balanced development of feminine and masculine competencies in the work-force.

Sensitive to Woman

To be sensitive to woman means to be responsive to her special needs and unique potentialities. The working women have some special needs like maternity, caring for elders, ministering to the family and the home and as a result, a more pressing need for work-life balance. For effective motivation and full engagement of woman, all these needs of woman have to be given careful and sympathetic consideration by corporate management, Sylvia Hewlett in her book “Off ramps and Onramps” discusses the critical question what could be done to retain talented woman in the workplace. Sylvia stresses on the need to understand that woman have a different set of responsibilities in their personal lives, which percolate into their work lives. This calls for a more flexible work situation for woman to accommodate their wide-ranging responsibilities like bearing child, caring for aging parents and many other household demands.

Flexitime, telecommuting, daycare centres for children are some of the well known practices adopted by progressive organizations for creating woman friendly workplace. However these practices are only external aids. For a deeper and a more holistic engagement of woman, work-life balance and responding to woman’s needs have to become part of the internal attitudes, values and culture of the organization as a whole and at all the levels of the corporate hierarchy. If a corporate management says to its woman employees, “we have provided all the felicities you need like flexitime and daycare centres. Don’t talk any more about work-life balance or bring your womanly problems to the work-place” then it is not sensitive to woman. In a truly woman-friendly culture, work-life balance is not merely a matter of flexitime or daycare centres but a conscious, continuous and collective effort between the bosses, subordinates and peers, sustained through careful, considerate and sympathetic listening, dialogue, mentoring, counseling and mutual adjustment. For example, when a woman employee has a work-life problem or any problem or issue related to her needs, then she, her boss, her helpful peers and subordinates, and if required an officer from HR department, sit together and arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution. In otherwords, work-place becomes an extended family of the employee. Interestingly, this is what Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi Co said about her company. She said in one of her interviews that Pepsi Co was for her like an extended family. If every employee of PepsiCo feels like Indra Nooyi then it is a great compliment to this Fortune 500 firm.

The other aspect of sensitivity is to be responsive to the unique potentialities of woman. The feminine nature has some unique competencies like emotional intelligence, pragmatic intuition, sense of the community, collaborative leadership, empathy or “social intelligence.” The woman executive or the employee has to be given sufficient freedom, opportunities and encouragement to express her natural competencies in her work-life and should not be compelled or induced to imitate the male model of behaviour or attitudes. This will lead to greater creativity in the work-place because it will complement the male values, attitudes and competencies which dominate the present corporate life.

The Feminine Advantage

This brings us to an important and promising factor or trend which has the potential to end discrimination against woman; it is the recognition of the feminine advantage. There is a growing recognition among corporate executives that more woman in the workplace, apart from its moral and social significance, will ultimately have a beneficial impact on the performance of the organization as a whole. Rajeev Dubey, President Group HR and Member of the Group Management Board of Mahindra and Mahindra, states, “We believe it is an advantage to have more Xwomen. We have observed that innovation is better. Often woman bring with them points of view not expressed by men.”

There is empirical support for this perspective from recent studies and research. For example, research done by leads University Business School concludes that having atleast one female director reduces a company’s chance of bankruptcy by 20 percent. In another survey conducted worldwide by Aziz Corporation, a UK based executive leadership consultants, 80% of executives felt a dominant male culture was responsible for the global financial crisis. Alyse Nelson, President and CEO, Vital Voices Global Partnership, states, “Recent research shows that companies with most woman on boards outperform those with the least with an 83 percent higher return on invested capital” and quotes Robert R. Zoelick President of World Bank as saying: “Gender equality is just smart economics.” There are at present a growing number of studies and research on the nature of feminine competencies. Here are some conclusions of these studies, which give an indication of what woman can bring to the work-place.:

  • Women add value to any task assigned to them with their own special, personal, emotional and functional attributes.
  • Women are more goal-driven, more responsive to co-workers, customers and stakeholders and more capable of getting the best out of them than men who are self-centered and careerist.
  • Women consistently score over men in trustworthiness, diligence, thoroughness, studiousness, loyalty, earnestness, honesty, human relations, better judgement helped by intuition, sharper reflexes in handling issues and events, superior skills in management.

The Power of Caring Leadership An Example

This approach for creating a woman friendly work-place requires truly caring leaders. Here is an example and a case study. In a regular column in Harvard Business Review, “The Best Advice I Ever Got,” Michelle Peluso, President and CEO, Travelocity, talks about his father, who is an entrepreneur. He writes that when a female employee in his father’s company got admission to a B-school, his father said with great happiness and excitement. “Sally’s gotten excepted into an MBA program and we’re going to figure out how she can do that part-time.” Peluso says further about his father:

“His concern was authentic and unwavering and it extended to all aspect of his employees lives. Now, my fathers attitude and behaviour were just part of his personality not some maneuver to produce results. But they produced them all the same. He grew that startup into a thriving business and then sold it to larger company but continued to run it successfully.”

Peluso states that his father is a role model and inspiration for his own professional life:

“The Longer I’m in my own career, the more I attempt to put that lesson into practice. At a 5000 person global organization, I simply can’t know everyone personally. But I can apply may dad’s technique in a scaled up way that let me know as many people as possible; that encourages managers to do the same; and that make our employees generally feel that this is a place where someone’s looking out for them.”

Peluso gives following example from his own organization to show how he is trying to put into practice his father’s leadership philosophy:

“A few years ago one of our senior manager was leading a huge project that had high visibility with out investor community, when she began having pregnancy complications. I fully supported her in taking several months off, for her own health and for her kids. It was daunting time but the team worked through it, and that manager is still working here as our CEO.”

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