I made the jump from college to work suddenly and found the transition to be both exciting and jarring. From a university student to a serious ‘working woman’ – the change took place in a span of a few months and I found that my world had changed.
But, I wasn’t the only one going through this transition. Many of my peers were joining the workforce, pursuing their passions in diverse fields, and were now a part of a system much like me. Some love their jobs, some hate it, and some complain of mind-boggling sexism and discrimination.
Women have always worked. But it is only in the last few decades that they have come to be regarded as critical members of the workforce. Instead of being treated as invisible entities, today women are entering diverse fields as scientists, IT professionals, academicians, engineers, designers and more. But not too long ago, women were hardly recognised for their unpaid work. My mother’s generation, for instance, never saw the ‘work’ they did as turning into a viable career. For them it was just something they did out of a sense of duty and no one put a value to their contribution. But that’s not how it is now. Work for a woman is a crucial part of her identity.
We asked a few women what work means for them, and here’s what they had to say.
Job satisfaction seems to be an important theme across the board. Considering that people are spending more and more time at work, quality of work is of utmost importance. The question however is not how comfortable they feel at work, but how much it aligns with their ethics and belief systems. If we don’t believe in what we do, then why do we do it?
Let’s take Ananya for instance. She joined one of India’s largest TV networks with huge expectations. Sadly, reality proved to be disillusioning; she was disappointed when she found herself doing something radically different from her job description.
A student of literature, she was upset to find that her work felt “less like a creative process and more like small scale event management.” As Ananya says, “There is hardly any intellectual agency and I feel like I am being paid to waste my time. I also worry about getting duller and more indifferent by the day.”
While most people understand work structures as linear – a ‘boss’ and a team of ‘subordinates’, where the boss may even act as a mentor to his team – that concept is fast changing. For example, Smita Mathur, who works in the publishing industry, says her workplace encourages “an approachable support system.” This essentially means that anyone can be a “sounding board” for any other person in the team. Undoubtedly, there is a movement towards a culture which promotes doing away with traditional notions of hierarchy. Today it is more team work – where everyone is helping each other.
With fluid work structures also comes the issue of work timings. It’s here that women in India still face challenges. Nidhi Taparia, an entrepreneur, talks of her boss who once went out of his way to spend a few minutes chatting with her dad who was visiting. “My boss knew that I lived alone in the city and he did a lot to reassure my dad that I was doing great work and that I should be allowed to pursue my dreams.” A workplace that understands the many problems women, especially in India, face while working, or just getting to work, can be invaluable.
However, while the system is changing, the progress has been slow. Nidhi, for example, feels that more women should be in positions of power, as compared to the reality today. More women in leadership roles would encourage greater participation of women in the workforce. “When a lot of women quit the team, whoever is the boss, he/she must be questioned. I don’t think organisations hold men – who are leaders – accountable or even sensitise them as to how to deal with the issues of women employees,” she adds.
Then there is the question of gender bias. Many women may not have faced it openly but most have suffered silently sexist comments and attitudes. Public relations professional Asleen Madhok Anand says, “Sales companies look for that ‘outrageously beautiful girl but with no brains’!”
Then there are companies that ask gender-insensitive questions during job interviews, and clearly, women are singled out. Some employers are direct, while others hint that marriage or motherhood may mar the woman’s career progression.
Arti Khanijo, a doting parent to a two-year old, was shocked when she was asked inappropriate questions about future family plans during a job interview by a “renowned MNC.” “If that wasn’t enough, they went on to ask if I was planning to have kids in the next two years. I didn’t want to join a company that takes such promises from an employee before joining,” she says firmly.
This organisational mindset indicates that women are seen as burdens or an investment by companies. They are also still viewed as homemakers and caretakers first and working women later. Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes (a venture dedicated to making workplaces more equal and providing women with diverse career opportunities based on their needs) says, “I look forward to the day when the internet will show more results of women-led businesses and opportunities rather than stereotyping them as people who are interested only in cooking, parenting and shopping websites.”
The wage gap is another reality that working women are battling with all over the world. The gender wage divide has been found to be increasing at higher wage levels. So, the higher the woman moves up the ladder, the more disparate her income becomes from her male counterparts. This has numbers as high as 34% in the tech sector, an industry not known for hiring a lot of women to begin with. Also, this issue is not just industry-specific. Anita, a TV producer, said that during her campus placement, her classmate – a man – was offered twice as much as her and it was for the same job role. “I wondered – is it a gender thing, or if he’s just a better negotiator? Either way, it’s unfair,” she recounts.
It was also noted that motherhood becomes one of the underlying reasons for the overall gender pay gap, with some countries paying mothers 33% less than non-mothers. Many companies step back from hiring women altogether so as to avoid granting them maternity leave. However, with the recent amendment to the Maternity Benefit Bill in India – increasing maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, we can hope for better conditions for women in the workplace in the future.
Women have always been achievers. From being renowned scientists and astronauts to commanding in the boardroom. Yet, society still views them in nurturing roles – as mothers, daughters, sisters. Women aren’t necessarily seen as individuals. And that’s where everything gets topsy-turvy.
Asleen sums it up rather well. “When you get married it gets tougher to manage your career and home. I work in a corporate and timing is always an issue. Yet, no matter what time I reach home, I am expected to enter the kitchen, slice onions, fix a meal and be a good homemaker!”
Great job, society.
Dear working woman, we want to hear your story. Write to us. Tell us about YOUR career aspirations, the struggles, discriminatory practices you want changed, your expectations from your workplace, skills mismatch and wage gaps, and your unique experiences in starting your own business. Join the conversation and let us strive towards making decent work a reality for all!