A few days ago, I was thinking about how far we have come as a society in terms of gender equality in the workplace. Where once we had to rebel for equal pay to enter the work force – irrespective of gender or even women’s rights – today, men and women enjoy equal opportunities, equal pay and equal rights to their safety.
Women are receiving extended maternity leaves. Both men and women are given flexible work timings. Some companies even have paternity leave in place for new fathers. Thanks to policies by the government and the companies alike, men and women are now beginning to share an equal stature, at least in the professional sphere.
So, are we good then? We seem to have achieved all we set out to – but have we? New gender-sensitive HR policies are really great. But what about our mindsets?
Over the years, I have realised that gender stereotypes still very much exist in our professional environments, albeit in a subtle manner. No longer do you hear outright opinions of what men and women ‘should’ do. Instead, views are put across with a famous tag that people hide behind – “Just kidding!” Snide remarks and sniggers behind the back may have replaced in-your-face comments, but it only goes to show that the very stereotypes we were trying to throw out the window have only been hidden out of sight.
I still remember when a year ago, a colleague of mine took a good seven days off for paternity leave. It turned out that he had handed himself over on a platter to be the butt of all office jokes. The jokes ranged from, “Did even the mother need as many leaves as the ones you took?” to “Are you sure you are ready to come back just yet?”
During an induction session in my company, when the HR was citing the parental leave policies, the proportion of maternity leave (26 weeks) to paternity leave (five days) was so outrageous that even the HR couldn’t stop a giggle. “Well, no man has ever approached me to get his leaves extended, so five days it is!” she ventured. It’s not too hard to imagine why!
A very common concern most men in my profession have is how a woman would manage her household chores if she worked this hard in office. Therefore, it’s best not take her on board in the first place! Why stress her out? Married and pregnant women are considered a liability, even in this day and age.
At the end of a long day at work, a definite question coming my way would always be, “So, what are you cooking for your husband tonight?”
On days when I buy lunch at the cafeteria, I am often asked by men eating from dabbas containing food cooked and packed by their wives, “No dabba today?” They say this with all the sympathy they can muster.
Colleagues with a ‘great’ sense of humour look for inspiration for their jokes in my lifestyle – The girl who “makes” her husband cook and clean; or the girl who works so hard she has no time to “feed” her husband good food.
It is all “in jest”, of course – they clarify! Every joke of this sort carries an ounce of the stereotypical mindset that we are yet to shed. For me, it was alarming, in the least, to realise that men I worked with still thought the right place for a woman to be was at the table, with piping hot food ready when they got back home tired after a long day at work! Matters of the kitchen and household are supposedly matters only women are supposed to handle even today.
Expectations from men and women too vary accordingly. A woman who leaves early for home is given glances of understanding (or resigned acceptance, or even a “This is why I didn’t want to hire her” shake of the head) – she has a house to take care of after all.
A man, on the other hand, has many hurdles to cross if he wants to have a life beyond the office walls. Bachelors are expected to “always be available” because they have “nothing better to do”. Married men, of course, have their “wives taking care of things”. So men, in general, are supposed to live their lives glued to the desks.
I remember a colleague who strictly adhered to office timings by reaching office at 8:30 AM sharp and leaving at 6:30 PM. He was into blogging every morning and cooking every night and was hell bent on making time for his passions. He soon had to leave the company because he did not meet the management’s expectations.
An acquaintance of mine had once written an article on how it is important for mothers to find time for themselves apart from their children every once in a while. This only resulted in a colleague of hers mocking her over lunch. This colleague proudly shared how he would never allow his wife to shirk off her duties like that and that his wife wouldn’t even take a step out without his consent.
Mothers who have to take a day off when their children fall sick or women who stay home because the first day of periods is killing them are given glances of disgust – “Why work at all, when you cannot manage it!” This makes women feel guilty of availing the leaves that are in fact rightfully theirs to avail. Fathers are in for worse – “Looking after the kid while the mother is off attending a meeting, what a spineless fellow!” I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that a woman was promoted due to the company’s policy on ‘diversity’, belittling what was her due in no time!
Even today, men and women are not given the right to follow a balanced lifestyle, due to the perceptions of their coworkers. Men are still burdened with living up to the societal standards of workaholism that masculinity demands. Women are still struggling to break free of the opinions chaining them to the confines of their homes.
What’s really sad is that these perceptions are so ingrained in people’s minds that more often than not, their reactions are unintentional. Their perceptions are skewed even now. We have a long way to go to convince people that gender or marital status cannot be the criterion to measure someone’s productivity at work. Nor can it define a person’s priorities at home or in the office. And while this cannot happen overnight, our insistence to follow our principles in the workplace and live by example, may at least inspire the people on the other end of the spectrum to try and see things from our perspective.