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New Gender-Sensitive HR Policies At Work Are Great. But What About Our Mindsets?

More from Sharanya Misra

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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