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How To Get More Women In Workforce? Gender Parity Is A Conscious Move!

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By Vinati Dev

“Diversity creates positive benefits when people believe in its intrinsic value. They can’t just see gender inclusion as an obligation.” ​

We don’t, yet, know, how this pandemic, will change our lives – what will “change forever” (a bit of an oxymoron) what will remain the same or shift, just a little. We are hearing that our workplace is expected to change drastically. Some say this will happen because companies will accelerate their plans to go digital. Some, because, WFH is to be the “new normal” and some because our office real-estate may be sold off to save costs! All of this will, we are told, will change the ‘nature of work and the workforce’.

For now, however, we just need to wait and see. But as we think about this long list of potential ‘resets’ it’s worth exploring if COVID-19 will make the corporate workplace and event countries more gender-inclusive?

women in office
It is risky to think that COVID-19 will change social norms that have historically prevented women from being hired and even being promoted.

Let’s take the corporates first. The lazy assumption to make is that because, it is women who often desire flexible hours, the new ‘professional legitimacy’ accorded to WFH will mean that their numbers may go up, and if that happens, over time, there will be more women in the work-force.

But rarely do external factors, even a socio-economic crisis of this magnitude, have an automatic impact on individuals, organizations, and country’s mind-sets. Rather, awareness, intentional decisions, consensus building, and commitment to change are needed to shift and permanently exit age-old gender biases.

What do we mean?

Well, it is risky to think that COVID-19 will change social norms that have historically prevented women from being hired and even being promoted. Even the data has thrown up contradictory evidence. We have known, for long, that while there is economic sense in hiring women, organizations don’t just hire.

While there is research supporting the positive relationship between business value and diversity figures, there are data showing thath there isn’t a value to hiring women or that affect it little. We can take our pick. But we also need to ask what is the missing piece? This fascinating study talks about what “other” factors, like larger social context,  are already at play.

Here, researchers at Harvard evaluated 1,069 leading public firms in 35 countries and 24 industries to discover this: yes, gender matters and has a positive impact on market value and revenue, but more gender diversity has been normatively accepted in a country or industry, the more it benefits a firm’s market valuation and revenue.

Basically, they are saying that it is pre-existing norms and views towards women – in companies and cultures – that determine how women will perform and add value. It’s a vicious cycle.

You may ask how were norms captured and measured? The researchers, first measured the prevalence of women on boards of directors in each country and industry, because, women in important leadership positions signal that organizations value gender diversity and view women’s role as pervasive.

The second, a measure of normative legitimacy, was the percentage of firms in a country or industry that have publicly announced pro-diversity policies or programs. To measure regulatory norms, the researcher used the World Bank’s Women Business, to examine each country’s legal environment for women in the workplace.

So what this study is trying to say is that pre-existing conditions and mindsets matter! Pre-existing views on the intrinsic value of hiring women matters!

As we talk about the post-COVID corporate world, therefore, it is likely that companies that have already implemented, acted on, and set goals on D&I initiatives are likely to carry on doing so. They can even take advantage of “WFH legitimacy” to convert the sceptics in their own companies to achieve their goals in an accelerated manner. Perhaps, more people with disabilities will find their way to win some of these companies because WFH is possible.

But it is important to emphasize and ask: what were the companies doing before COVID-19?

Microsoft, for example, publishes an annual Global Diversity and Inclusion report, where it renews their commitment and tracks its progress on D&I goals. Last year, it publicly shared an Inclusion Index, Equal Pay Data, and have called out metrics for women and racial and ethnic minorities.

Woman working on a laptop
The way a society is structured to absorb women in the labor force matters; its societal views on working-women and the legal environment which oversees women in the workforce also matter.

Similarly, earlier this year, Unilever, announced that it had achieved ‘gender-balance’ (50-50 men-women across the management levels) and had done so globally. This was up from 38% in 2010.

So, we know that goals were set years ago – and it was a deliberate and intentional approach that got them to this parity. Nothing was ‘automatic’, hardly anything was ‘exogenous’. Rather, these were deliberate internal decisions taken by the people at the helm at any given point on the intrinsic value of hiring and promoting women.

On the other hand,  if an organization hasn’t yet made that conscious shift,  made that commitment, or isn’t tracking progress –  pandemic or not – those shifts won’t come fast and furious.

Similarly, the way a society is structured to absorb women in the labor force matters; its societal views on working-women and the legal environment which oversees women in the workforce also matter. This means, at the country level, India will continue to face a huge challenge in absorbing women in the workforce.

Data has shown how India is an outlier, when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce, at this level of economic development. Instead of going up, labor force participation has been going down. India’s Female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR)—the share of working-age women who report either being employed or being available for work—fell to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18. This is despite the fact that the schooling for girls had gone up. The missing piece in the puzzle, economists have argued, are social norms and the way labour markets are structured.

Data also shows that were India to rebalance its workforce, it would be some 27% richer. But even this established economic value is not enough to automatically drive absorption. Social norms impact both the supply and demand of women in the workforce. Indeed, without an intentional policy approach, which addresses legal, social, and labour market structures that hinder women’s participation – it will be hard to absorb an estimated 235 million missing women from the workforce.

The good news is that where the hard work of tackling social norms, exposing biases is being done, results have come. Huge participation of women in rural settings, via Self-Help Groups for example, required convincing the male members of the house-holds to let women take part and has shown great results.

But India has a long way to go on all fronts – social and legal – to feminize its workforce. COVID won’t change that overnight. If anything, the history of pandemics has shown that these episodes accentuate inequity. Corporates and countries should keep this in mind.

There is already a call to gather the differentiated way in which this pandemic will impact women who already bear the double burden — they do most of the unpaid work, and face discrimination at the workplace and in hiring. It is only if we remain conscious of both the historical biases against women and realize their intrinsic value, will we intentionally enable them to join and thrive in the workforce.

About the Author: Vinati Dev, MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics, is the founder of The Script. The Script is an executive coaching and storytelling company working with leaders to decode their whole self and define their authentic self. 

This article was first published here.

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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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