It is high time we made our workplaces more gender-inclusive
I was recently asked to give a talk on the importance of empowering women in the workplace at an internal event of my office for Women’s Day. It got me thinking: What made the organizers think that I was the right person for this? Was it because I came across as someone who is least bothered by the gender of their colleagues? I hope that’s the reason because that is exactly how I like to see myself.
Was I like this 20 years ago, when I was in school? How was I when I was in university? I say to myself, no, I was not always like this. Because the society we live in has historically been dominated by men. It teaches us to think of ourselves as superior to the girls and women in our lives -- our siblings, cousins, classmates, friends, and peers.
Much of the discrimination against women in social and family settings comes from our subconscious, which has been shaped by the institutions and narratives of the society that we grow up in. It takes a lot of very conscious mental effort to raise yourself above those stereotypes and behave in an unbiased way. Breaking those shackles imposed by your subconscious mind isn’t easy, but it’s not a wall that is impossible take down. The fact that I can confidently say that the decisions I make in the workplace now are not at all influenced by the gender of my peers or my counterparts is something I’m really proud of. I’m proud that I have been able to put in the sincere and conscious effort to lift myself above social stereotypes.
How did I do it? I don’t have any intention to be prescriptive, nor am I trying to prove that I’m a saint. All I want to do is talk about the factors that have influenced me to not be bothered by the gender of my peers. If it makes even the slightest sense to anyone, I would be more than happy.
Before making a career switch to communications, I was a journalist for about a decade. Being a journalist has some massive benefits. When you become a journalist, you learn to see the gaps around you, you learn to ask questions and then, when you get the answers, you start seeing things as they really are.
I started working as a part-time news writer for an FM radio station when I was already in the final year of my undergrad studies. The first gap I saw was in the gradually decreasing women-to-men ratio starting at schools, continuing on to colleges, and finally in the workplaces. In high school, the number of girls and boys was almost the same. The girls in my class were the same as boys, if not better. The ratio in college was much lower. Some of my female friends in college had fantastic analytical minds. And then, the ratio was the worst in the workplace.
So, it got me thinking, if girls and boys go toe-to-toe in school, what goes wrong when they grow up? Do boys grow up better than girls? There is no reason for that to happen. It’s the same education system, the same books, the same teachers. So, boys can’t just be better than girls.
As a young professional, I always thought that having less women in the workplace than men simply meant we were not capitalizing on valuable human resources. This happens probably because we have created more jobs for men than women. Which means that many of the jobs that we create are probably not something that women feel that they’d be comfortable doing. So, one thing that we can do is start creating more jobs that women will feel comfortable doing. That is I think one of the ways we can have more brilliant minds in the workplace. I’m not a human resources specialist, but I’m sure that our leaders and colleagues from human resources will be able to find a way.
When I say create more jobs, what I mean to say is, we need to think how our existing jobs can be made more friendly for women. If you look around, examples are not going to be too rare to find. Global giants Google and Financial Express are rated among the most women-friendly workplaces in the world by renowned US-based financial news portal Business Insider. At home, Brac is one of the most gender-inclusive organizations in Bangladesh.
For a country like Bangladesh, this is of tantamount importance. As a country, we are now enjoying what has come to be known as a period of “demographic dividend.” It means that there are more people of working age in the country than those who are not of working age. This is like a human development goldmine.
It comes once in several centuries, that too in a handful of countries, and stays only for a few decades. But in order for us to reap the full benefit of this unique window of opportunity, we need to make sure that we have our entire workforce employed -- and by entire workforce, I mean both men and women.
So, when we talk about gender-inclusive organizations, what do we really mean? I know there are bookish definitions of this term and it could also be a little “overused” by now. But until we have a better expression, we’d have to stick to it and do everything we can to make sure that it remains meaningful and relevant.
Now, going back to the question of what we really mean by a “gender-inclusive” organization. Traditionally, it means having a strong presence of women in leadership positions, longer paid maternity leaves, equal pay structures for men and women, strong policies to deal with workplace harassment, mainstreaming gender in the organizational workflow, and so on. But can’t we do more?
A couple of years ago, I used to work at a renowned non-governmental development organization. The leaders thought of a unique role for the men in the organization, especially the managers. By managers, I mean everyone who managed a team. As one of the managers, I had a task embedded in my job description wherein I had to give mentorship to at least one female member of my team to develop their leadership skills.
One of the biggest hallmarks of a good leader is that they would always keep a next-in-line ready. If I cannot continue in my position for some reason, I must have someone ready to take my place right away. I won’t say it brought any drastic change in the number of women leaders that the organization had. But it gave a very strong message to the women that the organization wants to give them as much room as possible to flourish.
I believe that as much as it is the men’s role to make the women feel there is room at the top of the hill, it’s also of equal importance that we help our women break the mental shackles imposed upon them by the patriarchal society. Our women already have the wings. So, as men, the least we could do is help them have the self-belief that they can fly.
And when I say we need to make our jobs more women-friendly, it won’t be doing women any favours. If we can make our jobs more women-friendly, we will be doing our industry, our society, our country, and our world a massive favour.
Rajib Bhowmick is a communication professional.