Random thoughts a few days back led me to thinking 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 irrespective of gender or even women’s rights to enter the work force, today, men and women enjoy equal opportunities, equal pay and equal rights to their safety. Women are receiving increasing durations of maternity leave. Both men and women are given flexible work timings, paternity leave is 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, atleast in the professional sphere.
So…are we good then? We seem to have achieved all we set out to….or have we? HR policies, Acts are great, truly. But…what about the mindset? Over the years, I have realized 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. Now though, views are put across with the famous tag that people hide behind – “Just Kidding!”. Snide remarks, sniggers behind the back may have replaced on-your-face comments, but it only goes on 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 back a colleague of mine took a good 7 days off for paternity leave. Turned out he had handed himself over on a platter to be the butt of all office jokes! Ranging from “Did even the mother need as much leave as you took?” to “Are you sure you are ready to come back just yet?”, the poor chap wasn’t spared. During an induction session in my company, when the HR was citing the parental leave policies, the proportion of maternity (26 weeks) to paternity leave (5 days) was so outrageous that even the HR couldn’t stop a giggle. “Well, none of the men has ever approached me to get his leaves extended, so 5 days it is!” she ventured. Isn’t 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. Best not take her on board in the first place. Why stress her out? Married & 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 the “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 cooked and packed by their wives, with all the sympathy they can muster, “No dabba today?”. Colleagues with a great sense of humour look for content and inspiration for their jokes from 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 though carries that ounce of 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 from a long day at work! Matters of the kitchen/household are supposedly a woman’s monopoly 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, whichever you prefer) – 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 to have her colleague mocking her during lunch and proudly sharing how he would never allow his wife to shirk off her duties like that…she 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), making them 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 to keep 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, in the perceptions of their coworkers. Men are still burdened with living upto 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 home. And what’s really sad is that these perceptions are so ingrained in people’s minds that more often than not, their reactions are unintentional! Perceptions are skewed. Still. 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 atleast inspire the people on the other end of the spectrum to give our perceptions a try.