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Gender Neutrality = Equal Opportunities

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First published on shethepeople.TV

Author of We-Men@Work, Sanchita Ganguly, shares her vision on starting sustained conversations on gender neutrality to ensure that all genders get a fair deal, and to usher in a workplace culture of “equal opportunities” faster. In conversation with Archana Pai Kulkarni.

What made you explore the idea of gender neutrality in times when we are still struggling with the idea of gender equality?

Being in the field of marketing for almost a decade and half has made me believe that language plays a critical role in expressing our intent, which in turn drives all the action. Growing up as a female it was obvious to me that the two genders are not equal. They are different – neither better than the other nor worse, just different. This made me think that can we look at things in the right perspective so that the intent of “equal opportunities” is safeguarded. Given that intent, the obvious answer was to pivot all actions from the lens of Gender Neutrality. It is not sequential in my mind. Neutrality is not ahead of its time and is not meant to follow the “Equality” era. Neutrality is just a correction in language needed so that the acts fall in line to usher in a workplace culture of “equal opportunities” faster.

In what concrete ways do you think gender neutrality at the workplace will facilitate fair and equal benefits for both genders, especially women, who are still getting a raw deal the world over?

I completely agree with the fact that growing up as a woman has its share of struggle. Hence the action points that emerge out of this reality need to be two-fold – mindful behaviour and policy based. For both of these we need to –

1) Accept – Accept that there are differences between the two genders. Equal is defined as “same” across all accepted dictionaries; hence it tries to counter a natural fact if used in the context of gender.

2) Acknowledge – Acknowledge that there are biological and social mindset differences between the genders. Pinpoint the issues that create unfair obstacles for the genders, e.g. periods are a reality and they do cause physical discomfort in some women to affect their output. Or the pressure of “being a man” that society exerts on men makes them shy away from openly acknowledging their part as an equal partner back home.

3) Act – Once we acknowledge the real reasons, it becomes easier to act on them. Actions that stem out thus, give an opportunity to create a neutral playfield for all. Otherwise there is a danger of applying cosmetic plasters and delaying the world of equal opportunities further. For instance, while several ounces of blood drains from her body, a travel might be easier sitting down than standing; so a few seats reserved for women in a bus is understandable but reserving a female quota for promotions in job is simply against the tenacity of merit. Practising Gender Neutrality in its right spirit will imply equal opportunities for all genders to grow. The focus will shift from chasing a number to creating a healthy and competitive environment. Progression planned on a gender basis will not be fair and might invite extreme resistance from the affected party in future.

Practising Gender Neutrality in its right spirit will imply equal opportunities for all genders to grow.

You are optimistic that things are changing but feel that the progress is slow. What hampers it?

When you compare two generations you realise that there is progress but the World Economic Forum has predicted another 200-odd years for USA to have an environment of equal opportunities. In my humble opinion there are two prime reasons for this if we restrict the conversation of equality to workplace.

The language – Running a race of equality when we are not equal is tiring. Shifting the conversation to neutrality will help. Neutrality is as much about men as about women and all the other genders. Alienating one gender for the sake of other will only give rise to other issues of unfair practices.

Alienating one gender for the sake of other will only give rise to other issues of unfair practices.

The efforts – In an optimistic scenario at least 70% of any given office workforce are men today. If all the efforts are towards the 30% women then how is it an inclusive agenda? Women already know what they are capable of but we avoid broadening this conversation further. Everyone wants a nurturing workplace, but if 70% of the office is not aware of the language to facilitate it, how will they contribute? Pregnant women are given multiple guides to steer through her maternity phase at the workplace but I do not know of any company that trains managers (irrespective of their gender) to behave and talk mindfully with their diverse team. Society conditioning is deep seated. It will take much more than celebrating women’s day for offices to truly achieve neutrality and the shortcut of quota will just not work in the long run.

I wonder whether things can really work in isolation at the workplace, when gender neutrality has not yet taken root in families and homes, and patriarchy is still a reality.

Society and workplace are like Siamese twins. One cannot go out to party while the other is too tired to open her eyes. Till the time calling girls “son” is a compliment and till the time men have to take “sick leave” to attend their child’s parents teacher meeting, it will not be easy to change things at the workplace. But, I believe that powerful policies and actions can be designed by corporates to challenge such a societal mind-set. Parental leave of six months for the father or mother by IKEA (and a few other companies) directly attacks the bias of not recruiting females of a certain age bracket and counters the norm that the nurturing of a child for the initial few months is a mother’s responsibility. It has to start somewhere and workplaces offer a more controlled environment than society at large.

Till the time calling girls “son” is a compliment and till the time men have to take “sick leave” to attend their child’s parents teacher meeting, it will not be easy to change things at the workplace.

What are the deep-rooted issues that need to be addressed and neutralised so that the workplace becomes a level playing field? Can you give a couple of examples?

There are many that manifest in plain sight and are yet missed. Right from the interview stage such biases raise their head. Men seldom have to answer questions about their marriage plans or how do they manage work with an infant back at home. Women are never questioned whether their husband is travelling when they leave office early to attend to their unwell kid. If there is an issue, it can be solved with collective willingness. A mix of open and honest conversations, mindful language and behaviour that accepts and acknowledges the difference and policies that attack the root cause will definitely bring in a sea change in how we define the work culture of future generations.

We-Men@Work: A Conversation Starter for Practicing Gender Neutrality at Indian Workplaces

You believe that speaking openly about the biological fact that women menstruate and sending mailers to that effect might just make it a non-taboo topic. A lot of women are intensely private about what goes on inside their bodies. This could be a choice when it’s not conditioning. There is a lot of resentment amongst men about what they feel is sometimes held up as an excuse to ‘shirk’ work. How does one get this issue into neutral gear? There were a lot of smirks when an organisation declared the benefit of ‘menstrual leave’.

A mailer from HR is just a suggestion trying to answer the “What?” and “How?” part of it, but the real question to ask is why it is a taboo subject. A menstrual cycle is a monthly occurrence, a sign of a healthy body for a woman. It cannot be controlled at will and does not threaten any one’s innocence. All the made-up answers of “why” have been countered by science so all reasons to keep the topic under wraps are nullified. Having said that discussing any topic is a personal choice but removing artificial social barriers from discussing it is in our hands. One can sail through a mild headache at work or just has to talk about a throbbing migraine pain. Similarly, periods have a different level of effect on different people, and vary from month to month. I do not expect females to send out announcement mailers when they have their periods but at the same time trying too hard to hide it is wastage of energy. If you look at content on OTT (Over the Top Medium) these days like the award winning “Kota Factory”, it shows boys and girls discussing periods as casually as any other topic. I also see the kids in the age range of 16+yrs posting about it on social media; so the change is definitely around the corner. Similarly, a lot of stand-up comedians have created content around the topic. The mailer is a tactical suggestion, the bigger picture is to make the space where one spends 8-10 hours of her/his awake time as comfortable as possible to deliver to one’s best potential. Smirks are inevitable for anything that you do. As parents don’t we try our best to ensure a better quality of living for our next generation then why doesn’t that mentality get extrapolated at workplaces?

I do not expect females to send out announcement mailers when they have their periods but at the same time trying too hard to hide it is wastage of energy

Quite a few organisations are extending paternal leave. Even so, it’s the woman who has to keep extending her maternity leave or even resign from her job, as despite the availability of the facility, few men avail of it citing fear that their absence from the field of action might affect their professional prospects. Do you think these fears are real?

I heard this beautiful explanation by someone on LinkedIn who explained how employees are changing – for the longest time from industrial revolution people used to work for a “living”, then the generation that is today at the CXO levels across established companies are from the generation that worked for a “Standard of Living” and the recent couple of generations works for “Quality of Living”. When you put it like that the line between personal and professional quality of living blurs and priorities are re-defined. Absence of six months will have consequences for both the partners if they are both serious career people. As far as I understand, parental leave can be divided between the parents, it is not either/or. If the women is at that decisive point of her career and would rather come back ASAP post-delivery she must have the opportunity to do so. Extended paternity leave gives that opportunity. Three months’ absence each is not something that instigates the fear of falling out of the race. This is only true when the entire ecosystem moves hand in hand and not with only 4-5 companies introducing the policy. Even without men availing the extended paternity leave, the possibility of utilising the policy will itself take off some biases at the stage of recruitment. Secondly, healthy appraisal practices like redesigning the KRA as per number of months at office in a calendar/fiscal year before leaving for a parental break, and evaluation on the basis of that, realistic on-boarding programmes that are thought through for both the genders will only make is necessary to think gender neutral across policies.

You say in your book that men confess that they often tend to lie at work when they have to attend their child’s parent-teacher meeting to attend to home chores. Isn’t it a reality that men who take on a well-rounded responsibility both at home and at work are judged? While things are changing, isn’t it easy to be cynical about this scenario changing?

To be honest, I do not have all the answers. My attempt is to ask the right questions so that collectively we attempt to answer them. That is why the forum. which continues the conversations in the book. We need to realise that time is not partial towards men, unlike society. They too have the same 24 hours as we do and progressively they are extending themselves as equal partners in parenting. Privileges (like crèches) or choices (like opting to be a home maker) if restricted to one gender, the responsibilities related to that will also continue to be tagged to that gender only. Accepting that at best we can only raise responsible human beings and not super humans is necessary. Telling our next generation that it is okay to not excel at (or even do) everything is what we need to do as a responsible society. This simple check on expectations will take off the pressure of achieving double of what time permits from their adult life, irrespective of being a girl or a boy.

Accepting that at best we can only raise responsible human beings and not super humans is necessary.

You have mentioned an incident in your book where you casually wondered aloud why there was no hot chocolate in the vending machine in your office, and the top man of the company laughed and commented that as long as he was around, such ‘girly’ drinks would not be part of the pantry. A supposedly harmless comment, but sexist no doubt. With such unhealthy mindsets being more common than rare, how can we hope to foster gender neutral work environments?

I strongly believe that majority of times people do not know that they are being or acting biased. There is no awareness of what is sexist and what is patronising and no one tells them either. All D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) efforts are focussed on the women employees alone and that too from the perspective of instilling confidence, expediting career, etc. The gender biases themselves are gender unbiased. At the workplace, it gets more complicated since such discussions can have detrimental results.

My hope stems from couple of facts

a). Nothing is permanent – the top bracket changes every 10-15 years. The next level of CXO’s are amongst us; so having open, honest and multiple conversations about such seemingly small things is must to ensure a better future. Any number of avenues to discuss such things, books (like Lean In , We-Men@Work), forums, articles like this, conversations around the coffee machine, DI workshops must multiply

b) Colleagues are “officially” friends – having these conversations with the team or reporting managers is difficult but honest conversations with colleagues comes naturally (due to shared empathy); so conversation triggers that lead to such discussions with colleagues actually make someone’s future boss more sensitive to the gender dimensions. So we can definitely hope to foster gender neutral work environment by playing our part in it actively.

You prefer using the term ‘Chosen Ceiling’ over ‘Glass Ceiling’, as you feel it’s a gender neutral concept and more enabling. Tell us more.

Chosen Ceiling is not an alternate nomenclature for Glass Ceiling. They are two different concepts. Many people realise that moving upwards from where they are currently might pay them better but might not leave them with enough free time to indulge that extra rupee they are making. It is not always about the money either. Even the desire to learn more from work or gain more power in professional life shifts gear at times. Then the hunger to learn more from travelling or gain more power over oneself becomes more important. At times you don’t even need a reason, you just decide that this is it and drop the mike. Happiness need not always be the next stop, at times it is exactly where you are standing now. That is the “Chosen Ceiling” point, while “Glass Ceiling” is depriving the rightful progress to a deserving candidate on the basis of her gender. The sad part is that “Glass Ceilings” still exist. A gender neutral environment implies as much freedom for the men to opt out or stay put in professional persuasion as their female counterparts.

Happiness need not always be the next stop, at times it is exactly where you are standing now. That is the “Chosen Ceiling” point, while “Glass Ceiling” is depriving the rightful progress to a deserving candidate on the basis of her gender.

You have written about spoken the warped messages conveyed through advertising, like in the ads for insurance policies, it is the male who is portrayed as the one who should opt for one. Such gender-specific messages are constantly being relayed in households too. Could you mention a couple of examples where you can see a shift from the conventional towards neutrality?

That insurance ad example is one of my reporting manager’s favourite. I think digital is playing a pivotal role in this agenda. For example, the monologue by Ayushmann Khurrana – Mard ko dard hota hai which went viral; also this news piece that I read that Maharashtra Government to remove gender-biased content from textbooks. These are couple of examples that I can immediately think of. Things are changing; we just need to expedite the pace.

In ‘Lean In’, Sandberg quotes a study that states that women are promoted on the basis of their past achievements while men are promoted on the basis of their gauged potential. Are you hopeful about this changing?

I will attempt to answer this question without getting emotional and instead use the fundamentals of market research to put forth my point. Since the universe (women at higher ranks) size is not substantial, you cannot have a reading that can be extrapolated (potential based promotions). This is a vicious cycle – we do not have many examples of women career builders; hence they will go through the grill of personal achievement analysis before getting promoted, and because of that not many women will reach that top spot. Since the examples of men who have already handled that position in the past are many, it would be easier to take gut calls for that gender. Again it is not by design, it is intuitive. We will unfortunately have to go through this phase until the universe size (of women at higher positions) becomes healthy. With open and honest conversations around this topic, managers can be mindful of their biases next time they are taking a critical decision.

How exactly do you expect to start conversations around gender neutrality at the workplace? Who should initiate these, and how can they be taken forward in terms of setting policies in place?

We make or break the culture of our workplace by just being ourselves so EVERYONE needs to have such conversations. They might not know how and in such cases pivots like my book, articles in prestigious platforms like yours, forums on LinkedIn help to trigger such conversations. The biases are all around us in everyday activities; so if one is mindful, it is not tough to start talking about it, and sooner or later, the snowball effect will follow to impact policies. In a non-judgemental environment and in the circle that is close to us (life phase wise), these conversations become easier; hence I see a huge potential in peer-to-peer influence. I am also trying to seed the triggers of these conversations at B-Schools (so far no success story to share but I am at it) where the next generation of leaders are being nurtured. The earlier we start these conversations, the higher are my hopes of getting there (future of equal opportunities) faster.

What was your vision when you wrote this book? How do you hope to achieve it?

I actually started off by writing the “About this page” for FB, three years back. I had intended to start a forum on the topic back then on Facebook. It just kept running into pages and many colleagues opined that no one would want to talk about these things openly. I then decided to pivot the conversation on a book instead. With a two-year-old kid (then, now five years) and couple of job changes it took me three years to finally complete the book and launch it. My vision has always been the same throughout – we need to ensure freedom of choice (for all genders) to usher in a thriving working environment for all the genders without threatening each other’s progress. Deep-seated biases shouldn’t guide our actions and detrimental shortcuts, that undermine merit, shouldn’t lure us. Being an optimist I hope to be a catalyst of this change by correcting the language and by asking the right questions, one instance at a time. I am counting on the support of a lot of like-minded people and platforms like SheThePeople.TV to spread the word wider and faster.

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Sanchita Ganguly

Sanchita has around 15 years of experience as a marketing professional across leading brands like Asian Paints & UltraTech Cement. She is an active advocate of Gender Neutrality & is passionate to expedite the same at Indian work places.

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