Event ReportsPublished on Apr 24, 2021
Exploring successful gender-friendly workspaces

The gender gap in employment continues to be a major challenge for women across the world today. As per International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates, in 2018, the global labour force participation rate for women was about 49 percent compared to 75 percent for men. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this inequality. Studies indicate that 5 percent of all employed women lost their jobs, compared to 3.9 percent of employed men in 2020 which further highlights that a woman’s job is more vulnerable to the crisis, across the world. This vulnerability stems from reasons such as women being disproportionately more in the informal economy, existence of the wage gap, less access to social protection, and women being more likely to be weighed down with unpaid care and domestic work, often driving them out of the labour force. However, there is a positive outlook for women employed in the formal sector at the time of crisis. Several companies are evaluating the jobs that can be done from home permanently and which do not require relocation or long-distance commute, hinting at a potential increase in female labour force participation.

A World Bank report shows that India’s GDP growth rate would climb above nine percent if women had an equitable share of jobs, and could boost the nation’s growth by 1.5 percentage points per year if 50 percent of women could join the workforce. According to a 2018 McKinsey Global Institute report, India could add up to USD 770 billion to its GDP—more than 18 percent, via advances in gender parity in work and society.

An integral part of promoting female labour force participation is ensuring that the workspaces are friendly to female workers, both physically and socially. This includes women-friendly infrastructure at the workspace, safe transport facilities for women, and exposing them to re-skilling and upskilling courses to meet the demands of the changing job markets. Such assistance would not only encourage women to join the workforce but enhance their retention prospects. It would also facilitate their career progression—from shop floors and mid-senior level to the boardroom. Even though there has been extensive research in this regard, more conducive initiatives should be adopted to combat the persisting problem of the gender gap in employment.

Against this backdrop, on 25 March 2021, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in collaboration with the US Consulate, Mumbai, and the Indian Merchants Chamber (IMC) brought together a panel of business leaders who have initiated gender-friendly policies, or are committed to it, to share their experiences. The panel, moderated by Ms. Mitali Mukherjee, Fellow, ORF, featured: Mr. David Ranz, US Consul General; Mr. Rajiv Poddar, Chairman, IMC; Mr. Chandrakant Nayak, CEO and President, Dow; Ms. Priyadarshini Gupta, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Tata Group; Ms. Anupama Nair, ABO HR Leader, Cummins India; Mr. Raj Nair, Chairman, Avalon Consulting and Former President, IMC; and Ms. Aditi Ratho, Associate Fellow, ORF. The discussion aimed at exploring issues that require institution-wide cooperation, devising a blueprint for inclusive workspaces and gender-equal-transparent wages to catalyse equitable distribution of male and female workers in all domains of the economy.

One of the major challenges faced by women, as acknowledged across the panel, were societal barriers. In India, as women constitute about 54.8 percent of the informal workforce, social norms become excuses to delay structural reforms and in turn prevent the much-needed change in community mindset, reinforcing the existing status quo.  In this context, Mr. Rajiv Poddar, explained that creating jobs for women and encouraging them to be entrepreneurs can be a long-term solution in transforming the Indian economy.

Aditi Ratho highlighted the need to formalise this by creating a skill gap database through which growing sectors of employment can be tied to skilling courses and the beneficiaries of these courses can be targeted to feed these sectors. For instance, fewer women delivery personnel in the booming e-commerce sector can be attributed to the lack of women-friendly infrastructure in these hubs. However, creating a gender-friendly office space is not sufficient unless it is complemented by building a safe surrounding environment that enables a woman to get to the workspace. Studies suggest women access public spaces more when they are in mixed-use areas and where commercial establishments are always open and active, increasing the sense of safety. Provision of safe mobility, proper lighting, alarm buttons, sophisticated GPS tracking along with social factors like awareness and capacity building and increase women’s accessibility to such spaces.

Mr. Chandrakant Nayak stressed on the need to set up the right infrastructure and work environment prior to hiring. Infrastructure ranges from hygienic women’s lavatory, crèche facilities to optimising equipment on the shop floor for women’s use. At Dow, importance is given to mentorship programs: each senior leader is a sponsor for at least one employee resource group as a commitment towards inclusion. Dow’s mentorship programme has been upgraded to a sponsorship programme, creating a space for learning, exchange of ideas between employees, gaining assistance in career decisions, and enhancing the scope for longer association between the mentor and the mentee. Periodical feedback is taken from the women employees to understand their comfort with the programme. Additionally, there are policies for working women who had taken a break from work and wished to re-join; initiatives for women engineers, who in the final year of their academic curriculum are given an opportunity to get hands-on industry experience.

Ms. Priyadarshini Gupta discussed a plethora of sector-specific initiatives adopted for women TATA employees and the importance of ergonomics in this regard. Such initiatives have led to women to enter the traditional “men-only” areas including mines with heavy machinery across all shifts and also the establishment of all-women Starbucks stores in metro cities. She also enumerated the efforts made to enable a change in mindsets, breaking gender stereotypes, and providing gamified solutions to help women unbox their potential and overcome their self-limiting beliefs via programmes, communications, and conversations. From exposure to upskilling courses, creating a network for all women employees across the hierarchy to offering menstrual period leaves, TATA has adopted measures to create a congenial workspace for women. With studies suggesting that 12 million women in India could lose their jobs due to automation by 2030, the company is exploring ways to assist employees cope with such technological advancements.

Ms. Anupama Kaul, shared insights on the Leadership Accountability Team which was set up to attract gender-diverse talents at the shop floor and other professional levels. Other initiatives taken for integrating gender-diverse talent include facilities such as part-time work, work from home, increasing maternity leave by two months and encouraging paternity leaves. To enhance retention of women employees, the company runs sensitising and inclusion workshops for employees across all their offices, creating awareness about the company values. With regard to women’s safety, measures onsite include well-lit factories, women supervisors, day-care centres and door-to-door transport facility with a thorough background check of the drivers and everyday communication on the safe journey along with ensuring families about the safety measures adopted for the employees. Enablers include leadership management, continued focus, and review mechanism, and investing in individual development. Further, in the wake of the pandemic, the company is focussing on addressing mental health issues of the employees, creating a safe space for them to seek confidential counselling.

Mr. Raj Nair, Chairman, emphasized the need for advocacy and the importance of gender equity more than gender equality. His service-led group believes in equal pay and promotion opportunities for all employees. Along with company-level initiatives, he highlighted the importance of stakeholder interactions. For instance, in Lithuania, maternity and paternity leave for a period of time is paid for by the government. The company focuses on granting leave and ensuring a smooth re-absorption of the employee post the leave period. Such assistance from the government can potentially benefit the cause.

Mr. David Ranz. in his opening remarks earlier, highlighted the need for government interventions in encouraging diversity and inclusion but emphasised that these interventions should not be paternalistic in nature. For instance, at Cummins, legal permission was required for women working in the second and third shift, but this should ideally be a matter of their choice. Again, certain changes in narratives are required with policies pertaining to maternity and paternity leaves to parental leaves. If such privileges were made available to both men and women equally, theoretically women would not have to face the disadvantage in the hiring process.

The discussion re-emphasised the importance of developing gender-friendly workspaces. Despite several efforts, there are only a few companies with women employees encompassing 50 percent of their workforce and occupying leadership roles. This itself is a reflection of the magnitude of the challenges faced by women to participate in the workforce. There is hope for betterment in this regard, if different stakeholders work together with a sense of collective ownership and seek constructive solutions.

Srijita Bose is a Research Intern at ORF Mumbai.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.