Monday, 27 June 2016

Vanishing Act: Do We Want Our Women to Work?

Image courtesy: shutterstock

The Companies Act 2013 has made it mandatory to have at least one woman as a Director on the Board of listed companies. While this can be seen as a step towards ensuring gender equality at the upper echelons of industry and commerce, it raises important questions- Why do we need a mandatory clause when it should be a default situation? And more importantly, where are all the women?

The ratio of men and women entering the workforce is favorable enough to suggest equality. However, as marriage and family responsibilities follow, many women drop out of the work force owing to the pressure of balancing relations, expectations, home and childcare. Drop outs at this stage are extremely common and often encouraged by family. Some return to work after a brief gap ranging anywhere between three months to two years. But the process and problems involved in ‘returning to work’ often makes the gap a punishment, a dreaded reality and the cost one may have to pay for taking a career break.

Bigger the gap, tougher the possibility to get back in the workforce with ease. So what are the effects of this break?

Opting Out: During or just after the break, some women try alternate careers and explore part time employment as the shift in priorities is obvious.

Going Easy: Settling for fewer work with reduced responsibilities, sane and safe work hours, denying frequent/ long travels, all this and more leads to slow and stagnant career growth.

Tricky Timing: A career break usually happens when working women have acquired significant experience and have good potential to go up the ladder. Eventually, with a break, their male colleagues have a good career graph; creating a hollow for women employers. 

Back to square: Beginning again from the lower rungs may be tough, both professionally and emotionally.

While these are immediate effects of a well-deserved break, there are some serious problems that need a mind-set change.

First, how to justify the gap in the resume? It seems like you really have to have the resume running. Whether or not you are working, your resume must have activities mentioned to fill in the months and years at home with seminars, workshops, conferences and courses. Why? Why do we have to be so guilty about having sat at home?

Second, prove it to recruitment agencies/ employers that you still know your trade. This is as easy as tough. People think, ‘Oh! She is a mommy now. So she must have only been dealing with diapers.’ People forget that with high end technology, you can pretty much keep abreast with all new developments in your field.

Third, you are made to feel little less worthy of opportunities, of salary that you might have deserved had you not taken a break, of quicker promotions, of trust- are you planning a child (in case you are married), are you considering another child (in case you just raised a toddler), does your husband plan to shift base, will you be able to work long hours, can you make it on some Sundays. A firm ‘yes/no’ is very crucial for getting a job back! And the job vulnerability can sometimes be so obvious that one ends up making a loose deal. It’s unlikely that these questions are ever posed to men by recruiters and employers alike.

Fourth, there is a dearth of organizations helping/ training women with these 
   and such issues. Since the issue is much larger than what meets the eye, such organizations need to be promoted/ popularized on a bigger scale.

Reams have been written (by women) about how women should be more professional and get more involved in their careers and pursue it- stay back for that meeting, work the night up for project deadline, travel for that matter, take the clients out. However, these things when done by women, need support from employers, home and society! Sadly, our employment laws/ policies and procedures at workplace are not supportive enough. The existing laws reek of the industrial era and do nothing to match the demands of the present cyber age.

If one critically examines the current set of laws governing the work-space, we find that the chasm is too deep between legislation and the reality. The first break for a woman is usually marriage and this often involve shifting cities- making a job break inevitable. Next is maternity. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 primarily provides for maternity benefit of twelve weeks leave with pay and a medical bonus of a paltry amount. It also provides for two nursing breaks and assurance of no dismissal or discharge of the woman employee during her absence due to maternity. This legislation was made with the intention to protect women working at factories. Women are however working in every field now and the Act does not envisage the pitfalls in its implementation. Not everyone can carry a 3 month old infant to work in order to nurse; especially where there are no nursing rooms and childcare facilities.  Section 12 of the Act has an important clause tucked inside the lengthy verbiage, seldom used by employees, that no employer shall vary the terms of service to the woman employee’s disadvantage. While this is a well-intended powerful clause, the penal sections are too meek to wield any real terror on the transgressors.

Besides, Factories Act alone is not enough to regulate the works-pace in today’s time and age. We need more laws especially when the workplace is dynamic and working hours are no longer limited to 9-5. It is high time for Human Resource Departments to bridge the divide by crafting innovative policies aimed at inclusive working - provide child care facilities, have feeding rooms, allow flexible working hours, work from home option, co-operative environment etc. Issue of equal pay under the Equal Remuneration Act,1976 does not solve many problems drilled into the system. Private sector merely pays lip-service to the notion and goes scot-free where the discrimination in pay is unspoken and unreported. Women on their part need to speak up and make their needs count. Let us not kid ourselves into thinking it is protectionism/favoritism. It is leveling the field. When the odds are stacked so high against women, no wonder having a career is a daunting dream. The benefits of financial independence, effective use of talent, generating more wealth and better lifestyle outweigh the small changes we make to accommodate working women.

To sum up, this is the right time to overhaul archaic laws of a bygone industrial revolution era.  Acts are covered in such legalese that their display as prescribed at prominent places does little to advance the cause of the affected. Women on their part need to gain awareness and start asking questions; even uncomfortable ones. It’s time to shrug off the rules made by others. Don’t settle for anything less and till then, make lemonade out of the lemons thrown at you!