Culture & Society

Women In The Workplace: They Broke The Glass Ceiling But Now Walk On The Shards

And that most niggling question of all, from young women: has the status of women in the workplace really improved, or will we still face gender barriers and glass ceilings? 

Women in the Workplace: They broke the glass ceiling but now walk on the shards
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A challenging yet rewarding aspect of teaching college students is to ultimately prepare them for work and life beyond college. When the students enrolled in my Women’s and Gender Studies classes schedule office hours, I often find myself answering questions pertaining not just to readings, research projects and other course assignments but also to job applications, possible professional and personal directions, and the difficult choices they face. Do I work close to home or accept a position in a different state? Can I take time off? Should I take the risks involved in becoming an entrepreneur, or pursue my artistic passion even if the money is not much, or must I opt for a safe, better-compensated route even if I find the work boring and monotonous? Should we put off personal commitments until we find career stability or vice versa? And that most niggling question of all, from young women: has the status of women in the workplace really improved, or will we still face gender barriers and glass ceilings? 

The answers, of course, are never simple, and involve multiple factors, including individual temperament, skills, field, location, socio-economic and systemic barriers etc. It is obviously easier for those from wealthy backgrounds to take professional risks; when they take time off from study or work, or devote time to travelling, or to unpaid activities, or a start-up, their family can support the economic costs. Wealthier families also have social and cultural capital, such as connections which benefit their own. As in the case of social class, racial—and in South Asia, caste—barriers can have intergenerational, cumulative effects, even in “safer” jobs. 

A 2021 study on women in the workplace by McKinsey and Lean In confirms that while the position of women has improved in corporate America, they continue to be underrepresented and their extra work unrewarded, with non-White and other marginalised women facing more challenges. For e.g., between the entry level and the C-suite (i.e., executive-level positions such as CEO, CFO, COO etc.), the representation of even US college-educated women of colour drops off by more than 75 per cent. Local specificities notwithstanding, many of these trends in gender inequity seem to be global. In India, according to Prime Database, the percentage of women CEOs in 2019 was less than 4 per cent, and as per Deloitte Global’s Women in the Boardroom recent report published in 2022, less than 4 per cent of corporate board chairpersons in India were women. 

And yet it is important to acknowledge the executives, entrepreneurs, artists and others—from modest economic backgrounds, and across race, locations, and the gender spectrum, including those who did not complete college—who still pursue their passion, and take risks, with varying degrees of success. Even outside political organising, there are creative ways in which individuals and communities can and do navigate and surmount societal challenges. Indeed, some of the most inspiring leaders and changemakers come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hence as an educator, it would be disingenuous of me to reduce complex personal decisions and institutional outcomes only to systemic barriers, not to mention disempowering for many of my students. Instead, a more nuanced approach is to encourage self-authorising behaviour while recognising that the self is constituted in society. Or, in this case, to identify and leverage women’s individual strengths while also critiquing systemic inequities and gender biases in the workplace, and to equip them and their organisations with the practical skills and tools to disrupt these, along with implementing macro-level policy changes where necessary. 

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One example is negotiation, an important but oft-overlooked skill. Two 2021 articles in the Wall Street Journal break down the process of negotiation in the workplace, such as looking at other elements of a job, apart from only pay and bonuses e.g., flexible work, more vacation time for work-life balance, stock options, health insurance and other benefits. When a job offer is imminent, it also advises future employees to detail how and why hiring them would benefit the organisation, and to back this up with evidence as a part of workplace negotiations. For, like other practical skills such as goal-setting and budgeting, negotiation skills can be learned and improved with practice. At the same time, a slew of systemic factors working against women also bear noting. e.g., while men who negotiate the terms of their employment are seen as confident and assertive, women who act in a similar manner are often seen as aggressive or difficult and face backlash. The social expectation for women to be modest and self-effacing about their achievements can also make it difficult to claim expertise, a basic element in not just negotiation but also in leadership. Not to mention the sobering fact that when economic growth slows down and there are fewer jobs, as has been the case in both India and the US, negotiating for a better deal in the workplace can remain a distant dream for many women as well as men. 

A second example pertains to domestic labour and care-giving, including childcare, which women have disproportionately been responsible for. Unless domestic work is shared in the household, working women end up with the “double day”, returning from their workplaces only to perform domestic labour at home. The McKinsey study, based on a survey of over 750 companies and a quarter of a million employees, notes how women in the workplace felt more burned out than men, with one in three considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their career. A slew of research shows that during the height of the Covid pandemic, the increased burden of domestic duties and childcare often fell on women. As I write this article, colleagues across American universities and the academic workplace are agitating for affordable childcare. 

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In the labour-intensive Indian economic context, upper- and middle-class women’s professional success in the organised sector was made possible by shifting domestic labour to other women, the working class, and the elderly (e.g., grandparents looking after children). While women who choose not to marry, or cannot or do not have children, face the gendered stigma of a certain kind, especially in more socially conservative contexts, many with family lives also discover the gendered impact on their work, with many women still being expected to cut back on climbing the professional ladder in the workplace in order to focus on childcare, with or without domestic help. Meanwhile, what about opportunities for “the help”, these “other” women in/and the working class? Even as discussions on women in the workplace focus on the organised or formal sector, large numbers of women in the informal sector in India and other places remain without basic legal protections such as maternity leave, less than a living wage, and sometimes not even a day off work every week, even in electorally progressive states. 

Hence, even as we celebrate the many strides forward in gender equity and parity in the workplace, there are miles yet to go. As gender roles continue to evolve locally and globally, individual skills for women in the workforce and systemic change by way of gender-sensitive policies and practices are both needed. Maternity leaves are not enough, as they continue to propagate the belief that childcare and bonding is only the woman’s responsibility and need; paternity leaves must also be popularised. And ultimately, efforts to improve women’s position in the workplace must also recognise that the home, and the unorganised sector, are as much places of work for many women, whose working conditions do need to be more humanised. 

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(Views expressed are personal) 

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