Everyday bias at the workplace

At an organization where several women have been leaving for the last couple of years or switched to part-time contracts, a senior male employee made the following remark to a senior female employee “I think all these women have rich husbands, they don’t need to work. So they are leaving”. His powers of deductive logic aside, it is precisely attitudes such as these which have led to a steady departure of talented young women from the said organization. It also reflects a complete unwillingness or inability to identify systemic factors that are indeed responsible for higher attrition among women.

His statement is one of the many examples of the gender bias that women endure on a daily basis at the workplace. The departure of women from the workplace because of poor management, leadership, inflexible working environments or just old-fashioned sexism is not a modern phenomenon. However it is something that India can ill-afford, with statistics that already point to some of the lowest work-force participation rates among urban educated women in South Asia (ILO 2014). At a time when the economy has been growing steadily, it seems counterintuitive that not only are women’s employment rates low, but have fallen by nearly 10% in the last decade and especially so for rural women.

There are several economic reasons for women’s exit from the labour market, some of which are obvious and have to do with the nature of work. For instance for women with low levels of education doing hard labour in rural areas, the choice to leave employment because their work is neither decent nor pays a good wage and is an additional burden given the workload in running a household in rural India, seems logical. Therefore when the wages of their husbands increase they leave their jobs. However this is not a mechanism which works for women working in the formal sector in metropolitan India.

Scholars have noted that the burden of work at home with child-care, caring for the elderly, cooking, cleaning, continuation of important cultural practices through organizing festivals and other similar tasks may push women into a situation where they may be forced to exit out of paid employment. They simply cannot cope with the burden of work. While more urban women have joined the workforce, expectations around household tasks continue to be gendered. Since much has been written on this, I will not focus on this issue in the article. My concern is rather on the toxic effects of everyday gender bias at the workplace which may force women to leave.

You may ask what everyday sexism is. And is it even real or is it something that women perceive? Sexism and sexist are words that have now entered the common vocabulary. Very simply put, sex is the biological reality of our existence as males and females. While even this reality has been challenged (by biologists, sociologists and psychologists), for simplicity let us take this as a starting premise. If you are born as XX you are biologically female, and XY you are biologically male.

Gender is the socially constructed manifestation of this biology. From the moment of birth until we die, social norms and the culture we live in expects us to behave in ways, appropriate to our sex. However what is considered appropriate is neither static nor universal. Expectations around what an Indian woman/man must be like in public is very different from what a Swedish man/woman is expected to be. Similarly how we ought to behave in private may be different from our public behaviours. Also they change over a period of time- men and women behave very differently now than they did in the 1930s.

So what’s wrong with expecting women and men to behave in ways that conform to their biological destinies? Shouldn’t women be expected to be nurturing, maternal, forgiving, submissive, collaborative and efficient? After all that’s what biology intended them to be. And as a corollary, since you are a woman shouldn’t you be arranging the coffee for a meeting? Or organizing the cake for a colleague’s farewell? After all it’s the extension of your nurturing instinct! And remember to not speak your mind in meetings, instead sugar-coat it so people don’t get offended, otherwise you would be seen as aggressive, quite unbecoming of your docile nature. And also now that you have returned from your maternity, don’t work too hard at work – your priority should shift to your child, this is only natural.

I assume you see the problem by now. Part of dealing with everyday sexism is trying to de-naturalize the given order of how things are. However hard it is for us to believe this, there’s nothing natural about these gendered expectations. They have been carefully ingrained in us through centuries of conditioning, where we are rewarded for “good” behaviours and punished for “bad” behaviours.

So, aren’t men also subjected to sexism? If sexism is about heaping our expectations and the type of work women are expected to do at the workplace because they are XX, aren’t men also subjected to similar pressures? Perhaps, except there is one big difference.

At work the traits that are rewarded just happen to be more masculine in nature and therefore more becoming of men. Competitiveness, leadership, being pro-active, being direct. These same traits when displayed by women turn into cattiness, dominance, interfering and aggressive. Not so desirable, are they? I once had an Indian female manager who told me (via text) while an important meeting with the bigwigs was going on to not ask questions. I had always worked in international environments where asking intelligent questions was an indicator of engagement and pro-activeness. I was perplexed; I would only understand the wisdom of her words after a few months when I realized that asking questions for a woman was perceived to either be indicative of a lack of knowledge or being aggressive. Neither of these were desirable perceptions. Nevertheless I continued to ask difficult questions.

So does it not affect men at all? It does. Sometimes men might be asked to take on more responsibility which may interfere with their home-lives. For example work weekends or late evenings. However this is under the assumption that they have very little household responsibilities because their wives take care of everything that’s required at home! Thus employers instead of challenging the status-quo end up reinforcing it. On the flip side though, if male staff are asked to take on more responsibilities, they are also justly rewarded.

Returning to the issue of everyday bias at the workplace- could this be one of the reasons that pushes women out of employment? While it may seem relatively harmless, on a daily basis being given tasks which only take your biology into account can be a dehumanising experience for women. After all didn’t you sit up nights and work as hard cracking those entrance exams? What about all the fights you (and may be your parents too) had with “well-wishers” who said that a girl should not be too highly educated, otherwise getting a groom would be difficult! Also those who said, you are sending her to a hostel/another city/another country, what if she sullies your name? You thought you were done fighting? No. Welcome to the world of everyday sexism at the workplace.

Making a workplace inclusive doesn’t just mean we address sexual harassment. That’s a crime and a statutory requirement – we have to. Inclusion at the workplace means laying bare these instances of everyday sexism and calling out people for it. So the next time someone (usually a senior male colleague) expects you to arrange coffee before a meeting, simply look at him, flutter your eyelashes and say, “Oh was I expected to? I didn’t realise that!” In the words of French feminist and philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, biology should never become our destiny.

Sreeparna Chattopadhyay has a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Brown University with research interests in gender and its intersections with health, education family and the law. She is a Senior Research Scientist and Associate Professor at the Ramlingaswami Centre, Public Health Foundation of India.